August 2, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Marian Võsumets
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the London area, the documentary film “The Body Fights Back” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Most of the people in the documentary speak out against diet culture, which they say can do psychological and physical harm to people who think being thin is the answer to happiness.
Culture Audience: “The Body Fights Back” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in getting a sociological context for why diet culture has become so pervasive and what can be done to prevent people from falling into diet culture’s dangerous traps.
The documentary film “The Body Fights Back” is very up front with its agenda: It’s a blistering indictment of the harm caused by diet culture and the diet industry’s responsibility in causing this damage. This movie does not promote obesity or unhealthy eating habits. Instead, it examines what causes people to believe the myth that being thin automatically equals happiness. There’s also considerable discussion about what can be done to foster a culture where people can have more acceptance of various body types for themselves and others.
“The Body Fights Back” is the feature-film debut of Estonian director Marian Võsumets, who chose to focus most of her interviews and other filmed footage on people who live in the London area. The documentary could have benefited from a wider inclusion of people who live in countries outside of the United Kingdom. A few people in the U.S. and Australia are interviewed by videoconference calls, but viewers can assume that the filmmakers had budget constraints that prevented them from traveling around the world to get a truly global and in-person view of this problem. The perspectives voiced in the movie are a fairly good representation of what many people in Western countries experience and think about diet culture.
It’s important to distinguish between “diet culture” and “health and fitness culture.” “The Body Fights Back” is not a criticism of health and fitness culture, which is when people want to take care of their bodies in healthy ways through diet and exercise. By contrast, diet culture promotes the idea that only thin or toned people are healthy and happy, and that in order to achieve a certain level of health and happiness, people need to diet by whatever means necessary.
Diet culture has been sold to people as an aspirational lifestyle, and it has become a gigantic industry that generates billions in profits. Although men and boys can certainly get caught up in diet culture and in wanting to look a certain way, women and girls are more likely to develop the most harmful effects of diet culture—eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. Bodybuilding and weight lifting (which can lead to steroid abuse) often overlap with diet culture, since people who are obsessed with having certain muscle tones are usually obsessed with dieting.
The documentary interviews several experts who give their opinions of diet culture, but the movie also puts a spotlight on five individuals (in their 20s or 30s) who have personally experienced the harmful effects of diet culture. These five people are:
- Rory Brown, a personal fitness trainer who says he developed an eating disorder when he was obsessed with his diet and workout routines.
- Imogen Fox, who has gone through extreme weight gain and weight loss that have left her with permanent health damage.
- Michaela Ginghell, who has had lifelong insecurities about being big and tall.
- Josephine “Mojo” Morondiya, who has been plus-sized all of her life and admits that her past childhood traumas have contributed to her weight issues.
- Hannah Webb, a recovering anorexic who developed her eating disorder when she was 15.
According to what these five interview subjects talk about in the documentary, they all have something in common: They admit that they had low self-esteem since their childhoods. Some of them have been in therapy over these self-esteem issues, but acceptance of their bodies is still a daily struggle for them.
The general consensus in the documentary is that people with harmful obesity and/or eating disorders need to be treated for psychological issues that are causing these health problems instead of thinking that changing their diets will be enough. Diet culture can take advantage of people who are vulnerable to insecurities about their bodies. And in many cases, the results are disastrous and dangerous to people’s health.
Brown says that when he was a kid, he got constant criticism from certain family members. It spilled over into how he felt about his physical looks, and he began to think, “When I look like this [toned], then I’ll be happy.” He confesses that he became addicted to fitness workouts and weight lifting in his quest to make himself look muscular.
For years, Brown says, he thought of food of being in two categories: “good” or “bad.” And so, he was fanatical about counting the food calories that he would consume. He got into the habit of having grueling workout sessions every day, and then “rewarding” himself about once a week by eating piles of junk food in one sitting.
Brown says that he would often force himself to vomit if he felt like he over-ate. And the binging caused him enough shame that he would over-exert himself in workouts, out of fear of gaining wait from his eating binges. “I started to lose my mind,” he says. He also admits his diet/workout obsession ended up ruining a relationship that he had with a girlfriend.
