In a parade of undesirable questions, «Do you think I’m fat?» is often at the forefront. Some may sink silence in response, others may attempt to negate a claim presupposed in the question itself or even throw in a witty remark.
The documentary Fat Front (2019) directed by Louise Unmack Kjeldsen and Louise Detlefsen entertains the question and an array of possible responses: «Curvy? That’s fine for a snowman.» Hefty? «That gives me an image of myself as a boulder.»
The film recounts stories of four Scandinavian women – Helene hails from Denmark, Marte and Wilde from Norway, and Pauline from Sweden. Their fatness is what they have in common, along with a string of societal expectations they grapple with on a daily basis. The camera invites us into the women’s lives. It doesn’t linger on but stays long enough to fathom the complexity of their relationship with food and their bodies. Theirs are not shiny success stories of a triumph over societal opinions or of an ultimate acceptance of oneself no matter the size. Theirs are the stories of daily struggles on the path of (self)-acceptance, and that path is rugged.
Each of the women’s stories is entwined with one another, punctuated with videos of women dancing – some unclad, stripped of coverings and shame – celebrating their «big beautiful bodies.» Encouraging statements or comments, made on Instagram by proud members of the body positivity movement, appear on screen intermittently, accompanied by upbeat music.
Throughout the film, the women’s bodies are shown in full grandiose – fat rolls, sagging bellies, and puffy knees. The camera is probing yet never judgemental, evoking the fleshy beauty of Peter Paul Rubens’ fat nudes. For Marte, her reflection in the mirror invokes feelings of unfairness of living in a time dominated by a dramatically different beauty ideal. «I sometimes feel like a work of art,» she confides. «A beautiful painting gathering dust in a basement, and which no one looks at. It’s kinda…wasted.»
The film makes a bid to stir a conversation around fatness, which is admittedly intriguing, if not commendable. It ventures to do so by attempting to renegotiate the vocabulary around the issue, first and foremost. In that itself, the documentary could be an eye-opener for those who are not too familiar with the movement. The four women stand firm on the use of the word «fat.» Any alternatives, uttered by people for the sake of gentleness or PC, might as well defeat the purpose of the movement that fights for the representation of diverse body types and sees nothing wrong with being fat. Interviewed by a South Sweden Daily journalist at a «fat flea market», Pauline and the market’s co-organiser Mathilda express the need to reclaim the word «fat» that is «so full of shame.» «Fat» is «just an adjective» akin to «tall», she says, and it is not antithetical to «pretty.»
It would be false to say that Fat Front is representative of the fat acceptance movement, or that it speaks for it. Perhaps, if the documentary pursued that goal, it could have benefitted from seeking more diversity in the choice of its protagonists, giving a platform for those who are less privileged, who are not white or have other gender variations.
Theirs are not shiny success stories of a triumph over societal opinions or of an ultimate acceptance of oneself no matter the size.
The idea that fatness is a mere variation of the human body lies at the core of fat activism, and as Marte notes in the film one not «to require an explanation, a justification or an excuse» for their fatness. However, I am afraid that the directors’ decision to interweave the women’s experience of being fat with their stories of trauma might be misleading at best. And while I fully stand by the belief that trauma needs to be spoken about and understood, I fear that such a portrayal might suggest a link between the two or some sort of causation, which I reckon is not the message that the fat acceptance movement wants to send out to the world.
While the documentary may not speak for the fat acceptance movement, what it does well is to bring to the fore stories of the four fat women and their individual journeys on the path of learning to love themselves. It gives the stage to the four women to speak about their experiences as they «insist on existing» in this world, longing for a life that is divorced from judgment.
In the end, big or small, fat or thin – whatever shape or form one is, it is about their long-term relationship with their bodies, which so many continually disrespect. The film draws to a close, leaving you mulling over your own relationship with your body. We are never a «finished product,» as Helene rightfully puts it, and there is never going to be a point where you go, «There! Now I am the person I am supposed to be.»
So you might as well see the relationship with your body as both a romance and a partnership. At last, Wilde shares her excitement for all the future has in store for her, hoping that she will take her body out on adventures: «You and I will visit every continent. Experience waterfalls and love. We’ll have sex like never before – and get massages from the funniest people. We will walk in pride parades together – and we will celebrate ourselves and help each other through griefs. It will be my best friend, lover, partner. It’s me and the body together going forward in life.»