Changing the narrative

Marian Vosumets on diet culture, disordered eating and The Body Fights Back

by Jennie Kermode

Marian Vosumets
Marian Vosumets

Have you ever dieted in an attempt to lose weight? At one time or another, most people have, and there’s a widespread belief that it’s something lots of people ought to do – but it is good for us? Might there be a better way to relate to weight? These are the questions at the heart of Marian Vosumets’ challenging documentary The Body Fights Back, which looks at issues from eating disorders to beauty standards, the impact of prejudice and the role played by poverty, through a series of individual stories.

The film hasn’t yet got distribution in the UK, so Marian is pleased to talk to Eye For Film about it and bring it to the attention of UK film fans. London is the place where it originated, but she notes that the issues it deals with can be found anywhere in the world where there is a large wealth disparity. It’s a subject she was drawn to because she has a personal history of disordered eating, she says, but she wanted to take on issues that went further than that and was also wary of putting herself at the centre of it because so much of our dialogue around eating is already focused on white women like her. It was important to her to raise the voices of people with different types of life experience.

Seeing ourselves differently
Seeing ourselves differently

“On one hand, I think I have a very good understanding of what it means to end up in destructive cycles of disordered eating, because it does come from a personal place,” she says. “And in that sense, I was able to ask informed questions in a way that would really dig deep under the surface, which I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out. I know what people tend to conceal and hide when talking about those things. And having been in that place myself, I was able to navigate those kinds of fears and attempts to avoid certain kinds of topics like binge eating, trying to make oneself sick after cycles of binge eating and things like that.

“I started coming to the UK more often in 2018. And I started going to those kinds of events, like activist events and fat positive events, and I discovered an entire new world for myself. I'm from Estonia, and body image struggles and even this entire body positive movement is not actually a thing here. So in that sense, I was in a very right time and place to discover all of these things for myself. And I was really fascinated by all of it. And I did my research, I made a lot of friends in those communities. I wasn't initially planning to make a feature length documentary film about it, because my background is in broadcast journalism. Then when we got all those characters together and did those massive interviews, I realised that the material that I had at hand was so valuable that I needed to make something bigger out of it. And I was surprised to realise that a film about diet culture in particular hadn't been made yet, even though the movements are quite big in both the UK and the ‘States. So I was like, ‘Well, I guess it's time to fill the gap.’

“I definitely made an effort to balance the film with different kinds of people and different kinds of backgrounds: racial backgrounds, financial backgrounds. And there were some people that I met along the way. And there were some people that I heard speak about those things that you know, names that would come up, over and over again on podcasts or, you know, people who were writing articles about weight stigma and diet culture. But then I did reach out to a lot of people and a lot of experts as well, because body image research is something that is very well done and very well funded on the UK. But I would say that making this film has been a series of, of lucky accidents, in terms of the right people coming together and the right mix of people coming together.

Men are also under pressure
Men are also under pressure

“I think the way that all of those stories interlink so perfectly in the film is a very good example of this entire battle with our body being a deeply human experience, because regardless of our background, we tend to – in one way or another – associate with these feelings of inadequacy and not being good enough. To some extent, all of us have experienced that, and that was very fascinating to see. But I did make an effort to include black people, disabled people, gay people, people from different social and financial backgrounds, because financial inequality is a massive contributor to excess weight. And that's also something that the healthcare system tries to wipe away and put the responsibility on the person, whereas not that many of us have the means to take personal responsibility in the first place.”

I tell her that one of the reasons I find the film interesting is that it gets into quite a lot of intersectional issues, for instance by exploring the way that black bodies, already subject to racist stigma, are targeted by different forms of fat-related prejudice from white ones, and people experiencing that have multiple stresses to cope with.

“Absolutely,” she says. “We actually met up with the cast last week in London, for the first time, and one of the experts that I very much admire, to see the film for the first time. Joshua Wolrich, he's a doctor for the NHS, and he told me that this film is so much better than he expected. He said that very often these things get portrayed only on the surface, and in a shallow manner. They only they focus on food, or the disordered eating bit, but they don't dig deeper under the surface in terms of what those things are affected by. Eating disorders very rarely have anything to do with food. You know, they're all shaped in these kinds of behaviours. And anxieties are shaped in early childhood, they're affected by relationships that we have with our partners and family and colleagues. Not to mention the media landscape that is just so demonstrably toxic these days.

Celebrating diverse bodies
Celebrating diverse bodies

“That was my aim from the get go, because I knew from my own experience that a messed up relationship with with food is just the tip of the iceberg. And that's why I really felt that a film like this had to come into existence, because it's definitely a film that I would have needed and wanted to see as a teenager. And this kind of film just wasn't out there. Because usually, when you look at, like, Netflix documentaries about health, they're very shallow. And I would say that quite often they're just flat out harmful in terms of they're, like, popular science. They’re very glossy but they missed the point very often. So I wanted to make a film that would not miss the point and just address the issues that shape these kinds of disordered behaviours around food.”

Although the case she makes in the film is a strong one, it is still controversial and a lot of people are quite hostile to it, including within the NHS and so on. Did she experience pushback when making it?

“No,” she says happily. “In fact, during the production process, we didn't have any kind of pushback at all. But now the film has been theatrically released in Estonia, feedback has been that ‘Oh, you know, is it actually okay to show fat bodies onscreen like that?’ And you know, ‘That's not aesthetically appealing.’ People are not very used to it and my aim with the film was also to show diverse bodies and to normalise that, to show people eating on screen and show women eating on screen, because that's something that we see very rarely.

