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The Body Fights Back

Our paradoxical relationship with food is deftly explored in this British-Estonian documentary - live from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.


There’s one image in The Body Fights Back that seems to encapsulate Western society’s paradoxical relationship with food. On the tube station, a fitness advert is directly juxtaposed with a fast food one, asking consumers to engage in both. But this is standard in today’s society: after all, McDonald’s is one of the key sponsors of none other than the Olympic Games. Can you eat McDonald’s and run a triathlon? You can try, but it’s probably not advised.

Documentary The Body Fights Back looks at a group of people who live within our paradoxical and shame-based food culture, offering an alternative to the dieting advice found in women’s magazines, mainstream media and aspirational Instagram pages. From a disabled woman with stretch marks, to a Black woman overcoming trauma, to a white man previously obsessed with getting ripped at the gym, the film provides a fascinating perspective into how eating disorders are rarely about food, but stem from a variety of complex and interlinking factors.

While the style of the movie is a little dry — with few montages that feel really inspired — its intellectual rigour is to be applauded, especially the way it keenly threads the needle between dieting culture and wider systemic issues, including fatphobia, patriarchy and even white supremacy. With the third idea, the film does falter a little. This idea that diet culture and fatphobia is exclusively a product of White Supremacy may be true in the UK or the USA, but these issues are also a huge part of East Asian culture too, something that isn’t really explored or interrogated in any meaningful way.

In the end, bodies, in whatever form are to be celebrated. We see footage of the Notting Hill Carnival — rooted in Caribbean culture, where curvier bodies receive much higher levels of praise. It would have been fascinating for the film to branch out and see other historical and cultural attitudes to bodies, upending Western clichés and providing a broader perspective.

Nonetheless, perhaps the Western focus makes sense, as the countries with some of the worst obesity in the world are Australia, UK and USA, mainly because they have the largest economic disparity. In a city like London, for example, chicken shops can offer chicken and chips for £1.50 while a fancy restaurant bill for two can easily go over £100. Conversely, in smaller, medium income countries, which don’t have as large a population, mass chain infrastructure or much importation of food, weight levels are far down — suggesting that its not really the individual that’s responsible but society as a whole. For one thing, it makes you pray that we never make that trade deal with the Americans.

Ultimately, as someone who has been blessed with a great metabolism and never thinks too hard about what they eat on a regular basis, this is a really eye-opening look at the double standards that people face. And they also seem to end on a note similar to my own eating philosophy, named intuitive eating: eating what you want when you want and respecting the needs of your own body. Sounds good by me, now what’s for lunch?

The Body Fights Back opens the #PÖFFTrending programme at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 13th to 29th November.

By Redmond Bacon - 13-11-2020

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