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Gender + Sexuality

‘You Don’t Give a Shit about My Health’: A New Doc Takes on Fatphobia

‘Well Rounded,’ directed by Vancouver’s Shana Myara, screens at this week’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

Dorothy Woodend 11 Aug

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Ample, full-figured, curvy, thick.

There are many terms that can be used in lieu of the word fat. But as director Shana Myara’s documentary Well Rounded makes evident, they all seek to soften the reality of living in a large body.

Well Rounded is screening at the 33rd annual Vancouver Queer Film Festival, which launches Thursday with features, shorts and panel discussions accessible online across the province, as well as some in-person events.

Myara, previously the festival’s artistic director, brings a no-nonsense approach to the subject of fat intolerance, helped along by a collection of powerfully outspoken people.

Mi’kmaq comedian Candy Palmater came to comedy after a number of other careers, including as a lawyer and civil servant. A self-described “queer Indigenous 300-pound menopausal woman” raised by bikers in the wilds of New Brunswick, she is equal parts blunt and funny, whether she’s telling a story about a horrific pelvic exam or talking about orgasms.

Palmater pulls no punches when it comes to fatphobia clothed in other people expressing mealy-mouthed concerns about her health. “You don’t give a shit about my health; my size offends you,” she says. “Let’s start there.”

It’s an experience that comedian Joanne Tsung is familiar with. As she says in the film, she came out as queer before she came out as fat. Her family was more concerned with her being healthy than who she was sleeping with, but in Asian culture food is love, she says, and feeding people is how you demonstrate caring and affection.

Lydia Okello was also looking for some form of validation that they didn’t necessarily get from their family. “I just wanted to know that I wasn’t weird,” they say in the film.

Growing up Ugandan-Canadian and one of the only Black families in their community, Okello looked to family to offer some sense that being large wasn’t something to fear. This is what Ugandan people look like, they were told, which didn’t really help.

Okello’s devotion to fashion was another complicating factor. The lack of inclusion, of not seeing themselves represented, made Okello question their validity in the fashion world. Finding a community of other people who were posting images of themselves online in cool outfits led to a sense of acceptance and ultimately joy.

Toronto-based performer Ivory Conover had dreams of being a fat ballerina but ended up finding a home in the burlesque world that she says could accommodate all of her different aspects: her talents and traumas, sexuality and humour.

Love and sex feature large in the film, but it’s not always straightforward, as Tsung’s story about being seen naked by another person for the first time makes clear. It wasn’t a romantic partner but a woman who worked in a waxing salon. In preparation for sex, Tsung visited the salon for some hair removal and ended up having a decidedly awkward encounter. It’s a very funny story, but it also indicates the complexities of romantic relationships.

As Tsung explains, when she started dating it was difficult to trust people’s intentions and be comfortable with the idea that they found her attractive. “Do you have an Asian fetish, are you a chubby chaser?” she wonders.

Palmater explains that being a lush lady who liked sexy clothes and bold lipstick didn’t always endear her to the local lesbian community that favoured boyish bodies and short hair.

Fatphobia is still a largely unspoken issue in the BIPOC and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities. Gym bodies for gay men is something of a cliché, but for queer women, the level of acceptance of alternative shapes and sizes would seem a given. But it’s not quite so simple: fatphobia remains stubbornly embedded, as the collection of trollish comments at the outset of the film make clear.

Author Jenny Ellison and associate professor Janet Tomiyama offer broader context around the issue of fat oppression. Tomiyama, who runs the DiSH (Dieting, Stress and Health) Lab at UCLA, notes in the film that her research into health markers around weight have also made her a target for the trolls.

“I don’t read the comments on any of my YouTube videos,” she says. “People can be really vicious.” Although health is often a convenient (and socially sanctioned) way to shame heavier people, Tomiyama’s work indicates that people with larger body mass can be perfectly healthy.

Stories about doctors treating larger patients poorly and assigning any condition they present with as a consequence of being overweight are common. Palmater’s story of going to see a gynecologist for a pelvic exam is a case in point.

Naked from the waist down, with her feet in the stirrups, she was uniquely vulnerable to a doctor who had all the bedside manner of a drive-by shooter. As Palmater says, she has no time for fatphobic health providers and punctuates her feelings with two raised middle fingers.

As Ellison says, a great deal of body shame originates in childhood, with the idea that being fat was the worst thing that could possibly happen to a person, hammered home with diets and restrictive eating. It’s a common experience for the women featured in the film.

“I remember the first time I thought about losing weight, I was eight,” says Tsung. Conover was going to Weight Watchers by the time she was 12.

Make no mistake, though: Well Rounded is not a depressing polemic about the last, semi-safe prejudice. Just the opposite in fact, though the film does suffer from some structural and pacing issues.

But in spite of its modest approach, there is a lot to be gained from its down-to-earth style. Drawn sequences from U.K.-based animator Alexandra Hohner add idiosyncratic charm but ultimately, it’s the stories of the women themselves — open, honest and unafraid to tell the truth — that are the most affecting.  [Tyee]

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