Lydia is a [fat] sales clerk in a trendy home furnishings store, nearing 30. Though she is a member of a Fat Acceptance Group… she is still struggling with complex feelings about her body and its place in the world. Darcy, a recovering-anorexic real estate agent in her mid-20s, is struggling with the same issues from a very different perspective. Her attempt to join the Fat Acceptance Group (since she sees herself as fat) is quickly rejected – but it introduces her to Lydia. Lydia is initially wary of Darcy’s efforts to become friends, but Darcy’s hunger for emotional contact breaks through the wall of apparent differences and they begin an unexpected friendship. At the same time Lydia gets involved in a sexual relationship with Bob, a [fat] man who joins her in walking for exercise early mornings at Venice beach. Stirred emotionally by this new romance and by her conflict with the Fat Acceptance Group, Lydia decides to ask her new friend for an unusual favor: she wants anorexia lessons. When Darcy lets Lydia inside her secret inner world, it forces both women to confront buried feelings about their bodies. Sexuality and fashion, anger and femininity, trust and fear, hunger and satisfaction: there are things that women can only talk about honestly with other women. But they never seem to find a way to do it. This is a movie about two women who do.
Spoilers for Disfigured (2008). Content warning for fatphobia, discussion of weight loss and weight loss surgery, eating disorders, brief discussion of suicide and incest. The film isn’t rated by the MPAA, but for language and sexual content, I am sure it would have received an R rating.
The opening scene is a montage of people talking about hot button issues commonly discussed in fat acceptance and body liberation. The writer and director, Glenn Gerr, hired a group of fat actors, mostly women, to play the roles of the Fat Acceptance Group. He asked them to discuss topics pertaining to living in fat bodies, and filmed a day’s worth of these discussions. While, unscripted much of the dialogue is done in character. But the improvisation makes many these conversations feel these true and authentic. The footage is used throughout the film. The opening credits play over the first scene, a room of fat people of different races and ages sitting in a room discussing the meaning of the word “fat”. The group consists primarily of women, but at least two fat men are present. One woman talks about growing up hearing the word, “gordita” (fat or chubby in Spanish) and believing it to be a positive thing, but then feeling differently about the word as she got older. A black woman speaks about reclaiming “fat”, in the way black people reclaim the “n word”.
The spirited discussion pauses as the protagonist, Lydia, announces that she is starting a Fat Acceptance Walking Group. At that same moment, Darcy, a thin woman enters the room. Members of the group stare at Darcy at with pursed lip and furrowed brows as she takes an empty seat in the back. Lydia continues to discuss her idea. She describes her group as a “non competitive, low pressure, non judgmental, atmosphere” where “anyone can walk as little or much as they like.” I believe Disfigured (2008) predates Fat Girls Hiking. But the group Lydia creates is similar. Fat Girls Hiking group is based in Portland, Oregon, but chapters are opening all over the United States.
Nobody in the group shows the slightest bit of interest or enthusiasm in Lydia’s idea. Carol, the group leader, asks, Lydia “Are we doing weight loss now?” A woman named Pam chuckles then tells Lydia, “You can’t just slap a fat acceptance sticker on whatever you’re trying to make acceptable. Like low carb shampoo.” Pam describes exactly what companies today are doing when they try to market diet or weight loss products as body positive. Or when thin social media influences try to brand themselves as body positive without understanding what the movement represents. But that is not what’s happening here. Lydia is trying to create a safe and accessible walking group for herself and other fat people. She says that doesn’t feel comfortable in public gyms. Alice, another group member, interrupts her and says, “That’s like saying the Jews didn’t feel comfortable at the Nuremberg Rally.” (I would consider that a false equivalency. )
I am young and relatively new to the body liberation movement. Most of my interaction has been online. I am sure this is a discussion that’s taken place in, Fat Acceptance circles. Exercise can be a sensitive topic, because it’s something diet culture deems compulsory. Body Positivity, Body Liberation, and Fat Acceptanc are about individual autonomy. Having a thin body does not make you a better person. Being healthy does not make you a better person. Most people do indeed aspire to be healthy, but they don’t owe it to anyone else to pursue health. But for the most part, the Fat Acceptance and Body Liberation movements want to make all spaces and all activities accessible to people of all sizes.
Carol tells Lydia, the purpose of the group is to fight the discrimination and exclusion fat people experience. She implies that Lydia’s fat walking group is somehow in opposition to these goals. Carol is a straw man. She is meant to be an outrageous, exaggerated portrayal of the Fat Acceptance Movement.
