Tonight, HBO is premiering the first two parts of their much-hyped four-part documentary, Weight of the Nation, and already, people are ready to hate it, and vocally opposing a piece that, to their mind, is sure to be fat-shaming, victim-blaming, and generally unhelpful and mean. But instead of putting on the earmuffs and ignoring it (and the problem), I recommend actually watching it–I did–because even the most hardened health advocates may stand to learn something.
We’ve all been burned before by terrible anti-obesity documentaries that use the same old tactics and play into all the same old stereotypes–like “headless fatties syndrome,” and the epidemic of pencil-necked white guys gesticulating wildly about how pathetic fat people are. But Weight of the Nation, which is a joint project with the CDC, mostly avoids these. The talking heads are diverse and knowledgable, and the obese people aren’t just bodies lumbering down the street, they’re real people talking about their struggles. Which makes it seem a lot less like scientists pointing fingers and laying blame, and more like a nation in crisis (because it is. It is a crisis.) speaking candidly about what they’re up against.
If anyone is blamed in Weight of the Nation, it’s food lobbyists and Washington DC, or shows like The Biggest Loser (because it sets up a pretty unrealistic ideal of weight loss and health, and focuses too much on exercise and not enough about pragmatic portions), or, what I found the most heartening about the project as a whole, the role that race and economic status play in obesity and diabetes. Instead of being grossed out by fat people, viewers feel sympathetic to the numerous environmental factors that are dooming individuals across the country, and helped to understand the various misconceptions that lead to unhealthy lifestyles. And couldn’t that lead to a real and salient (and much-needed) shift in public perception?
Most vocally critical of the documentary is Appetite for Profit‘s Michele Simon, who I usually agree with on almost everything. However, on this I think she’s taking too much of a head-in-the-sand approach, and, rather than watching the documentary with an open mind, is declaring that she simply won’t participate, because of the various factors that she believes–without seeing it–must be present.
And some of those factors are present, like a focus on obesity’s lasting health consequences and potentially gloomy outcome for the country, and a discussion about how Big Food is making an unhealthy lifestyle the norm, and trying to pretend that they aren’t. But on other assertions, the fact that Simon hasn’t seen the film is pretty evident–instead of blaming obese people for their weight, it’s actually really sympathetic to how difficult lasting weight loss is, both from an emotional perspective, and a metabolic one. Like, for example, when the film offers a very enlightening explanation about how someone who is losing weight, or has recently lost weight, has to eat less than someone who is naturally thin–and how truly impossible that can feel. How can a film have that discussion without focusing on the problem?
Yes, this documentary has some problems–it, like a lot of other scholarly approaches, uses the always-problematic BMI, focuses perhaps too much on the old adage of calories in/calories out (and explains how many people overestimate the second half of the equation), and relies often on heavy-handed graphics and data. But Weight of the Nation also offers solutions, even if they’re not always easy to see and hear. There are several “success stories” that, I won’t lie, almost brought me to tears. From the gal pals who have each lost over 100 pounds (by–get this–working out and eating less) to the cafeteria worker who realized she was “nibbling” her way to an extra 1,000 calories a day, the inspirational individuals featured in Weight of the Nation didn’t do anything that the average viewer couldn’t achieve, which is probably one of the best solutions there is.
And I think that’s the real reason to at least give Weight of the Nation a try–even if you’re dead-set on hating it for its blaming and shaming, you’ll be hard-pressed to say it doesn’t offer any solutions. It offers tons of solutions, most notably in the form of education. I learned a lot from this series, and I think many Americans could, too. Even by offering such a comprehensive look at both the challenges and the consequences of obesity (and obesity-related illness, particularly in children), HBO and the CDC are giving us a chance to stop shaking our heads and start moving toward a change, armed with education.
And that has to happen–there has to be a way to have this conversation. There has to be a way to focus on obesity and its consequences in a way that isn’t full of blame and shame. And I think is documentary comes pretty close.
Why would you purposefully bury your head in the sand when the alternative is that you might actually see something new?
Weight of the Nation debuts tonight on HBO. You can watch parts of it online.
Images via HBO