The Fat Body (In)Visible. Directed by Margitte Kristjansson. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 24 minutes.

Weightless. Directed by Faith Pennick. Brooklyn: Organized Chaos Media Works, 2010. 39 minutes.

Reviewed by Amy Erdman Farrell

The last several years have seen a burgeoning of scholarship and activism that explores the meanings of the fat body and resists the insidious and pervasive discrimination against fat people, particularly within the context of the current “obesity epidemic.” These two films, The Fat Body (In)Visible, directed by Margitte Kristjansson, and Weightless, directed by Faith Pennick, strengthen this body of scholarship and activism and provide much needed fat studies film resources for instructors.

As a graduate student in communications at the University of California, San Diego, Kristjansson directed The Fat Body (In)Visible, which focuses on the lives of two young women who both consider themselves “fatshionistas.” The film splices interview segments with Keena Bowden, who is African American, and Jessica Jarchow, who is white, with scenes of them shopping, trying on clothing, and hanging out at a bar with other fat friends. The film emphasizes the hypervisibility that Keena and Jessica face as fat women who dress confidently and “refuse to apologize,” to paraphrase Marilyn Wann, for their size and style.1 Articulate and beautiful, these two women, both bloggers and activists in their own right, describe the power they feel while hanging out with other fat people in public and using fashion as a means of political empowerment. While most of the emphasis is on the joy these two women experience in decorating and outfitting themselves (creative outlets traditionally excluding fat women, they argue), there is also a powerful and painful scene in which Keena remembers her humiliation during an airline trip, an experience that stands in sharp contrast to the support she always felt from her family and community.

While Kristjansson is herself a fat studies scholar and activist, Faith Pennick, the director of the awarding winning 2007 documentary Silent Choices, is a filmmaker who wants to tell “interesting stories about interesting people and communities.” “I am drawn to people who are poor or disadvantaged in some way,” Pennick says.2 Shot on location in California and Hawaii, Weightless follows the story of Liz, a psychologist who founded the organization Big Adventures, which leads fat women on scuba diving trips. While the tagline of Weightless is “Underwater, there is no overweight,” the film highlights the tremendous odds that their weight poses for these women in becoming divers: their own lack of confidence; a diving culture that highlights the bodies of svelte, young women; equipment that needs to be modified for their body size. In one particularly memorable scene, the heavy equipment causes one of the women to lose her balance, and she falls ungracefully into the sand. In the end, however, it’s a story of triumph, as we see the women dance underwater with sea turtles, sharks, and schools of beautifully colored fish.

As I watched these films with a group of students, we did raise a number of issues. One detail that we found perplexing was the scene in Weightless of “local” women hula dancing as they greeted the tourists. Was this a tongue-in-cheek reference to the colonialist past of Hawaii or an uninformed evocation of the exotic “pleasures” of colonial Hawaii, previously forbidden but now available to these fat women? Others asked, in reference to both films, about the limits of resistance forged through popular culture or through hobbies like scuba diving or fashion blogging and makeup: What exactly do we mean when we identify these actions as “political”?  Might these practices simply reproduce neoliberal norms about consumption?  Might they allow us to feel complacent about other kinds of political actions that need to happen to challenge fat discrimination? Some asked whether the emphasis in Kristjansson’s film on fat activist blogs and websites constitutes a built-in expiration date, as some are already inactive. (In searching, for instance, I found that the plus-size boutique Re-Dress no longer exists in Brooklyn, but has relocated to an area outside Cleveland.)  And, finally, most of the students found Kristjansson’s film much more compelling; they loved the two “spunky” women, their personalities, and their fun-loving style. I would argue, however, that this reaction itself provides a teachable moment, as I think students react positively to the beauty and youth of Kristjansson’s subjects. The women in Weightless are middle aged, and none is made up for the camera. To what extent are our reactions still shaped by beauty ideals, even in films that challenge dominant stereotypes and discrimination based on large body size?

These films would serve as interesting introductions to fat studies in a range of courses, and would pair especially well with more detailed units on the history and development of fat stigma; the concepts of “health at every size”; the discrimination that fat people face in everything from fashion to medicine to the airline industry; the gendering and racializing of fat stigma; and the power of “physical” fat resistance.3

1 Marilyn Wann, Fat?So! Because You Don’t Have to Apologize for Your Size  (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1998). 

2 Eleanor J. Bader, “Faith in Filmmaking,” The Brooklyn Rail, March, 2, 2012.

3 The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009) is a particularly useful introduction to all these concepts. For a more historical perspective, instructors might be interested in my work, Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2011); for a health studies perspective, instructors might want to pair these films with Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight (Dallas: Ben Bella Books, 2008).

Amy Erdman Farrell is professor of American studies and women’s and gender studies and the Ann and John Curley Chair of Liberal Arts at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.  She is the author of Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2011).