Carol’s focus shifts to Darcy, and asks, “Can we help you with something?” Darcy responds she was hoping to join the group. Pam gets straight to the point, “But this is a fat acceptance group, and you’re not fat.” Darcy introduces herself as a recovering anorexic. She explains that she views herself as fat, and feels constant pressure to lose weight. She confesses that she hopes to learn to “accept herself as fat”. Darcy says she is effected by the “same cultural conspiracy”as the members of the Fat Acceptance Group. She begins to spout statistics. “Three quarters of American women are on some form of diet, and yet every single study shows, not only is dieting harmful to you body but it simply doesn’t work…There has to be more than one kind of acceptable body! We have to celebrate our fat!” Out of context what she says is valuable, but she is clearly appropriating the phrasing from fat activists.
Carol chuckles a little, and then explains to Darcy her group is an activist group for fat people, (“not just for anyone who wants to use us work out their personal issues”), then asks her to leave. Darcy nods and heads for the door, until Lydia asks Carol if there is a weight limit on group membership. Carol instructs the group to vote by show of hands whether “Darcy’s issues are [appropriate] to the agenda of this group”. Everyone, with the exception of Lydia, votes for Darcy’s dismissal. Carol speaks to Darcy in a condescending tone, but in this particular case, I understand where Carol is coming from. All of the emotional labor, and sometimes hand holding, that goes into to educating people about your oppression can be exhausting. And in any movement, there are privileged people that speak over oppressed people, and take up both physical or metaphorical space in a discussions. Darcy, to her credit, leaves when asked. The film tries to paint Carol as in the wrong here. But truthfully, Darcy tries to co opt a movement that was not meant for her. She was stepping into a space made specifically for fat people, and hoped that she could work on her own body image issues. Of course, there should be body image groups open to people of all sizes. But the Fat Acceptance Group, as Carol stated, pertains to Fat Activism. And while Darcy is is struggling in a significant way, her’s is a completely separate issue. There is a difference between struggling internally with your own body image and being marginalized by society for your size. It was appropriate for the group leader to ask her to leave. If Darcy had instead come to the group with the intention of being an ally, her presence may have been appropriate. It would be different if Darcy came into the group and said, “I am not fat, but I want to know how I can help spread Fat Acceptance”. But Instead, she said, “We have to celebrate our fat!” It’s also important to remember that marginalized people need spaces of their own. Often groups are designed only for women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ people, specifically for the safety and comfort of the members. When it comes to certain mental health issues, groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have both open meetings- for anyone who wants support those in recovery-and closed meetings only for those in recovery. Carol’s group is meant to be for fat people only, but there are numerous groups and organizations who welcome allies. Both types of group have their place. This movie does not focus on Darcy as a thin ally. The director did not seem to have that awareness at the time of writing the script. But throughout the course of the film, Darcy still manage to find ways of supporting the Fat Acceptance movement.
Darcy and Lydia meet for the second time before the first walking group. Darcy thanks Lydia for “standing up for her” at group, and tells her she thinks the walk is a good idea. She offers to help promote it, but Lydia declines her help. Darcy manages to persuade Lydia to take her number so she can help get her in touch with a graphic designer. She does not stay for the walk, because she realizes her presence may make others uncomfortable. Only one other person show up, a young man named Bob. After the walk, he initiates a discussion with Darcy about casual sex.
The next time Darcy and Lydia meet up, Darcy shares with her a logo designed specifically for the walking group. Lydia asks Darcy, “What do you want from me?” Darcy insists she just wants to help Lydia promote her walk. Darcy remains suspicious. (“What am I? Some kind of project for you or something?”,”What is it, with you trying to hang out with fat girls? I’m not some sort of accessory…”) Darcy expresses that she wants to be friends with Lydia, but that she finds befriending other women difficult. Lydia levels with her and thanks her for helping. Darcy does not appear to have any friends. Her life consists only of her job and her eating disorder behaviors. It makes sense she would continue reaching out to someone who was kind to her. What does not make sense to me is why Darcy went to the Fat Acceptance Group in the first place. I am assuming in Venice, California, there are probably several eating disorder support groups Darcy could have chosen from.