Brown adds that he didn’t understand until it was almost too late that this vicious cycle of extreme dieting and binging was the very definition of an eating disorder. He credits his recovery to being in therapy. And now, he says that he no longer sets rules for himself on what he can and cannot eat. He also imparts the same philosophy to his clients as a fitness trainer.
Fox was very overweight for most of her life. At one point, she had to use a wheelchair to move around, so she knows what it’s like to experience discrimination as a disabled person. Her eating habits got so damaging that she was hospitalized for lung failure, heart failure and sepsis. She lost such a drastic amount of weight in a short period of time that she now has very wrinkled, sagging skin on her abdomen, arms and legs. She also has a breathing apparatus implanted in her chest. And she says that social gatherings that involve food still give her some anxiety.
In the documentary, Fox says one of the lowest points in her up-and-down weight journey was when she was in the hospital, and a nurse started lecturing Fox while Fox was suffering on the hospital bed. Fox was conscious but unable to respond because of a tube in her mouth. According to Fox, the nurse berated her and shamed her by saying that Fox wouldn’t have been in this situation if she hadn’t been overweight.
Fox says that even though she now has a thin physique, most people wouldn’t know that underneath her clothes, she has sagging skin wrinkles where parts of her body had excessive fat. She comments that people come up to her and tell her that she looks great simply because she’s thin. She says it’s an example of how people have no idea that she has health problems and assume she’s healthy because she’s thin on the outside.
Fox credits her wife with helping her through tough times in this difficult weight journey. Fox says that being in a relationship with her lifetime love partner gave her the motivation not go back to the type of weight that almost killed Fox. “I wanted to transform,” she says of her weight loss to a healthier size.
Ginghell says that being big and tall made her the target of teasing and bullying when she was in school. And she says that when her parents got divorced when she was 8 years old, it deeply affected her. Her father was very strict about what types of food she could eat, while her mother was very lenient. The mixed messages confused her and added to her turmoil about her body weight.
Ginghell comments, “Growing up, I definitely turned to food to escape.” She says she knew her eating habits were becoming a serious issue when her father took her to a dietician. At the time the documentary was filmed, Ginghell says she’s still struggling with being a certain size, but she’s trying to learn not to let herself or other people make her feel bad about it.
Morondiya, who has the liveliest personality of all the interview subjects, believes that almost everyone who has eating disorders or who over-eats is in some kind of emotional pain and is trying to compensate for it by how and what they eat. She includes herself in this profile, because she says she’s a survivor of abuse and has had lifelong issues with low self-esteem.
“My biological mother was really abusive to me and my body,” Morondiya says. “And that’s when I started really hating who I was. She’d always say to me that my face was beautiful and I was really pretty, but it was a shame that my body didn’t match. And hearing that, your mum’s voice becomes your voice. You are the product of your environment.”
Morondiya also opens up about being a survivor of sexual abuse. She says that she was molested by a biological family member when she was an underage child. “That was never really dealt with,” she says of this abuse. “I was told it was my fault. ”
More sexual abuse continued in her life when she was raped at age 13. She got involved in a series of abusive relationships as an adult, which she describes as letting people violate her body because she didn’t respect herself. Morondiya says that she’s still working on her self-esteem, but she’s in a much better place now than she was in the past because she’s learning that she doesn’t need other people’s approval to like herself.
Hannah Webb talks about her harrowing experience being hospitalized for anorexia for several months. Her illness caused her to drop out of school. Her mother Joyce Webb, who’s also interviewed in the documentary, says she still feels guilty for not having noticed earlier that Hannah’s initial weight loss might have been a sign of something more disturbing. Hannah says that she developed an eating disorder around the same time that her father had been diagnosed with throat cancer and she was being teased at school because of how she looked.
Hannah comments that her parents, other family members and her close friends (whom she all describes as loving and supportive) helped save her life because they didn’t give up on her, even though she often wanted to give up on herself. Mother and daughter also talk about how Hannah had a hard time adjusting to recovery at first because food was really a control issue for her, and she angrily resented anyone who told her what to eat.
