When I was a teenager, I was a goddamn rock star.
Okay, I wasn’t a rock star. But I sure as hell wanted to be one.
I practised guitar endlessly. I learnt all I could about music. I studied biographies of my musical heroes, hoping to stumble upon the holy secrets that made them who they are. I was going to reshape modern rock music.
Like every teenage rock fanatic, I poured over music magazines. In those mags there was one recurring peripheral, one staple featured in so many of the rock star promo shots peppered throughout their pages.
As an impressionable kid, the natural – yet dumb – natural extension of all this was that I ended up smoking like a chimney. Could that be one little cog in the mechanism by which a rock guitarist becomes a ROCK GUITARIST?
It didn’t matter. I looked cool, just like my heroes.
Skip forward another few years, and the desperate fight to quit smoking began. I’d learnt enough about the habit’s incalculable dangers, and was ready to do away with the damned things. It took many failed battles. I finally succeeded. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in eleven years, and – wouldn’t ya know it – I’m no less cool.
What’s this got to do with A24’s award-winning The Whale, or the body positivity movement?
Quiet, you. I’m getting to that.
Obesity is the fifth leading risk for global deaths, and is now a bigger cause of death in the UK than smoking-related diseases. The indisputable truth is that if you’re obese, you’re at risk. Before you bite my head off for stating that simple fact, I happen to be overweight. It’s a relatively new thing. It happened insidiously. Crept up on me. I’m doing something about it, but – as is now frequently the case in modern culture – you can only shed a critical light on something if you’re part of the gang in question. If you’re not part of the gang, you better just parrot the ‘accepted line’. I may not technically be obese, but I got my membership card to the overweight gang right here, so I’m just going to say what I want.
Enter: the body positivity movement.
Weight and body image became a cultural fixation in the latter decades of the 20th century, and truly went into overdrive as we dragged our feet into the new millennium. It was all getting a bit much, so a shake-up was needed. In stepped the body positivity philosophy to show us that you need not be ashamed of the meat sack in which you reside. That, in itself, is a bloody good message.
Then that got a bit much, too.
Fat (sorry, ‘ENORMOUS’, as per the less-offensive replacement advised by Inclusive Minds, the sensitivity reading company hired by Puffin to desecrate Roald Dahl) has become a fashion accessory, a designer thread, and even a notch on your victimhood bedpost. Wielded correctly, it can provide social capital, a metric of meritocracy, a reason to claim IDENTITY.
To others, it’s a curse. To still others, it’s something they make a conscious choice to accept and live with – a choice that absolutely lies with them.
Whether or not corporations, media players, and pop singers like Lizzo are glamorising obesity is up to you. What’s irrefutable is that the line between eradicating the demonization of larger body types, and flat out telling children that their obesity is something to cling onto, cherish, and never strive to do anything about, has been blurred. As with many progressive efforts, the body positivity movement comes from a place of compassion and has not been without a beneficial influence on society, but – again, as with many progressive efforts – its doctrine has become one of dogma, and nuance has been eliminated from the discussion.
Let’s look at what Lizzo has to say about choice when it comes to weight:
“I made a decision to be myself because I knew I had no choice.”
“Loving myself was the result of answering two things: Do you want to live? ‘Cause this is who you’re gonna be for the rest of your life.”
Personally, I wish Lizzo could keep showing kids that they don’t have to hate themselves for being obese, while still finding a way to educate them about the objective, measurable health concerns associated with being obese or overweight. Couldn’t she teach them that most DO have a choice, that you DON’T have to be like this for the rest of your life, and that you ARE in control of your own destiny?
Being obese doesn’t make you a bad person.
You shouldn’t apologise for your body.
It’s your choice if you don’t want to do anything about your weight.
You absolutely, categorically, UNCONDITIONALLY shouldn’t hate yourself for being obese.
Entertainers, influencers, and those who make a career from the body positivity movement have a responsibility to point out the medical risks that come with obesity. That’s not me speaking, that’s the CDC, who have stated that 78% of severely hospitalised COVID patients were overweight or obese. They also said:
“Beyond elevated risk for chronic disease leading to premature death such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, which themselves spike the probability of severe outcomes from COVID-19, obesity is a primary culprit in dangerous COVID cases.”
There isn’t a reputable health professional on the planet that will deny the dangers of extreme excess weight, or the serious childhood obesity crisis the world is facing.
It’s folly to deny that pop stars influence kids and even adults with every word they speak, every promotional pic they release, and every caption they write on Instagram. If Generic Popstar #542292 is muscular, they’ll encourage people to be muscular. If Generic Popstar #542292 wears a red top hat, they’ll encourage people to wear a red top hat. If Generic Popstar #542292 is obese, well, you get the picture. And let me tell you from experience that if Generic Rawk Star #91923 has a cigarette hanging out of their mouth in every magazine snap, every album cover, and every concert, you better believe that impressionable wannabe rock stars like teenage-Gavin is gonna start puffin’ like a chimney.
