In the interests of full disclosure, writer/director Glenn Gers requested that I review his movie disFIGURED, and provided me a DVD copy of it. From the online trailer, I saw he’d made a very ambitious effort: the trailer shows a recovering anorexic woman (Darcy) being turned away from a fat acceptance activism group, then a friendship developing between her and one of the fat women from the group (Lydia), and Lydia asking Darcy for anorexia lessons.
Some nail-biting on my part ensued. I was prepared to laud the effort but rip apart the final product, because that’s tricky material to get right. I’m not surprised no one in Hollywood wanted to finance it: not only does it feature us boring women and our boring stories, it tackles issues that might (if mishandled by an interfering studio) bring a hoard of angry fat women protesting the studio, and if there’s anything that scares Hollywood more than women, it’s big women!
But this movie surpassed my expectations considerably. My only complaints are small… and they are covered thoroughly in a featurette on the DVD in which women who work in fat acceptance and anorexia recovery share their concerns after viewing it. They don’t believe a fat acceptance group would turn away an anorexic the way the one in the movie does (I picked up on that, too). They also brought up concerns that Darcy was too functional to represent how devastating anorexia really is, and the possibility that some people watching the movie might get the point of it and still want anorexia lessons for themselves. And they mentioned that the movie relates Lydia’s overeating to emotional problems, which is a stereotype they’re trying to break down. That’s all valid, and Gers acknowledges all of it in his introduction on the featurette. Since size acceptance is not the subject I’m most qualified to judge and it’s already been covered by people more expert than I, I’ll leave it there and move on to the topic I am qualified to judge: the movie’s presentation of women.
Most “issue” movies, including indies, seem to encode strong opinions from the creators, often with some arrogance, as if the filmmakers want to teach us peons the correct understanding of the issue. This one does not: it opens with women in a fat acceptance activist group – which is actually large actresses improvising with genuine thoughts and stories from their own lives – tossing out such a variety of perspectives and opinions that the movie instantly establishes itself as a conversation about size issues, not a lecture. Because of that, there are no meta-messages to criticize. The only message in the whole movie is clearly stated in dialog: love your body, right now, unconditionally. I agree with that message.
DisFIGURED may have a lot to say about size issues and loving our bodies, but it’s really a story about a female friendship, and that’s what makes it such a win. And it’s a complex friendship. Lydia and Darcy don’t instantly connect and become best friends forever – they only have one thing in common. The relationship is further complicated by Darcy’s mental illness. While Lydia is miserable about being fat, she is basically well-adjusted and enjoys food, sex, watching TV, dancing and laughing. But Darcy is incapable of enjoyment because anorexia is a psychiatric disorder that causes her every waking thought to be consumed by weight loss strategies and the horrifying perception that she’s fat. They don’t support each other perfectly because they don’t know what they need. But they struggle together. At the end, it’s unclear whether they’ll drift apart eventually or get closer as the years go by – just like in real life.
Darcy reluctantly agrees to give Lydia anorexia lessons. There’s no master plan here. Darcy isn’t cleverly planning for the lessons to turn Lydia off to anorexia. She seems to be genuinely trying to help her lose weight. But as Lydia soon learns, anorexia isn’t just a set of behaviors: what’s required to maintain those behaviors – which run counter to animal instinct – is a horrifyingly distorted, negative world view that a healthy psychology can’t maintain. She must obsess about every calorie she consumes, measuring and re-measuring every morsel she eats. She must learn to be disgusted by the slightest bit of flab on another woman’s body. When someone hurts her feelings and she wants to eat in response, she must instead do extra laps on the treadmill and tell herself that’s her revenge. Unfortunately, Darcy’s outlook is much closer to our culture’s view of women’s bodies than Lydia’s.
Perhaps there is one meta-message: Lydia is much closer to happiness than Darcy is, even though Darcy’s body is much closer to the look we’re told represents health and beauty. The standards we’re told to aspire to are not the ones that are going to make us happy or fulfilled.
It’s worth mentioning that Lydia develops a romantic relationship with a fat man (Bob). I don’t want to give away much about it, but I will say this: it doesn’t proceed predictably, it’s always on the sidelines as the friendship dominates center stage, and oh my god there is an actual fat sex scene! With nudity! And jiggling!
Because both Lydia and Darcy are so well-developed, I found myself relating to both of them in some ways and not in others (which I like). I had affection for both of them, which is not easy for a movie to establish with me these days (now that it’s not uncommon for TV shows to let characters grow and change over 20 hours a season, two hours just doesn’t seem like enough to engage my sympathies). When I watched the movie yesterday, it got me thinking at length about size issues and my own relationship with my body. But twenty-four hours later, what’s sticking with me is these two women and their very realistic friendship.