2008-07-18 (Limited release)

“I want to talk about the word ‘fat.’ Why are we ashamed of that word?” As discussion begins in a Los Angeles Fat Acceptance Group, all kinds of ideas about bodies and communities, identities and words spill into sight. The camera pans the room, revealing faces filled with resentment, frustration, and anger — as well as hope. This is the reason they’re here, the women confirm, to discover, in their shared experiences, more constructive ways to feel about themselves and the people who judge them.

The first scene in Disfigured sets a focus and an agenda. While its story concerns the friendship between fat Lydia (Deidra Edwards) and anorexic Darcy (Staci Lawrence), they are not your average movie opposites who attract. Or rather, they are, but Disfigured provides both context and detail in order to complicate, and not trivialize, their relationship. From the moment when Darcy first walks into the group, seeking support for her own sense of inadequacy and pain (“When I look at myself, I think I look fat”), the women exchange glances and assumptions. Lydia suggests the group should not set a weight limit, but the group’s leader, Carol (Elizabeth Sampson), puts her foot down. “This is an activist group for fat people,” she says. “We’re not here to just let anybody who wants to use us to work out their personal issues.”

If it seems obvious that nothing could be more “personal” than body image, the investment here in maintaining boundaries, in claiming what used to be called a “safe space” for group members who can readily see in one another shared desires and experiences: they have been called the same names, they understand what it means to be stared at or looked through, to be perceived as deviant and weak. “A critical function of this group,” they agree, “is fighting the self-hatred that keeps us in the situation that we’re in.” Put that way, the group’s function seems suited to Darcy’s needs as well.

But Darcy is deemed untrustworthy, in part because she has the illness the fat women might imagine wanting, and in part because she can’t possibly understand what they feel. As Darcy and Lydia begin spending time with each other, they discover that, in fact, they have been accused of the same sorts of aberrations: one needs to eat less, one needs to eat more, but both their bodies are apparently fair game for any stranger (or concerned family member) to observe and evaluate. As both confess they’ve been told, “You have such a pretty face,” they realize how wholly they have absorbed others’ assessments (“What does that even mean?” they wonder, doubled over in laughter, at last).

Still, they learn they have different relations to their different bodies. When Lydia is solicited by Bob (Ryan C. Benson), a member of her newly initiated Fat Acceptance Walking Group, for sex (“He wants to be fuck buddies,” she explains, “No strings, no complications, just two people getting what they need, for medicinal purposes”), Darcy is taken aback, unable to imagine that sex might be pleasurable, in and of itself. “It all seems kind of smelly,” she sighs, intimating the distaste she feels for fleshy encounters of all sorts. Lydia embarks on the relationship, and the film offers a sex scene focused on their sensual, emotional delights, a scene that looks new because the bodies are not treated as objects of ugly comedy but instead as serious and charming subjects (this even if the climax is rendered in the most prosaic terms: entwined hands clutching at sheets).

What’s most intriguing in this subplot is what it tells you about identities and again, communities. When Bob informs Lydia that he means to have gastric bypass surgery, she’s startled and then skeptical, a reaction he takes as the same disapproval he’s heard from others. “Everybody is always saying how unhealthy it is to be fat,” he asserts, “but the minute I want to do something about it, people look at me like I’m a freak or something. It’s like I’m cheating.” Or worse, he continues, “Like I’m betraying the tribe.” Lydia’s stumped, being of mixed minds about her own body and the concept of “acceptance.” While she starts the walking group in order to get fit and yes, lose weight, she is, in spite of her self-awareness, immersed in the condemnatory culture that Bob references here.

Her own uncertainty and discontent lead Lydia to ask Darcy for “anorexia lessons.” Though Darcy is initially affronted by the request, when she begins to break down her addiction to food and the calories that become the abstract measure of same (“You have to count everything, you have to be accurate”), Lydia is stunned (“And I thought I was obsessed with food!”). Their fixations are opposite, of course, but they are equally damaging and equally molded by cultural pressures, where appearance is a measure of character, capacity, and morality.

Respectful of its subjects and their intelligent self-analyses, Disfigured doesn’t resolve all the questions it asks. But in Lydia and Darcy’s challenges to themselves and one another, it offers inspiring alternatives to a daunting status quo.

RATING 7 / 10