Fat Chance

I recently came across the 1994 NFB documentary Fat Chance (dir. Jeff McKay), a feature-length film that follows Rick Zakowich, a fat man in Winnipeg, as he moves from a state of self-loathing to one of self-acceptance.

I was hesitant to watch the film, as I am with most artifacts from our culture that focus on fat. And the film does, of course, utilize stereotypical visualizations of fat that are so often seen in our culture. (I have also learned as a filmmaker who produces work on fat bodies that this is hard to avoid).

But, I was also so impressed with many elements of this film and Rick’s story.

Some of the things I found issue with include:

In the beginning of the film, Rick narrates that he grew up in an “ethnic” neighbourhood filled with lots of good food. Often, ethnicity and/or race are used as identifying markers for “problem” or “at-risk” communities in regards to weight. Ethnicity and/or race are often used by the state to identify or surveil these communities, including in public health campaigns and outreach initiatives. Many times, these communities are considered to be less-educated or ignorant by way of being the racialized ‘Other,’ and, therefore, must be unaware of the impact their different food choices have on the body weights of their families. This is especially true for immigrant families, where the reality of having been educated elsewhere compounds this racist response. The idea that Rick’s fatness is a direct result of the ethnic community he hails from only supports this process and encourages the attention and intervention of the state.

The film includes a few scenes of Rick attending doctor’s appointments and lots of b-roll of nurses pinching his fat, struggling to reach around his body to acquire measurements, and warning him of the risks of being fat. This is something we see again and again in the media. This trope is slightly redeemed when Rick challenges a doctor, who claims that if people were determined enough to lose weight, they would. He tells the doctor that he has tried to lose weight and was very determined but he didn’t lose hundreds of pounds. In fact, he says, the process has made him hate himself even more. The doctor gives a poor response that can be summed up as “well, be more determined then,” which leaves this scene feeling slightly underdeveloped. What does that mean? What more could Rick have done? Why were his feelings so easily dismissed by his doctor? Why does his doctor not seem concerned with Rick’s mental health, especially after a confession of self-hatred and self-loathing?

Rick talks about how his attempts to lose weight ruined his marriage. For reasons that are most likely only known to the production team, this is never explained further. Ignoring this statement leaves the attention or blame on Rick and his fat body, but many other explanations are just as possible. It is possible that Rick’s relationship with his body was toxic and not conducive to a loving relationship. However, it’s also possible that his partner could have been unsupportive, or abusive, or fatphobic. Leaving this confession as an isolated incident infers to the viewer that Rick ruined his marriage simply by being fat, and that is so dangerous.

Some things I took issue with, but wonder if it’s because these examples are part of the painful reality of being fat, include:

Rick expresses that he desires a sexual relationship but that he doesn’t think this desire is attainable. So often, fat people in the media confide that they feel unloveable, unworthy, and unattractive. Fat people are often considered to be asexual or hypersexual – neither of which are socially acceptable forms of sexual expression. While the inclusion of this confession foreshadows the romantic/sexual relationship Rick engages in towards the end of the film, I felt for him when he felt isolated from this important form of human connection. It was real, and common, and disheartening to watch.

Rick also mentions that sometimes he doesn’t want to leave his house due to his fatness. Being fat in our world really does feel like a daily lesson in humiliation. I didn’t blame him for feeling this way. I, too, have felt (and often still feel) this way. I kept thinking about how leaving the house is especially hard for fat people who may not have access to comfortable clothing, or clothing that makes them feel good. Think about a time in your life where you had to leave the house and you didn’t feel your best. Maybe you didn’t have time to do your hair or make-up the way you prefer. Maybe it was laundry day and you wore an outfit that doesn’t make you feel particularly attractive, or you had to wear pants that were too tight and hard to sit in. Imagine doing that every day because you have no other options. And then imagine that on top of not feeling your best, you also can’t sit comfortably in any public place.