“But you know, that kind of feedback was expected. And that's something that always comes up. Like for instance, when the Nike store on Oxford Street, in 2019, put out that plus size mannequin, you know, that kind of feedback was expected. That doesn't surprise me at all.”

We discuss the way that news stories about obesity tend to frame fat bodies with the heads cut off, allowing viewers to judge them without any returned gaze, and I ask if there were things she did as a director to try and show fat bodies in a different way.

Rarely seen: women eating onscreen
Rarely seen: women eating onscreen

“Absolutely, the visual aspect of it is of huge importance. And exactly what you mentioned, with the heads caught off, I think it's very dehumanising, It's humiliating, that shouldn't happen. But that is very often the case. And what I really wanted to do with the visual part of this film was to give those people a voice and show them there. And I don't even want to say they, as if it was like us versus them, just to bring everyone together. And I think what the film does very successfully is that it brings together people that don't necessarily meet each other on a daily basis or in a work setting. I just wanted to bring them all together to show the human aspect, and to show them, you know, eating food and things like that, and to humanise all of that, because we can’t empathise with something that we never hear about. Those people are hardly ever given a voice when these topics are discussed in terms of, you know, the obesity crisis. I would say that this war against obesity was lost long ago, because fat people were never the problem. It’s the food environment. It's unregulated market forces, and a multitude of social, cultural and political injustices that come to play. And I think these people very beautifully voice their experiences within that kind of environment.”

It seems to me that she also does something just by having the film out there, showing us fat bodies being beautiful and being celebrated. Has she had a response to that from audiences?

“Yes, definitely. One of my favourite scenes is definitely in the very end, when Mojo dances in slow motion in front of the window and I love the music, the soundtrack. When we met with some of the people who were involved in the film, they were astonished that something so simple hasn't been shown on screen in a positive way. The fat liberation movement is regarded as something a bit dangerous or angry, and then when you actually go in there and show what goes on in those, like anti diet riot festivals, you know, it's very interesting to just sit down and listen to people that are different to you for a change. And then try to put yourself in their position. And I think that's what the film manages to do really well.

Celebrating success
Celebrating success

“We have the data, we have the research that shows that, in one point or another, 80% of people in the entire world have experienced disordered eating at some point in their lives. And usually we just tend to think that it's something that's normal.”

There’s also a gendered aspect to the film, where it looks at the different beauty standards that have pushed at men and women, and that suggestion that women should be taking up less space...

“Yeah, the feminist aspect was very important to me, and very close to my heart. And I would say that, having worked as a journalist for seven years, the topic of injustice and the topic of feminism are very close to home and close to heart for me. So the film was like my own playground where I could address all of those things that you sometimes can't, like, fully address in mainstream media. I wanted to explore the gendered aspects of, you know, bodies and the hierarchy of bodies and how it operates and how we navigate those systems or environments. I think I can proudly say that it's a feminist film. That's how it's supposed to be. And I absolutely love the men in the film as well, who are just so compassionate and considerate and so educated, they are very good role models, and that's actually something that I've heard from men who've seen the film. It's really good to have examples like this because that gives them the courage to actually stand up for women or stand up for other issues regarding equality. We need more men like that.”

We discuss her future plans, and it turns out that she’s just received some good news.

“I will be doing my master's degree in film at the London Film Academy,” she explains. “One of my friends asked me like, ‘Did I get this straight: you first made a film and now you’re going to film school?’ That's correct, because as I mentioned, I just had a series of lucky accident and more often than not, I did find myself reinventing the wheel when making this film, but I really would like to lay down a solid ground of education before making my next film. I do have ideas for the next one already. But it's a one year master's course and the London Film Academy is a very, very good university. And I would really like to learn the basics of filmmaking in order to be able to make even better films in the future. But definitely social justice and feminism. The entire mystery of what it means to be a human.”

The Body Fights Back poster
The Body Fights Back poster

Finally, I ask if making the film had a positive impact on her personally, in relation to her struggles with eating.

“It's funny, I think that my relationship with food had already sort of restored before I started making the film,” she says. “2018 was the year when things finally really turned for me, and that was when I started making an outline for this film. So I think I fixed my own problems before making this film, and that gave me this notion that recovery is possible. It gave me the essence and the adrenaline to dive head into the making of this film. Because I know that talking and sharing your stories and and actually opening up and admitting that you have a problem is the hardest, the biggest hurdle to overcome and once that step is made, then I do believe that recovery is possible for everyone. But we do need films like this. And we do need people like this who very openly share their stories in a way that you can see that they have made sense of their own story, they are able to share it in a way that is already contextualised. Because if you're in the midst of and illness – which is what disordered eating is, an illness – then it's very hard to make sense of the reasons why you ended up there. And also, it's a lot harder to make sense of how to get out of it.

“During the making of this film, I just met so many fantastic people, which for me was just like a confirmation that I am on the right path, that I am on my way out of this. And I would say that the fact that we still keep in touch with pretty much everyone in the film is my litmus test for, you know, this film actually doing justice to all the people who are involved. All in all, I'm very pleased with the outcome given that on the outset we didn't even know if this would turn into a TV documentary or a feature documentary. I'm very much looking forward to the day when it airs in the UK.”

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