Sunday, April 25, 2010

#55. Fat Head

I'm a big fan of testing my assumptions, so a skeptic's response to Super Size Me burned at me the more I passed it in the store, until it was essentially watch the film or internally combust. Comic Tom Naughton put together Fat Head, an independent documentary (2009), after vehemently disagreeing with most of the basic assumptions made in the former, 2004 documentary. In Super Size Me Morgan Spurlock goes on an all-McDonald's diet for thirty days--interspersing his ill-fated descent into McHealth Problems with commentary arguing that the fast food industry is a menace to healthy, informed society. After thirty days, Spurlock gained 25 pounds on the McDiet and saw a tremendous overall deterioration in his health; in contrast, Naughton makes the argument that having a functional brain, and using it, can turn even fast food into an effective weight reduction option. His challenge? To eat nothing but fast food for twenty-eight days, but to do so with a critical eye (and again, a functioning brain) and in so doing actually improve his overall health. To his doctor's great surprise, Naughton achieves this feat, but the thrust of this documentary is less the feat itself than a deconstruction a) of fallacy and contradiction in Super Size Me, b) bias, exaggeration, and outright dishonesty in campaigning on the part of anti-fast food advocates, and c) dieting theories and obesity epidemic discourses that have little to no demonstrable evidence to support their claims -- claims which have nonetheless become entrenched in popular culture over the past fifty years, and may perhaps have made our collective health worse in the process.

When I outline the case Naughton makes, I by no means intend to suggest that his documentary is somehow free of hyperbolic rhetoric, fallacy, misdirection, and some commentary that borders on plain old offensive. One example that particularly tweaked me was Naughton deconstructing the "obesity epidemic" language bandied loosely about, then noting that the U.S. population over the measured period of obesity growth also saw a doubling of African American and Latino American populations, and finally making the completely unjustified assertion that African American and Latino Americans were just genetically predisposed to being heavier. This is part of a consistent flip-flopping throughout the film between wanting Caucasians to empathize with the absurdity of obesity definitions and news footage targeting larger Caucasians on the street, then calling out the "obesity epidemic" rhetoric for being inherently classist and racist. Another such contradiction (plied, of course, for rhetorical effect), is Naughton's dramatic show of finding "health food" unpalatable before entering his twenty-eight day fast food diet, then near the end of the film, to give himself more authority when talking about the strengths and weaknesses of various diets, conveniently fessing up to having eaten such health food consistently for a period of three years.

Such contradictions and consequent hypocrisies (i.e. calling out Spurlock for contradictions and misdirections while employing a few of his own) are sadly par for the course in persuasive documentaries, but they need not be absorbed and replicated by viewers: It would be equally fallacious to condemn the whole of Naughton's film on the basis of heavy-handed rhetoric and frequent misdirections. Despite their presence in Fat Head, Naughton also makes a few exceptionally salient arguments, for which he surprised the hell out of me by providing a slew of evidence in varying forms. Having recently watched Food, Inc, I was also tremendously surprised to realize that a lot of what he was arguing for aligned itself pretty well with some core truths espoused by that more industry-critical film. Naughton's argument -- for individual empowerment, ownership of responsibility, and having faith in other individuals to make similarly sensible decisions (both for themselves and their children) -- thus works best when viewed as another piece of the greater puzzle that is human interaction with food in the post-industrial age. Naughton's not completely right with what he argues in Fat Head, but he's also not even close to completely wrong.

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