In the second meeting of the Fat Acceptance Group, Carol brings Lydia’s walking group to the forefront in order “resolve” it. Lydia pleads her case, sharing that one one of the priorities of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), is “fitness at any size.” Carol retorts that her group is not NAAFA. “I am not letting it devolve into a bitch session about how we all feel. We are not a self help group, we are here to get a screwed up world to accept us. And every time we talk about what we need to change, we are muddying the water.” Carol is speaking out of anger here. But from listening to the conversations of group members in other parts of the movie, I would argue the group is a support group, and that many of the members do discuss their feelings in group. Gwen, the woman sitting next to Lydia asks, “What about accepting ourselves?” Carol responds that if a group member is struggling to accept themselves, they have internalized the prejudice. Rather than acknowledging that everyone internalizes prejudice to some degree, she speaks as if doing so is inherently wrong. Carol tells Lydia, in front of the entire group, “You are trying to change your bod..and that is self-hatred, plain and simple.” It is true that Lydia struggles with her body image in this film, and later engages in some unhealthy behaviors. But the fact remains, she is advancing Fat Acceptance by creating a walking group for fat people. Carol, as a straw woman, only sees Fat Acceptance in black and white. Rather than encouraging people to define health or fitness for themselves, Carol rejects it as a whole. This sends a harmful message about Fat Acceptance, Body Liberation, and Health at Every Size. (Carol is to fat activism, what these straw feminist characters are to real feminism.)
There is a bonus feature on the DVD where the writer and director explains that the fat acceptance group in the movie does not represent the truth of the fat acceptance movement. Glen Gerr never uses the term “straw man”.” But he openly states that in order to create conflict in the film, Carol takes it “too far”. He recommends the book, “Rethinking Thin” by Gina Kolata, which was instrumental for me in learning about health at every size. The “About Fat Acceptance and Eating Disorder” Featurette includes interviews with Dana Schuster, the president of ASDAH (Association for Size Diversity & Health)at the time the film was made, Psychologists Deb Burgard and Ellyn Herb, and Lisa Tealer, who was a board member of NAAFA (The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) at the time.
A film should speak for itself. But seeing this featurette, the deleted scenes, and the audio commentary changed my perception of this film.I strongly encourage people to purchase or find a copy of the DVD so you can view the bonus features, both for educational and entertainment purposes.
At the second Fat Acceptance Walk, Lydia is surprised that five new people have joined. They include Gwen, from the Fat Acceptance Group, and a sweet older couple that tells Lydia they’re looking for things to do together now that they’re retired. (These two in particular reminded me of people I met at Fat Girls Hiking.) Lydia realizes Darcy has been hanging up flyers and business cards around the city. After the walk, Lydia calls her to thank her for helping to promote the walks. Darcy refuses to accept any money for the materials, stating the graphic designer made them for her as a favor. To make conversation, Darcy asks Lydia about Bob. Lydia opens up to Darcy about the hints Bob has been dropping about wanting casual sex. This is when the two of them begin to bond.
Lydia and Bob do decide to have casual sex. There is a tasteful, thoughtful, sex scene of interlaced with dialogue scenes of the Fat Acceptance Group. The discussion segments are more of the authentic dialogue between the cast members about sex and intimacy while living in a fat body. Most of it comes from women, but one man speaks on the topic. My one disappointment with this was all of it came from a heteronormative perspective. The film does not include dialogue about queer sex or relationships. But is so rare in film to see the sexuality of a fat person portrayed as anything but comedic.
Immediately after sex, Bob reveals that he’s having gastric bypass surgery, and this drives a wedge between them. In my opinion, this is where the film took on too many issues. The director wanted to explore several topics pertaining to weight and body image, but I think the weight loss surgery was one too many. There is enough going on between the Fat Acceptance Group, Darcy’s Anorexia, Lydia’s body image, and depicting pleasurable sex between fat people.
The next morning, Lydia begins to do her own research weight loss surgery on the internet. Darcy calls Lydia to say “hello”. In the audio commentary, Staci Lawrence, the actress who plays Darcy, notes this is the first time Darcy calls Lydia, as a friend. Lydia asks Darcy for feedback. Darcy is strongly opposed to weight loss surgery. She tells Lydia she is beautiful the way she is. At the end of the call Lydia, thanks Darcy for “talking her down.” In the very next scene, Lydia comes to Darcy’s apartment. She asks Darcy for “Anorexia Lessons.” (“Just tell me what you do and how you do it”.) And appropriately, Darcy responds, “This is a very fucked up thing you’re asking me.” Over the course of one conversation, Lydia wears her down. Darcy asks Lydia if “Anorexia Lessons”are what she really wants. Lydia responds that she needs to know that she tried all of her available options. Even though, Darcy had just finished talking Lydia out of weight loss surgery, she agrees to the “lessons.”
Lydia gives Darcy permission to abuse her, and Darcy shows no mercy. Darcy says terrible things to Lydia. But as a framing device, this is a way to get inside the mind of a person with Anorexia. While not ideal, it is informative for people who have not experienced eating disorders first hand.
