Fed Up with Fat Shaming

I recently wrote a post on the LA Times’ review of the documentary Fed Up, Demon Rum Redux. My focus was on the way sugar is promoted as the single point of failure when diagnosing the societal increase in body mass over the last three decades, and I said food ubiquity as such was the greater culprit. Bitch Magazine has posted a review of the documentary, “Incendiary New Food Industry Documentary “Fed Up” Misses the Mark,” that looks at how it relies on fat shaming to get its message across.

Reading this review by Emilly Prado, I doubt I even want to stream this documentary on Netflix.

The basic problem, it seems, is that the documentary doesn’t know what it wants to do more – indict corporate America for being profit-seeking, scare people with the idea of toxic substances polluting their bodies, or fat shame stupid poor people for feeding their kids junk. In the end, the last wins out since it provides the feel-good sub-text for the nice upper middle class health-obsessed progressives who are the target audience of the film. The food puritans and food paranoiacs (and all three of these tribes are greatly overlapping; most have lifetime membership in Whole Foods Nation) are provided plenty to sink their teeth into, but the documentary cannot resist dividing the obese environment into the pure voyeurs and the sullied surveilled.

Prado captures the key slippage in the documentary, namely “Even though they’re telling us not to blame people for being fat, they’re still telling us that fat people are a problem in the first place and we are all doomed to be fat too if we don’t act fast.” This will be your fate if you do not repent! Once again, the poor are reduced to object lesson for their social betters.

At base, Prado thinks what they want to do with the documentary is solid. “This [sic] point of this documentary is to scare you.  They want you to know that there is a clear disconnect in the current U.S. food system that values profit over public health.  Looking at Kellogs’ partnership with Michelle Obama in her Let’s Move campaign and the Coca Cola-backed medical studies on soda shows just how much big companies have a say in “health” issues.” If the movie makers had stuck with showing the ways in which policy is twisted and bent to blunt its regulatory power over corporate profit seeking, with the subsequent sacrifice of public interest, there would have been a powerful movie here, much like producer Laurie David’s previous blockbuster, An Inconvenient Truth.

Something that disappointed me greatly in my write up is the bait in switch over the challenge to the simple-minded “eat less, move more” prescription to treat obesity, which Prado also notes. Aside from the reduction of the extraordinarily complex context of societal body mass increase to the expansion of a single food product ingredient, there is no follow up on how or why the standard answer is inadequate. Instead,

[…] Fed Up claims to object [to] the popular belief that if people just ate less and exercised more things would work out.  Yet in arming the audience with an even deeper hatred for lobbyists, sugar, and soda for about 86 minutes, we are simply told in the end that the only way to stop being fat is to completely change our diet.  While the film points out many ways our policies and economy encourage eating unhealthy food, the “solution” the film offers is still feels like it’s placing the onus on individuals: the experts suggest that households should cut out all added sugars and cook “real food” at home, forever! Never mind that cooking three balanced meals full of organic foods at home takes time and money that many Americans simply don’t have.

The context of consumption vanishes, and public health is reduced to their bête noire, “toxic” sugar. Just eliminate sugar and all will be well with the world! Oh, and don’t eat out, or buy processed foods, or inorganic vegetables, or anything else we wouldn’t personally claim to be eating. If you cared about your health, you would make it a priority! This is what I see as one of the worst impulses of so-called progressive food politics. It whitewashes the complex conditions of people’s lives, presumes that their own habits of mind and place are universal and appropriate, and then privatizes public interest in the form of lecturing “those people” to live different lives. If those people resist or fail to fully embrace the right way, then they will be held up as examples to the rest of us.

Shamed, in a word.

Shamed for being fat and shamed for not having the socioeconomic wherewithal to navigate the tangle of corporate irresponsibility, health system malfunction, and economic class penalties to arrive at Fit-n-Trim Land on the other side. Here’s the key paragraph from the review, emphasis added:

One of the film’s most blatant, privilege-ridden oversights is that it never seriously addresses issues of race, class, income, and lack of resources (food deserts, a kitchen to cook in, etcetera).  In a scene where one son’s mother spoke of making better choices by buying her son’s favorite flavor of Lean Pockets instead of Hot Pockets, I wondered if the crew of Fed Up ever warned her that her logic would be used to demonstrate unintelligent food-buying.  I wondered how 15-year-old Brady felt after he regained weight when his family stopped maintaining the extreme sugar-free diet they tried out for a few weeks.  I wonder how Joe’s family is coping with the medical bills after the 14-year-old underwent bariatric surgery.  None of that is mentioned.  What’s obvious is that eliminating “all products that contain sugar including honey, molasses, agave, etc., and all liquid sugars, such as sodas, bottled teas, fruit juices, and sports drinks” is really hard to do. And while it very well may be true that a home-cooked “REAL FOOD” dinner of chicken and a salad may cost less than a KFC family dinner, the time, transportation, and food accessibility need to be considered.  For a well-funded documentary on an “epidemic” that disproportionately affects low-income families and people of color, the failure to even attempt to address those issues is insulting.

The subjects of the documentary are object lessons, not embodied, autonomous beings balancing food choices with all the other shit that life hands you. What is also present, though Prado does not call this out in her review, is the subtext that if you, the nice, pure, health-conscious voyeur watching these object lessons, fail to make these changes in your diet, fail to care about your health the way the documentarians want you to, you will become a lower-status slob like these unfortunate souls. The “toxic” part of sugar is not just the weight gain; it is the social status loss.

Fat shaming is not just brutalizing an individual for her form. It is also forcing her into a more subordinate position vis-à-vis  the entity doing the shaming. It is a kind of domination, and the supposed health concerns that justify the shaming almost always vanish in the face of the pleasure taken in shaming the subordinate object.

And I’m really getting fed up with that.


Edit – I just found another review of Fed Up, this one on The Eater. The writer is far less sympathetic to obese individuals, but calls out the movie for two things – blithely ignoring the time and cost burdens attendant on the recommended diet, and failing to see that the real toxin here is not sugar, but money and the way in which corporations are allowed to buy their way out of responsibility.  Please read The Sugary Outrage of Fed Up Doesn’t Go Far Enough, by Paula Forbes.

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Posted in Culture, Economics, Politics

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