June 10, 2014

Fed Up with the Tropes in Fed Up

Linnea Laestadius

Linnea Laestadius

Guest Blogger

Center for a Livable Future

wpid-fed-up-trailer-headerI finally made it out to see Fed Up this weekend. Slightly after the media hype has passed, but still pretty early for me since I rarely make it out to the movies. I followed a lot of the initial discussions about Fed Up on Twitter and they were already raising a lot of red flags for me. Unfortunately, the movie pretty much lived up to my concerns.

The movie obviously has a lot of positives, the most important in my opinion being the focus on advertising. I completely agree that advertising, particularly to children, is a significant barrier to healthy eating in the U.S. Having grown up in Sweden (which banned all advertising during children’s prime time in 1991), I still find direct advertising to children to be a bizarre practice. The corporate and legal landscape of the U.S. has made a similar ban much more of a challenge, so I definitely appreciate the attention that Fed Up gave to that issue. I was trying to remember the exact list of action items presented at the end of the movie and thought maybe their website would have it, but unfortunately not.  There’s no complete list and I don’t find any information about supporting policy reforms on advertising. The only action items on the website relate to a soda tax, school nutrition policies, and the 10-day sugar free challenge. Seems kind of weak for a movie that tries to present itself as focused on the structural causes of obesity rather than focusing on individual choices…

Which brings me to one of two primary issues with the film. It glosses over a whole host of established structural factors that we know contribute to poor diets. It’s easy to say that a home-cooked meal costs less than a pre-prepared meal, but where is the consideration of the time needed to actually plan a meal, go grocery shopping (assuming you can get to a grocery store), and prepare the meal? Where is the consideration of broader socioeconomic issues? The literature on obesity and body weight is voluminous at this point, but let’s take a recent example that I saw highlighted in the American Public Health Association newsletter this month. Luckhaupt et al (2014) found that “employment for more than 40 hours per week and exposure to a hostile work environment were significantly associated with an increased prevalence of obesity.” They also found that healthcare workers had a higher prevalence of obesity. This is much more than just advertising and sugar. This is about serious structural and justice issues in our economy. Issues that are not only largely neglected in the film, but also actively downplayed by Producer Laurie David in interviews promoting her cookbook (because what will solve our food problems is clearly another cookbook):

 We have a huge problem with diabetes, cancer, obesity, but the solution is doable, tangible, it’s right there in your kitchen. How empowering is that? The myths that surround cooking–it’s hard, you don’t have time for it, it takes too long–this is marketing brainwashing to sell more products.

In the same interview, sugar and corporate behavior is again stressed. I think these are valid points, although I’m not even going to get into the science on the distinctions between different kinds of calories.

One of the most disturbing things I learned in the making of this movie was that the industry and the government have known for decades that we were eating too much sugar. They predicted 30 years ago the obesity epidemic we’re in right now. Nothing’s been done about it. And that was before the explosion of the snack food industry, the explosion of sugary beverages, energy drinks, granola bars. It’s crazy.

But even if you do want to go in the direction of focusing on sugar and advertising, there’s a missing element. Corporations are inherently motivated to seek profit. While most public health professionals reject the idea that corporations are people, somehow we keep coming back to the idea that corporations like McDonald’s are bad actors for not voluntarily eliminating their Happy Meals and targeting of children. I’m much more inclined to agree with Leo Strine (quote below), Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court Review and a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance. Corporations do what corporations are designed to do, so why so much hand-wringing? We know what we need to do, and that’s either legislating the protections that we want or changing the system entirely. Fed Up should have talked a lot more about profit and politics to give a full picture of how we ended up here and how we might find our way out. Let’s talk explicitly about structural issues and not just how Congress was persuaded to think that pizza is a vegetable. Again, why is the only federal policy item on the Fed Up website about soda taxes?

