Monday, April 1, 2013

Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead

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For this week’s post, I watched Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead by Joe Cross, a documentary about the supposed health benefits of juice fasts, particularly for people who are morbidly obese or for those who have health problems that are caused by or associated with obesity.

My first reaction when I started watching this documentary was to roll my eyes. This may have a lot to do with all the time I spend studying anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders, and my resulting skepticism of any sort of health-seeking or weight-loss endeavors that involves fasting. My gut instinct (ha!) is to write off any sort of fasting diet as either eating disordered behavior, or as an ineffective, misinformed way of trying to lose weight that is usually expensive (not appealing), and is going to result in little more than hunger-induced irritability and inability to focus (also not appealing), and some major gastrointestinal distress (definitely not appealing). And when it became clear about half way into the documentary that there wasn’t going to be any discussion of what I would consider to be food activism, I almost stopped watching the documentary completely—it started to feel more like an extended infomercial for a juicer than a documentary.

But I decided to finish it, thinking that maybe I’d be able to find something that I could talk about in relation to food activism. By the end, both Joe and Phil have completed 60-day fasts, had started eating more healthily and exercising regularly, had dramatically lessened or eliminated all of the health problems from which they suffered while obese, lost a ton of weight, and were overall much happier with their lives. That’s great. Visually, their transformations were impressive, and in spite of my skepticism regarding juice fasts or any fasts as effective health-improvement strategies, I couldn’t help but be happy for them both. But there were also a lot of things that came up in the documentary that bothered me, and although Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead didn’t address food activism, I think that there were definitely some common themes between it and some of the food activism documentaries I’ve watched that I think are really problematic. For example:

  • Fat-shaming. 
  • Unhealthy eating as a crime, healthy eating (or fasting/not eating) as repentance.
  • The idea that emotional connections to food are inherently wrong or dangerous. 
  • Healthy, attractive-looking people telling unhealthy, unattractive-looking people what to do (how to be healthy) with no other authority than that which they apparently achieve just by having conventionally (and debatably) “superior” bodies.
  • The idea that extreme food/eating practices are the only way to get results, and that a philosophy of moderation is never effective or sustainable.
  • Physical fitness/restraint/physical exertion/self-denial as proof of mental and/or spiritual superiority.
  • Referring to healthy food as “clean” food or a healthy diet as “clean eating” or a lifestyle that involves lots of exercise and only healthy food as a “clean lifestyle.”

On one hand it’s really interesting that all of these themes keep showing up in media related to food activism and health, because it highlights the fact that ideas about health, fitness, and healthy food, all of which seem to be based in objective science, are actually really ties up in (ever-changing) cultural values and beliefs. Also, harkening back to my previous post, I think it’s fascinating about how eager people seem to be to proclaim that they “don’t eat food” or are “fasting” even when they are eating food, but it’s just a particular type of food that they feel doesn’t count in some way. Why is that?

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