Miriam’s Big Fat Adventure review – Margolyes chews the fat on obesity
| Miriam Margolyes at bootcamp in the first episode of Miriam’s Big Fat Adventure.
The main takeaway and perhaps the only true insight to be gained from Miriam’s Big Fat Adventure, a two-part documentary, in which the actor and Great British Institution Miriam Margolyes set out to anatomise cultural attitudes to fatness and the rise of the body-positivity movement, comes in the opening minutes. “I’m happy with who I am,” says Margolyes. “I’m happy with my face, I’m happy with my life. I am disgusted with my body. I loathe it. If I could migrate the whole of my personality and face on to another body, I’d be delighted.”
It is a better indication than anything that follows of the depths of the tyranny of thinness. If this 78-year-old iconoclast and hogshead of talent squeezed into a pint pot has been unable to avoid internalising the absurd yet absurdly endemic social prejudice harboured against the carrying of excess fat, what chance do any of us have?
The programme suffered from the same problem faced by Kathy Burke’s similar series All Woman last year. Both squandered the gift of having a warm, intelligent and unusually direct presenter (though, unexpectedly, Margolyes seemed to pull her punches slightly throughout – both more than you thought she would and more than Burke did) by never really pulling it all together into any kind of overarching critique. Both women excel at drawing out stories from interviewees and commenting thereafter, but their programmes fail to create a sense of the systemic problems at work.
Margolyes started off with a visit to a health farm-cum-bootcamp run by ex-marine Craig and his wife Paula. Paula was one of the many people Margolyes met who associate their mental health problems (current or past) with their size and weight, though – in this first episode at least – the link between the two (correlation? causal? in which direction?) was barely addressed. Similarly, despite a plethora of decades-old remembered slights and comments – often during adolescence – that cut to the quick, the question of how much social attitudes aggravate the problem once it is established was never properly pursued. The segment where a psychologist researched the matter (which included one of his volunteers walking around town in a fat suit and returning to say nothing of any import whatsoever) was banal in the extreme.
One camp attendee – a habitual binge-eater at home – described the benefit of the place and its controlled environment as enabling residents “to realise what your body actually needs”. This was, effectively, a point about living in a modern, obesogenic environment and, indirectly, about who is responsible for creating and now for dismantling/resisting that. Do we follow the money and blame the (processed) food, sugar, corn syrup industries or the government and its regulations of these areas? Or does responsibility and culpability only ever lie with individuals and how much willpower they can or cannot muster in the face of temptation?
Which was a point – or points – surely worth picking up on. Especially later, when Margolyes was in conversation with body-positive activists who tend, amid valid denunciations of the cultural politics of being fat and the way fat people are treated, not to be able to deal so effectively with the scientific evidence of the physical ill-effects of obesity. The question of whether we can admit there is such a thing as a healthy weight (ie one that enables rather than hinders the smooth functioning of vital organs and allows the full range of bodily movement you might reasonably expect to deploy in an average day), while also rejecting the notion than anyone should be shamed, was not fully considered, as we teleported between ideas without ever tracing the possible routes between them.
But it was, at least, effective testimony to the Herculean task before anyone unhappy with their size in 2020. This was largely down to Margolyes’s honesty about her own feelings and experiences, and the time she spent talking to fellow camp attendees and the loved ones affected by their weight and/or disordered eating. Georgia’s mother in particular symbolised the grief and helplessness felt by anyone who has to watch someone they love behave in ways that make them unhappy but which are beyond external control. And, ultimately, there was a clear message: whether you learn to lose weight or to accept it, modern times, modern supermarkets and modern culture are not there to help.
Tags: Miriam Margolyes