Kimberly Wilson, a chartered psychologist, explains in the documentary: “Eating disorders are never about food. When something goes wrong with eating, we know there’s something [else] really fundamentally going wrong. That’s why treatments for eating disorders are long and complex and intense.”
While most people with anorexia and bulimia are females who want to be thin, males tend to get eating disorders that are generally related to wanting to be muscular. Scott Griffiths, a body image researcher at Australia’s University of Melbourne, talks about muscle dysmorphia, a psychological affliction (which mostly affects young men) to obsessively want a muscular physique. “It’s not dangerous, per se, but it is debilitating,” Griffiths says. “People who have high levels of anxiety, it can ruin their life. And we see a similar thing with muscle dysmorphia.”
Alan Flanagan, a nutrition researcher at the University of Surrey, has this scathing comment about diet culture: “I think it’s celebrating a disordered behavior in relationship with food. And it’s an attempt to legitimize the behavior by giving it another name. Take the ‘cheat meal’ concept and look at it for what it is. I think it’s fairly obvious that it’s a disordered behavior to engage with, with food.”
The experts in the film say that a big problem with diet culture is that diet plans are mass-produced as a “one size fits all” remedy for everyone. In reality, not everyone can lose weight in the same way and at the same pace, just by buying a so-called “diet remedy.” The fashion, beauty and media industries get a lot of blame in this documentary for perpetuating “ideal” body images and physiques that are unattainable for most people.
In addition, diets are notorious for failing over a long-term basis. People can temporarily lose weight through a diet plan, but it’s harder to stick with that plan for longer periods of time. Jenna Daku, a disordered eating therapist, compares misguided weight-loss plans that consist of extreme dieting and eating binges to being like trying to push a beach ball into the water.
Registered dietitian Pixie Turner and linguist/body image researcher Maxine Ali each comment that diet culture puts pressure on people to be thin because being thin is equated with an image of being more likely to be a “good person.” Turner comments, “Just because dieting is popular doesn’t mean it’s risk-free either.” Nadia Craddock, a body image researcher at the University of the West of England, adds: “The diet industry wouldn’t be as profitable if we didn’t subscribe that being fat is bad.”
There are also socioeconomic and gender issues in diet culture. Women are the majority of target customers for diet culture because in most societies, women are under more pressure than men not to be overweight. People judge women’s weight more harshly than they judge men’s weight, and these judgments have an effect on how people perceive attractiveness and power. If you don’t believe it, think about how many overweight men become leaders of countries, compared to overweight women. Think about how female celebrities are much more likely than male celebrities to get media coverage for how their bodies look.
National Health Service surgical doctor Joshua Wolrich comments, “There is an element of diet culture coming from a patriarchal society where women are told what they should look like. And a lot of the time, it has been from men. And so, I think it’s very appropriate that feminism touches on diet culture and definitely has a role to play in combating it.”
Author/speaker Kelsey Miller says that anti-fat biases extend to many areas of society, including education and the justice system. “It’s much more than ‘I don’t like the way the person looks.’ It really affects all areas of life.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that low-income areas are more likely to have cheap fast-food places that have low-quality food with high fat content, which is why obesity can affect low-income people disproportionately higher than people with higher incomes who can afford healthier diets. Low-income areas are also less likely than higher-income areas to have access to fresh and organic food.
“The Body Fights Back” has interviews with two very different immigrants living in London who are examples of how contrasting perspectives can be, when it comes to “privilege” and how people are treated, based on their physical looks. Tenisha Pascal, who is originally from a Caribbean country that she does not name, says she experienced culture shock when she moved to England at age 17, because of how differently people perceive big women.
“Where I’m [originally] from,” Pascal says, “the thicker you are, the more celebrated you are. Men don’t have a problem with your size. It was very different to transition from the love I had felt for myself as a 17-year-old coming to the U.K. Women, instead of complimenting themselves, would always talk negatively about their bodies … They don’t want to show their curves.” The documentary shows Pascal and Morondiya attending the annual Notting Hill Carnival (a street event for Caribbean culture), which they both say is one of the few public events in London where large-sized women can feel welcome to show off their bodies.
