Weighing In: Fitness Films and Ordinary People

When fitness celebrities turn fat folks into fitness celebrities in their own image, self-preservation and betterment are eclipsed by the value of self-promotion. Remember the subjects undergoing these life-changing metamorphoses are “real” people.

Vegetables don’t have it so easy, these days. Weather is threatening, acreage is shrinking, and in many of the most fortunate places on earth, people just aren’t consuming the healthiest of foods. Though there are several products, commercials, and programs devoted to weight loss and healthier lifestyles, the media at large aren’t exactly doing much good in reversing the negative trend.

In fact, recent months have seen several instances of vegetables being used within media as a metaphor for undesirable options. As federal law enforcement agent Luke Hobbs in Fast Five, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson requests bad news and spawns a catch phrase: “Give me the damn veggies.” Within film criticism, The New York Times’ Dan Kois writes a popular essay, , "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables", which airs his reluctance to indulge in certain slow-moving art films (29 April 11). Most high profile of all is President Obama’s public admonishment that we need to “eat our peas” and make difficult choices in the debt limit debate.

Vegetables: If wrestlers, writers, and politicians are united against you, who can be for you?

Joe Cross -- that’s who.

As writer, director and star of documentary Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead (2010), Joe pushes back against the anti-veggie rhetoric and lifestyle with a crusade that might be mistaken for a soul-saving campaign. By documenting his quest to get people to “reboot” their lives, the exceedingly confident Cross creates a conflicted new strain of weight loss/self-betterment media. Although the content of Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead is superficially similar to programs such as The Biggest Loser, I Used to Be Fat and Fat Families, the structure of the film is eventually more ethically sound by virtue of its late-breaking attention to the strength, potential and dignity of the ordinary human subject, and to the value of human interaction that supports and empowers physical transformation.

Ironically, at first, the film is all about Joe Cross, and viewers who cannot stomach what appears to be his bid for stardom might never see the film through to its satisfying conclusion. When the documentary begins, Cross is travelling through Arkansas trying to “find somewhere off the freeway, amongst nature” to enjoy his Thanksgiving lunch. Cross is Australian, and he sees America as especially in need of intervention. His solution for the USA is in his hand: it's a glass of juice.

Cross drinks juice for Thanksgiving and plans to go on a juice fast for 60 days in order to save Americans from themselves. This premise is full of potential ethical hiccups: On whose authority does he enact his plan? Is it safe? Who are these Americans that need to be saved, and why should he be their savior? Finally, if the goal is to help people reboot their health, then why bother investing resources in making a film? Mustn’t there be some ulterior motive? In its first half, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead steps into all of these trouble spots and then slowly works its way out of them, either by chance or by design (more on this later).

When we meet Cross, he presents his personal struggle with weight gain through a mixture of tacky animation, testimony from family and friends, and (most effectively) slow-motion footage of his bulkier self, walking around and then diving into a pool. By displaying this evidence of his own experience with obesity, Cross establishes some authority on “problem” side of the subject. He also recruits several doctors and nutritionists to testify to the value of his chosen solution. We learn that juicing “supercharges” one’s nutrient intake. As one professional says, the juice Cross drinks is “a quick potent source of healthy nutrients.”

From his perspective, not all doctors are equally trustworthy, as Cross also spends several minutes describing the degree to which doctors enabled his unhealthy lifestyle by pushing prescriptions on him to fix his various ills. Cross, who suffers from an autoimmune disease and associated rashes, seems to partly blame physicians for the fact that he’s taken pills for nine years in an attempt to get better. His epiphany arrived, he says, when he considered his childhood bumps and bruises: “When I scraped my knee as a kid… as long as I got out of the way… it just got better”.

This advice -- to step away from medicine altogether and embrace juice -- is a radical solution, but Cross somewhat balances the extreme approach by highlighting the importance of consulting medical professionals before and during a fast. What he doesn’t do nearly enough of, is take his own advice to get “out of the way” where the film is concerned -- a flaw that almost sinks the documentary altogether.

In a hosted fitness documentary of this sort, there is usually a star figure/motivator. Morgan Spurlock owes his fame to being the star and central subject of burger binge Super Size Me. He’s the sacrificial figure of that film, undergoing a self-imposed exercise in gluttony so that we can learn what not to do at the drive-thru.

MTV’s I Used to Be Fat follows a template established by that network’s Made series, which transforms young people’s personalities and lives over the course of a commercial-saturated half hour or hour block. The star of this format is the young person and his/her helpers, which in the case of I Used to Be Fat includes the trainers and coaches that help them shed pounds. On Sky Living’s Fat Families, “weight loss expert Steve Miller” plays the role of a flamboyant sociologist as he “moves into the homes of overweight families to help them shed their bulging bellies.”

Most crowded of all is NBC reality program/game show The Biggest Loser. Featuring an actress turned host, “fitness celebrities” Bob and Jillian, and in-your-face product placements from brands such as Subway and Ziploc, there’s barely enough running time and screen space left over for the ordinary people who are supposed to be at the center of the quest for fitness. Most active within the plot of the show are the individuals who fall into (or play to) character types that sell eyes to advertisers on formatted reality television. Heroes of impossible humility and villains of heightened hubris are the stars of the show. This format also has sequels. Sometimes, if a person gains the weight back after the season wraps, he or she can simply book another season.

So what are the competing values of such programs? On one hand, there is the honest claim to be in the business of transforming lives. Bodies and minds undergo extreme stress and emotion in order to arrive at a fitter state. Yet often lost in the transition is attention to what makes the stories inspiring to viewers in the first place: the notion that the subjects undergoing these life-changing metamorphoses are “real” people. In this process where fitness celebrities turn fat folks into fitness celebrities in their own image, self-preservation and betterment are eclipsed by the value of self-promotion.

It's within this clash of values that Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead nearly dies on the vine. The presence of actual ordinary subjects in the film calls attention to the degree to which Cross gets in the way of his own movie/message. There are a few person-on-the-street sequences, during which individuals open up to him about their eating habits and past failed solutions. From the beginning of the film, we’ve seen him cruising around in a Mercedes. We've heard about his investment-banking, day-trading glory days. All this evidence of his comparative wealth separates him from the lower and middle class Americans he approaches with his camera and microphone.

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