 …we rent our garments in anger and chagrin when energy companies take environmental shortcuts in drilling for oil or mining coal, surprised that profit-maximizing firms have been less than optimally protective of the environment and their workers, that they did not go beyond what was simply necessary to ensure that regulators allowed them to operate… 

Although I am sympathetic to many of the sentiments and policy concerns that motivate these dismayed reactions, I confess to being weary of the naïveté they manifest.  More importantly, the continued failure of our societies to be clear-eyed about the role of the for-profit corporation endangers the public interest.  Instead of recognizing that for-profit corporations will seek profit for their stockholders using all legal means available, we imbue these corporations with a personality and assume they are moral beings capable of being “better” in the long-run than the lowest common denominator. We act as if entities in which only capital has a vote will somehow be able to deny the stockholders their desires, when a choice has to be made between profit for those who control the board’s reelection prospects and positive outcomes for the employees and communities who do not. (Leo Strine)

My second issue with Fed Up is the rampant fat-shaming. I had really hoped for something better, but within the first 60 seconds we already had countless images of headless fat bodies (you know what I’m talking about, the usual shots of torsos and lower bodies going about their business). Apparently we should all be very afraid of fat and fat bodies (Did you know it’s an epidemic?!?). I particularly appreciated the shot of Alana Thompson/Honey Boo Boo, because there’s nothing quite like fat-shaming 8-year-olds. Even if the movie repeatedly states that people are not to blame for their size because of corporate practices, that’s still an inherently stigmatizing framing of obesity. I also found the profiles of the obese children to be pretty exploitative. Capturing pre-teens crying about their weight certainly signals that we have a problem, but that problem is primarily that we have a serious issue with bullying and fat-shaming in the U.S. As pediatrician Harvey Karp, MD, said in the movie, ““If a foreign nation was causing our children to become obese, that’s going to affect their health and hurt their happiness, cause them to be depressed, have poor self-esteem—if a foreign nation were doing that to our children, we’d probably go to war.” Let’s be clear, it’s not obesity that is giving children poor self-esteem, it’s the way in which other children are socialized to view obesity. As per Puhl and Latner (2007), children share the stereotypes of obesity held by their parents. Teachers and educators are also highlighted as a source of weight bias against children. The authors also point out that “the health consequences common among obese children may partly result from the effects of discrimination.” By casting a large body size as something inherently problematic, films like Fed Up are a part of the problem. Quite frankly, it was brutal watch the young girl crying about her weight when I know people in the fat-positive movement who own their bodies in incredibly powerful ways (just search tumblr for fat positive). The Fat Body Politics blog has a great write up about concerns on this front as well.

To the credit of Fed Up, they did mention that people with BMIs that put in them in “normal weight” range can still be unhealthy. This felt like an afterthought, though, to be honest. It was a short segment in the middle of the movie, bookended by a focus on obesity on both sides. I had also never heard the term TOFI (thin outside-fat inside) before, although I’m definitely familiar with the concept. It strikes me as problematic to characterize it in this way, since it implies that thin would otherwise be healthy and turns fat into some kind of bogeyman. I think the whole film would have benefited from being framed around the association between diets and metabolic disorders/visceral fat (fat in the viscera, or internal organs), rather than playing into the obesity epidemic narrative. Not just to avoid fat-shaming, but also to really bring home the idea that it doesn’t matter what size you are. If you’re eating poorly (with appropriate analysis of why people are eating poorly, and what we might do about it) then you’re at risk.

Fed Up is definitely a contribution to the discussion on food in the U.S. I just wish it had been more mindful in how it framed the issue and a lot more comprehensive in its analysis of solutions.

This post is a slightly modified version of “Thoughts on Fed Up,” which appeared first on Linnea’s own blog.


  1. Thank you for your perspective! I just recently got around to seeing this film, too. My sister and I watched it together and walked away with different reactions, based on our existing knowledge bases. I already understood some of the basic structural issues that impact obesity from my studies at Hopkins and work with CLF and BFPI. My sister is incredibly smart, but still walked away with the point of view that everyone, especially poor people, needed to step up and eat better and avoid sugar. I brought up some things I learned during my SNAP challenge from comments on my blog about the advantages she and I have but might not recognize which changed her opinion slightly.
    While Fed Up did present lots of good information, there’s obviously a lot left out. I hope feedback like yours will inform the next food system documentary!

  2. Posted by Allison Righter

    Ver well said, Linnea! I haven’t seen this yet, but look forward to watching it at some point. Hope all is well with you!

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