Johannes Schrey, who’s originally from Germany, admits that he has “thin privilege” and that he knows because he is tall man who is not overweight, people automatically see him as an authoritative figure. Schrey comments that his culture shock in moving to London was to see that fast-food places are much more prevalent than in Germany. He also admits that he’s very judgmental when he sees an overweight person eating junk food.
And even though white men hold the vast majority of power and wealth from diet culture and other industries that benefit from diet culture, Schrey doesn’t believe it’s fair to say that white men have a lot of control over weight-related images that affect people’s self-esteem. Schrey comments, “Everybody loves targeting us [white men as villains], but there’s no actual proof of that, no board of white men saying, ‘We need to have these things’ … I’m certainly not part of it.” Dr. Wolrich, who is white, has this counterpoint: “When men say [of sexist patriarchy], ‘It’s not me’ or ‘It’s not all men,” I don’t think that’s helpful.”
Someone like Schrey would like to dismiss the reality that there are no corporate boards of white men who decide what goes in the marketplace of diet culture. But the fact is that white men really are the majority of the corporate boards of companies that make decisions on what are Western standards of “attractiveness,” when it comes to people’s weight. That doesn’t mean that all men on these corporate boards are sexist. However, it’s an issue when the majority of diet culture is aimed at women, and yet women are not the majority who control the companies, media images and decisions on how weight can affect people’s lives.
Think about how women are pressured to lose pregnancy weight as soon as possible after giving birth, and you have an idea of how diet culture tends to negatively affect women a lot more than it negatively affects men. Morondiya admits that at this point in her life, she doesn’t want to have any children, mainly because she’s terrified of any pregnancy weight she might not be able to lose after giving birth. It’s also mentioned in the documentary that social media platforms have made it worse in giving people “physique envy” that puts more pressure on people to fall into diet culture’s traps.
Some grassroots groups are starting to push back against the patriarchal ways that try to dictate how people should feel about their body weight. The documentary includes footage of Health at Every Size, a social justice movement that is aimed at deconstructing the myth that being thin always equals health and happiness. There’s also the Anti-Diet Riot Club, whose founder Rebecca Young Brown is also shown briefly in the film. And the documentary features a 2019 “flash mob” event called The Real Catwalk (founded by Khrystyanna Kazakova) that took place in London’s Trafalgar Square, where dozens of people (many of them scantily clad) gathered to celebrate body positivity and acceptance.
“The Body Fights Back” acknowledges that in the 21st century, some progress has been made in the fashion industry giving more representation to plus-sized people in ads, on runways and in clothing options. However, some fashion brands are still resistant to change and deliberately exclude larger sizes. Several people in the documentary comment that people have the power to vote with their wallets, by being informed about which companies brands have inclusivity values that align with theirs and by supporting those companies accordingly.
“The Body Fights Back” clearly advocates this belief: People who’ve lived with insecurities over their weight don’t need to be body-shamed but should be shown compassion when it comes to weight that can improve their physical and mental health. It’s a much more difficult journey for some than it is for others. And many times, people who lecture others about their weight might not know the entire health history of the people who are on the receiving end of the lecture.
These lectures could be well-meaning, but they could also be doing psychological damage that will cause people to feel even worse about themselves, which could lead to more unhealthy eating. In other words, unless you are that person’s medical doctor, telling someone how they should lose weight can not only be inappropriate but could also do more harm to that person. Weight loss that goes beyond losing a few pounds or a few kilograms should be something that’s a personal decision and should be discussed with an individual’s medical doctor.
“The Body Strikes Back” does a very good job at showing the human side of these personal and often and painfully sensitive issues. Rather than waste time trying to single out any particular diet culture companies that are the most damaging (which might have led the documentary to include information that could easily become outdated), director Võsumets wisely focused on individuals who are pro-actively making improvements in their lives and the lives of others, when it comes to self-esteem and body inclusivity. When people are discriminated against because of their weight, it’s not just an aesthetic issue or health issue. It’s a civil rights issue.
Gravitas Ventures released “The Body Fights Back” on digital and VOD on July 13, 2021.