2020 has changed many things, including the way we look at our bodies. Anxiety and stress caused by COVID-19 has been linked to body image issues, with that anxiety manifesting in a greater longing for thinness; conditions like body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) have worsened in lockdown with the disruption of routines and our increased use of digital tools to see one another; and there has been a surge in demand for helpline services from eating disorder charities. With this has come a marked increase in fatphobia from all corners of society, according to fat people, who are subjected to disdain and abuse as people reckon with their own embedded fears around fatness. In fact, a recent study conducted by OnePoll claims that people in the UK are more concerned about gaining weight than getting COVID-19. This is emblematic of how fatness or weight gain is seen in the western world: as something to be feared and loathed based on how it changes your appearance, over and above real, documented threats to your physical and mental health.
Which is why it’s such a relief that the Barbican’s Emerging Film Curators Lab has led to a night of films called Reframing the Fat Body. The collection of thought-provoking short films from around the world explores and celebrates the fat body instead of shying away from it, shaming it or shunning it. Escapes from fat camps, fat pole dancers, radical collectives and a fat synchronised swimming troupe are all celebrated on film – a medium that still ostracises or tokenises plus-size bodies.
Reframing the Fat Body has been put together by Grace Barber-Plentie, a film curator, one third of the Reel Good Film Club and the brains behind the Instagram account @fatinfilm. She says that the film night came from a desire "to see bodies like my own reflected on screen". We spoke to her about the night, why it’s easier to celebrate others even when you reject your own body, and the government’s misguided policy on obesity.
Why was centring fat bodies and only fat bodies so important for this project?
As with much of the programming that I do, it initially started as a selfish act – and by that I mean that I was striving to see myself and my body reflected on screen. I think it says a lot about film programming that showcasing fatness is still considered radical, or even taboo. We're all for supporting films that have fat actors in if their fatness is coincidental and isn't mentioned or politicised, but I think we could definitely be doing more to actively promote fatness and body positivity.
Why do you think people continue to shy away from the reality of living in a fat body?
I think it's easier to look at someone like Lizzo and go 'Wow, she's so brave, look at her living her truth' than look in the mirror and feel the same way about your own body! I'm certainly guilty of that – I love to praise and support fat people while struggling to accept the way I look 100% of the time. It's also difficult to think about the realities of fatness because other than people like Lizzo (who by the way is constantly bullied and talked about in the most disgusting ways online), we still need more real mainstream fat people putting in the work and actively talking about fatness.
What do you hope straight-size people will take from this?
There's no one way to think about fatness! I've called this programme 'Reframing the Fat Body' because it presents fat bodies – and the people that inhabit them – in so many different circumstances. We have synchronised swimmers, pole dancers, models, mothers and children... As I said earlier, this definitely isn't a programme that's made for straight-size people – I made it with myself in mind. But I hope that they're able to see fatness the way that I see it, even if just for the duration of this screening.
More importantly, what do you hope plus-size people will take from this?
I hope that they see it as encouragement, and a reminder that we are beautiful and incredible!
How do the films you’ve curated show the ways the world literally isn’t built for fat people?
I think like all people of 'marginalised' identities, it shows that fat people have had to carve out space for themselves. But actually I think that this programme shows that the world can be built around fat people – for example the films that show people doing physical activities don't necessarily show any allowances that need to be made for them. The film Dangerous Curves shows that a fat Black woman can pole dance as easily as a straight-size person. But Roz Mays carves out a section of the pole dancing community and makes it her own, and fills it with people who reflect her lived experiences.
Based on this film series what does an ideal world look like for you?
Firstly everything that the UK government have been trying to do with regards to 'obesity' this year needs to stop immediately. It's serving nobody, and making fat people feel like they are being scapegoated and picked on simply for the way that they look. I wish that people would separate fatness and health – as I keep seeing, we can be synchronised swimmers and pole dancers at any weight! I'd also like there to be more intersectionality when it comes to fatness – more fat queer representation, and more fat POC representation, etc. We can't keep letting people like Lizzo do all the heavy lifting!