As fat activist Aubrey Gordon delivered a talk at her first ever book signing, her doting father Rusty turned and whispered to the person sitting next to him: “That’s my daughter.”
This tender, seemingly innocuous moment, which comes towards the end of the documentary “Your Fat Friend,” could have passed unnoticed without the gaze of a camera, but it is one laden with meaning. Rusty could barely bring himself to say the word “fat” when filming for the documentary first began six years earlier.
“My parents are the heroes of this film, without question,” Gordon told CNN of the film that is out now in Europe before beginning a tour to the US and Canada. “I’m sort of hanging out in mostly the same place and they’re all going on a journey.”
This space between Gordon’s activism, her willingness to lampoon the world’s reflexive anti-fatness, and that “big difference between where her family were,” was what immediately drew director Jeanie Finlay to Gordon’s story, she told CNN.
It is this gap, existing within a loving family, that allows Finlay’s movie to challenge the audience’s own perceptions of fatness as it documents both Gordon’s work for fat justice and her — at times — painful everyday interactions with her friends and family.
“It’s not a clean story of there’s a good guy and a bad guy,” Gordon said. “It’s sort-of like we’ve all been trained up to think we’re being the good guy, when actually we might be making life considerably harder for fat people.”
The pair first met in 2017, shortly after Gordon’s life had changed irrevocably. The community organizer from Oregon had written a letter to a thin friend following an argument about body image, and another friend who had been asked by Gordon to proofread it, suggested publishing it online. Gordon agreed on the condition it was published anonymously, and the letter went viral, accumulating tens of thousands of views.
Under the pseudonym “Your Fat Friend,” she began blogging anonymously, spotlighting these ways in which the world makes life harder for fat people.
Gordon wrote about the “intensifying” panic that accompanies boarding a plane; about receiving “qualified” compliments that are “congratulations for hiding unappealing parts of my body;” about “what it’s like when no one believes your body can be healthy;” about being “met with sidelong glances and open gawking” at the gym.
Filmed over the course of six years, “Your Fat Friend” traces this period in Gordon’s life as she drives around Oregon, pulling over to type out one of her essays when inspiration hits — “a fat lady in a tiny car,” she quips in the film with trademark wit.
But the movie also details the online reaction to Gordon’s writing — the abuse, death threats and doxing she suffered, alongside the messages of solidarity — before she reveals her identity after writing a bestselling book.
“The film for me is an act of visibility,” Finlay said in a recent post-film screening Q&A in London. “It’s about Aubrey being anonymous on the internet as a name. Then she is a face on a book jacket with a different name, then she’s a severed voice on the internet as a podcast host. And then she steps into a room as a whole person and her family sees her.”
Finlay’s visual storytelling highlights this too. The documentary’s opening shots depict Gordon swimming in outdoor pools, her body reflecting and refracting off the water as the camera’s lens wanders over stretch marks. It is neither voyeuristic nor glamorous, simply presenting Gordon in a matter-of-fact way.
“Just say fat,” Gordon says in an accompanying voiceover, reading aloud one of her essays. “Not curvy or chubby or chunky or fluffy or more to love or big guy or full-figured or big-boned or queen-size or husky or obese or overweight. Just say fat.”
‘Space for the audience to change’
But while Gordon is becoming increasingly publicly visible throughout the duration of the film, spreading her message of anti-fatness, her parents — Pam and Rusty — are in a different place.
During an awkward exchange in a hangar by a runway, Rusty cannot say the word “fat,” his attempts to sidestep it clattering around the space. Throughout the film, Pam grapples with the unintended consequences of sending Gordon to Weightwatchers camps as a teenager, eventually in a sensitive moment admitting that she didn’t think it would have any effect on her daughter’s weight.
Their own struggles with weight and body image are explored too, gently probing how the ways in which we see our bodies are passed down through generations.
“What I appreciate so much about the film is that it looks at the things that make life harder for fat people with just as much tenderness as it looks at fat people. There’s space for my parents to grow and change, there’s space for the audience to grow and change,” Gordon says.
At a Thanksgiving dinner, a family friend jokes about resetting the scales to take 25 pounds off its measurement. When Gordon’s father gives her a birthday cake, complete with a picture of her dog on the icing, he reassures her that it is sugar-free and the celebratory atmosphere deflates. They are ostensibly small exchanges but they pile up into something larger under the camera’s unflinching gaze which acts as an “amplification,” said Finlay.
“I’ve always been very much of the mindset that microcosmic filmmaking is a way to tell really big stories,” she says. “So really microaggressions or little tiny moments become much bigger. And those are the things that we make our day to day existence out of, not the big gestures.”
There are moments when the movie reaches beyond Gordon’s personal experiences, such as when she displays her collection of vintage dieting books or she records her popular podcast “Maintenance Phase” which skewers the more ridiculous aspects of the wellness industry.
But this is Gordon’s story for the most part, focused less on the social causes or consequences of being fat and more on the idea of the present moment, of unpacking the prejudices that fat people face in their everyday lives, and of living in a body without seeking to change it at every possible moment.
“We have an endless array of places to talk about how much you want to change your body and almost no places to talk about what it’s like to live in your body without angling towards change,” Gordon says.
And by focusing on Gordon, the movie blurs those lines between the personal and the political.
“I know the power of telling one person’s story that can spread out to align with the experiences of so many thousands of other people,” said Finlay.
Stories about fat people are still rare in pop culture and, when they are told — like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” or the 2001 movie “Shallow Hal” — they are often “filtered through the lens of stories that makes thin people feel better about themselves … usually at the cost of fat people,” Gordon said.
“It’s really easy to burn out from anger and frustration and isolation,” she added, “because as much as I would love to be heard by thin people in the same way I’m heard by fat people, I’m just not … People go, ‘Of course you say that you’re just justifying the way you look or whatever.’ It feels really important to get to tease out where all of that comes from and give people space to make a different choice.”
“Your Fat Friend” is screening in cinemas from February. Check website for details.
Add to Queue: Fat people telling their own stories
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