Female fat phobia

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In junior high and beyond, the worst two words one can be called are "fat" and "gay."

This is the conclusion of one of the members of a "fat acceptance group" depicted in an a provocative new film, "Disfigurement," that is premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this week.

Not everyone can be gay, but any of us can be fat. So therein lies the power of the "phobia" that is particularly pervasive in American society. It is estimated that three-quarters of American women are on a diet. And it can be argued that this obsession with weight loss, and the manic media scrutiny of what constitutes the ideal female form, can mess with a woman's image of what is an appropriate body.

The film explores eating disorders from opposite ends of the spectrum. "Disfigurement" opens on some plus-sized women trying to accept their largeness in a "fat acceptance" group.

Darcy, a "recovering anorexic," joins only to create a decided uneasiness with the rest of the group. Like them, she feels she is fat. The majority of the women, viewing her thin frame, vote to oust her from the group.

Lydia, who supported Darcy staying, wants to start a "fat acceptance walking group." An argument ensues in the group: If you are trying to change your body, does it mean you hate your body?

Lydia retorts: "If you are trying to change the world, does that mean you hate the world?"

Darcy offers to help promote Lydia's walking group and an uneasy friendship ensues between the very large Lydia and the starkly thin Darcy. "I am your worst nightmare," Lydia teases Darcy. In another half-serious, half-joking moment, she says to Darcy, "I want anorexia lessons."

The two women start developing "some kind of weight loss fatal attraction." One eats in the middle of the night, the other is jogging in place.

Ironically, Lydia sums it up for both of them when she says she eats to take away the panic of not getting what she really needs. When nothing else helps -- gastric bypass surgery, psychotherapy, diets, shame, societal and parental and peer pressure -- the only thing that does help in the end is friendship.

I asked the writer-director of the film, Glenn Gers, about what he learned in doing this in-depth exploration of women and weight.

In an e-mail, he told me: "Human beings come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Until we are honest about that, we have no hope of being healthy and happy. From there on, everyone has their own story; but that first step is for all of us."

I was also curious if he had gleaned any insight into the weight-loss fixation so prominent in America, especially among women.

He is concerned about these obsessions. "People can't generally transform their body for any significant amount of time without dire consequences," he said. "But they can take good care of the body they have. The simple effect of doing that is often startling. As Lydia says in the movie, 'These bodies: they're us.'"

In that same scene, Lydia, now leading her own support group for women with weight issues, tells the group, "We are here to talk about our bodies. How can we live in them all day every day and still find them strange? How can we hate them? They are beautiful and pathetic and miraculous and sad and everything we have in life, we get from them.

"We are going to have to find a way to love them for the way they are. To accept the way they look like for each one of us."

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com For more on the topics covered in Healthspan, visit his Web site: www.HealthspanWeb.com.

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