I sometimes think of all my fellow rock wannabes that weren’t able to kick the cigarettes. How many of them are no longer with us because a manufactured culture of rock ‘n’ roll excess used cigarettes as their calling card, an accessory of rebellion and free-spiritedness promoted to impressionable kids?
It doesn’t matter if it’s smoking or obesity. People imitate. Celebrities need to recognise their influence and act with some responsibility.
I love that our culture has made strides in showing people that they need not feel subhuman because of their body. I do worry, however, about our reluctance to accept the impressionability of kids and adolescents (and hell, even adults), and our seemingly flippant attitude towards the dangers that come part and parcel with obesity. Sometimes I worry that we’ve traded shame for narcissism.
Now, onto The Whale.
I wrote everything up to this point before actually watching the film. I indulged in confirmation bias. I knew the film was about a morbidly obese man, and assumed the dangers of his state were touched upon, so I decided to use this piece – planning to incorporate the actual film review after watching the movie – as a vehicle for my thoughts on the dark side of the body positivity movement.
It’s not that I was being insincere. I really did feel a great wave of relief that something was being released that didn’t revel in the supposed divinity of being overweight, that it might cast a little shade on the discussion, and remind movie-goers that there’s another side to the argument: obesity kills.
In truth, The Whale is one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.
Technically speaking, it’s typically Aronofsky-esque in the perfectly-framed shots, the structural precision, the colour palette, blocking, writing, performances. On top of this, it’s a genuinely endearing story, less a character study and more an ensemble piece, each character’s arc eventually connecting into a perfect framework that links all the players together. I wasn’t surprised when I learnt that it’s adapted from a play. It’s reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rope – also adapted from a play – a chamber piece, an enclosed telling where every character’s function is weighted carefully and crucially against the others.
The Whale is charming, captivating, funny, heart-warming, and devastatingly tragic. In Brendan Fraser’s Charlie, I’m reminded of the lesson I wish proponents of the body positivity movement would take some time to teach. See, Charlie is a loving, caring, selfless individual. His obesity doesn’t change that. But he IS critically obese. I’m talking time-is-running-out obese. You can acknowledge the beautiful soul of someone, celebrate their worth as a human being, while still accepting the inherent dangers of obesity. No one should be shot down for acknowledging this reality.
He reminded me of the importance not to demonise or judge someone based on their appearance. He also reminded me of the dangers facing around 770 million adults globally (according to the World Obesity Federation, who expect that figure to rise to one billion by 2030 unless we act soon) who are stuck in a rut of obesity, unable to free themselves from this quicksand, and who are told every day by people like Lizzo that they don’t need to change a thing about themselves – even as serious medical conditions close in on them.
The Whale is a reminder both of the ugliness and the beauty of the human spirit, of the body, and what can become of both.
It is a demonstration of how the constituent parts of a broken family each end up dealing with their own breakages.
It’s about someone trying to save a life before they lose their own.
Above all else, it’s about honesty.
I recently wrote a short piece on the notorious Roald Dahl edits – something many see as blatant, unforgiveable censorship. It was one of the first times I’ve actually expressed much of an opinion on my social media platforms, blog, and newsletter.
It felt good.
We now live in an unforgiving culture that punishes honesty. I’m aware that writers such as myself face risks when trying to establish themselves, and that straying too far from the party line can lead to pile ons, blazing torches at your door, and the swift burning of many a bridge.
“Think about the truth of your argument.”
That’s what Charlie implores his class when trying to urge them to write from the heart, to speak from the soul, and SAY something true to themselves.
My piece about the Dahl edits garnered a wonderful response. It reminded me of the importance of human connection, and that playing it safe can only bring you so close to the people with whom you’re trying to reach. It prompted me to start making plans for the future of my blog and newsletter, plans that will see me writing more honestly about topics I care about in an attempt to once again connect with YOU, and this essay has been one more small step in that direction. I intend to continue thinking about the truth of my arguments.
In summary, The Whale is a triumph.
So is the de-shaming of body types.
But fiction exists to shine a light on the ugliness of reality, as well as the beauty. Go see The Whale, this all-too rare and important reminder of the dangers of obesity, and think about the myopia of the message propagated by Lizzo et al.
Not all weight gain can be helped. Tragically, there are those whose obesity comes packaged in which other health conditions. To them, to you, and to myself, I say show yourself some compassion. Never hate yourself. Own your future to the best of your abilities, and think a little deeper about life-and-death issues. The lines fed to you from mainstream media outlets and popular figureheads are, all too often, tragically irresponsible.
Above all else, whoever you are, whatever you look like, love yourself.
And for fuck’s sake, watch The Whale.