Lydia and Bob break up, and this pushes Lydia to her breaking point. Lydia calls Darcy, the way you would a 12-step group sponsor. Only in this case, Darcy is Lydia’s Pro Anorexia sponsor. Lydia admits when she is upset, she would normally eat. While Lydia never states it outright, it’s implied she’s referring to emotional eating. But we also need to keep in mind, Lydia has been adopting Darcy’s Anorexia “tips” and has been restricting. Lydia tries to distract herself, but ends up binging, and lies to Darcy about it. Darcy catches her in the lie. She shows up at Lydia’s apartment unannounced. Lydia has decided to quit her pursuit of Anorexia. But Darcy encourages her to keep going. (“So you’re just a hopeless loser? What are you afraid of?!”) Darcy offers to spend a few nights at Lydia’s to get her back on track. Lydia describes it as a “weight loss fatal attraction.” Darcy notes that Lydia eats the most when she’s at home alone, and tells her she will be there to watch her. Darcy might be undergoing some form of power trip. Maybe Anorexia is the one thing she’s truly proud of, and she feels accomplished in being able to “teach”it to someone else. Perhaps she doesn’t want to be alone in her misery. When Lydia questions why Darcy wants to start staying with Lydia to watch her, she describes herself as “socially r-word”, and states she doesn’t know how “normal people” interact. She encourages Lydia to “take advantage” of the opportunity. Watching the film, it seemed intrusive and controlling. There is a deleted scene in which Lydia thanks Darcy for coming over, which makes this seem more consensual.
Darcy continues to coach Lydia, even after Lydia says she wants to stop. But Lydia pushes Darcy to confront issues she isn’t ready to deal with. And that’s not okay either.During their sleepover, Darcy finds an old photo of Lydia and a friend. Lydia reminisces about her high school friend Susie, and how they used to “binge” together. She also refers to it as shopping and then “pigging out”, which honestly, sounds like normal behavior middle class and affluent teenaged girls. It’s strange to call it binging. Lydia tries to entice Darcy to binge eat with her. Darcy completely shuts down and closes herself off. For some reason, Lydia is extremely hurt by this.
Darcy experiences a great deal of discomfort around the topics of sex and food, and Lydia is disrespectful of this. Or at the very least, that is my reading of their last two major scenes together. I had hoped the movie’s commentary would help me to understand the final conversations between Darcy and Lydia better. But I still don’t understand. I don’t know a lot abut the process of film making, but the director explained more dialogue was filmed between Darcy and Lydia, and then a significant portion of it was cut. And in these last two exchanges, that really shows.
It is true that opening up may help Darcy to heal. But Lydia shouldn’t be forcing her to. The day after their sleepover Lydia shows up at Darcy’s apartment unannounced. And she completely tears into her. I am not sure if Lydia is upset that Darcy is grossed out by binge eating, grossed out by sex, or the fact that she seems unwilling to make any progress towards recovery. Maybe it’s a combination. From what I could tell, the director and the cast are on Lydia’s side, and this is troubling to me. While I understand Lydia’s frustration, I don’t understand why she tries to force Darcy to do things she is not comfortable with.
Lydia and Darcy have one more scene together where Lydia comes to Darcy’s work. She apologizes for saying hurtful things, and Darcy states that the things Lydia said were true. (Which I have difficulty following, because I still don’t fully understand what Lydia was trying to call her out on.) Lydia says that she wants Darcy to let out her feelings, but Darcy insists it doesn’t help her. Lydia says she wants to help Darcy, but Darcy insists she cannot be helped. Eventually Darcy breaks down, screaming and then crying. Lydia tries to comfort her. It’s raw. It’s powerful. But I don’t understand why Lydia pushes her to this point, rather than encouraging her more gently. The film focuses more on Lydia than Darcy. But the implication is, Darcy reaches out because she needs to open up to someone. Even if that person follows her around, screams at her, and disrespects her boundaries. Both women infringe upon boundaries. Throughout the film, Darcy does talk about how years of therapy and superficial caring from her parents could not heal her. The idea of Darcy needing love and compassion from another woman has validity. But I wish the film let her come to that conclusion on her own.
The movie ends with Lydia starting her own body image group, for people of all sizes. It makes sense that Lydia feels better in a size inclusive body image group, than she did in the fat activist straw man group. But I feel like the movie sort of positions these groups in opposition. As if Lydia’s group is the right way, and Carol’s is somehow wrong. Darcy does not attend Lydia’s group. But she does call her old doctor to schedule an appointment, which implies that she is contemplating recovery.