Rick says that he doesn’t remember the last time he was happy. The unhappy fat person is all too common in media, but this is because it is all too common in the real world. Bitch magazine recently posted a great article on the problematic nature of this representation. Rick also doesn’t feel better about himself after losing weight, which shows how deeply entrenched the effects of fatphobia can be within the spirits of fat people.

Rick is absolutely hilarious, but this is a stereotype about most fat people. Fat people, especially when seen in the media, must be able to laugh at themselves and make themselves and their bodies the butt of any joke. However, Rick discloses that he uses humour in order to control the laughter that is directed at him, showing both the dark underbelly of fat peoples’ overrepresentation as comedians, and how comedy can be used to regain power that has been stripped from someone.

Rick mentions during a workout that the exercise bench he is laying on doesn’t fit his body. This also reveals a harsh reality of being fat: you’re expected to exercise and prove that you are actively trying to lose weight, and yet there are rarely affordable or accessible options for workout clothing and gear.

Things I liked about the film, include:

Rick talks about how he has been on diets since he was a kid, starting with taking amphetamines with the hope that these drugs would speed up his metabolism. He talks about how this contributes to weight cycling due to the permanent damage such drugs and messing with one’s metabolism have on the body. Rick talks about how if you’re fat, and sustainable weight loss was actually a possibility through drugs or surgery, most fat people would have jumped at the opportunity a long time ago given the pain and hardship fat people must live with. During a radio interview, he mentions both the effect of weight loss on metabolism, and that research has shown that 95% of diets don’t work. This is a statistic I discovered well into my graduate studies and if this was a known fact in 1994, I am amazed that this is still not common knowledge by now.

One of the people Rick meets and develops a relationship with is a man named Dr. Learner, who is also fat. This character shows that no matter what your education is, and no matter how much knowledge you have about the body and nutrition, you can still be fat. This disproves many myths of fat being a choice, a result of a lack of education, and the idea that if we knew more about food/nutrition/the body, we would naturally be making different choices that would result in thinness.

Rick has a touching and meaningful relationship with the children he works with, many of whom come from homes where they are exposed to domestic violence and abuse. Rick provides music therapy for these kids, including producing original songs meant to empower and inspire these youth during times of crisis. What an incredible thing to do. Rick is an extremely talented singer and frontman, and it was really neat to see and listen to him perform.

During a counselling session, a therapist asks Rick who he wants to be and he says: “I don’t know who I am. I’ve never really seen myself.” That resonated with me so hard. So often, fat people think they cannot achieve anything, be successful, or participate in something they want to do until they are thin. This means that as fat adults, so many of us don’t know what we like, what we prefer, what brings us joy, or what we’re passionate about, because our attention and energy has been focused on trying to transform our bodies before allowing any kind of self-discovery.

I LOVED when Rick calls out a reporter, to his face, for making numerous jokes about a fat athlete in a story about the athlete’s significant win. The reporter makes many cheap shots and utilizes many fatphobic puns before even mentioning the athlete’s impressive accomplishment, and he looks like an idiot while Rick points this out.

Rick ultimately starts a support group for fat men, which is an important space given that most attention on body issues is spent focusing on women’s bodies. While the western world’s “cult of thinness” is very much a form of gender oppression that is steeped in misogyny, fat men are not completely exempt from fatphobia and it’s important to hear their stories, too. While building his community, he goes to a conference and meets other fat activists in addition to nutritionists and health care providers who are interested in learning how to better support the fat people they work with. One activist at the conference tells Rick about how she took down all of the art in her apartment that wasn’t depicting fat bodies, which is something I have also done and personally equate with having developed a healthier sense of self within my own home.

Overall, I was inspired to find what ended up to be a small piece of Canadian fat activism from over two decades ago tucked away on the NFB website. I wonder what kind of conversations it inspired at the time. I wish I had seen it when I was a kid, but I’m still glad that I got to see it now.

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