Laura Schwartz reviews "Victoria’s Big Fat Documentary", 21 July, BBC 1
New Labour, Heat magazine and Weightwatchers are all united in their enthusiastic support for losing weight. As a result, the quest for thinness has acquired an almost moral quality. Conversely, being over-weight is equated with greed, laziness and stupidity — with being a bad person. Victoria Wood’s Big Fat Documentary showed how this obsession with food, eating and dress-size has permeated our national and individual psyches.
Through interviews with celebrities, executives of dieting companies and the dieters themselves, Wood challenged the consensus and asked whether being a bit plump and enjoying our food really was so bad after all? In doing so she revealed the extent to which standards of beauty, particularly the holy grail of thinness, have become a disturbingly powerful tool of social control.
Wood was motivated to make this programme by her own experience of being a “larger” woman in the public eye. And indeed, what was most striking about her Big Fat Documentary was the way in which it showed how women’s lives are effectively policed by pressure to achieve an unrealistically low weight.
Newsreaders, TV presenters and actresses spoke in matter of fact tones of how their otherwise successful lives were dominated by constant dieting, binge eating and self-starvation. They had all experienced vicious attacks in the media for putting on weight.
Anne Diamond described how, when her appearance in Big Brother prompted endless discussions in the tabloid press on the size of her arse, she felt as though she was being punished for simply getting older and a bit bigger.
For these women, maintaining their ideal weight was not simply a matter of taking pride in their appearance — like brushing their hair or ironing their clothes — but had far more profound psychological implications. Eating a second pudding or putting on a couple of pounds resulted in a deep sense of shame, guilt and self-loathing. Becoming a size 8 was also about becoming a happy, successful woman in control of her life.
It was not only celebrities who thought this way. Wood asked one teenage girl, who couldn’t have been more than a size 12, why on earth she was spending her evening at a Weightwatchers class. The girl replied that although she knew she wasn’t overweight, she just wanted to be thinner. “I know I’ll never be as slim as those girls in the magazines,” she sighed wistfully, “but I feel I should just keep trying.”
The Big Fat Documentary highlighted the paradox of a consumer society that so values thinness and yet continually bombards us with opportunities and exhortations to buy and devour fatty fast food. As a result, though we may strive ever more to get thinner, as a population we are in fact getting steadily fatter. In searching for the reasons behind this no-win situation, Wood tentatively pointed to consumer capitalism.
Wood began binge eating at university, as a lonely and homesick teenager who decided it was safer to stay in her room and eat than to attempt to negotiate the big wide world. Wood argued that isolation and atomisation prompts us to seek comfort and company in food, whilst dieting allowed us to feel part of a community working towards a common goal.
There was one aspect of the dieting/ fatness obsession that Wood did not fully examine — that of class. In the US fresh fruit and vegetables are far more expensive to buy than the numerous low-priced fast food alternatives, whilst opportunities for exercise are increasingly limited to those able to afford gym membership. Unsurprisingly, obesity is a problem which disproportionately affects the lowest economic groups. The fear and revulsion of fat people found within American society is therefore inseparable from anti-working class sentiment.
Britain is also guilty of such attitudes. The TV programme You Are What You Eat features an emaciated middle-class “dietician” scolding predominantly working-class women for feeding their families ready-meals instead of home-cooked organic food. Whilst the audience is ostensibly encouraged to feel disgust at the contestants’ “poor diets”, what we are really being told to do is express our distaste for “poor people”.
Having drawn attention to the unsettling extent of body-fascism in our society, Victoria Wood’s suggestion that it was okay to enjoy a cream cake once in a while, appeared depressingly radical.