A little known 1960s girl group called The Fabulettes once sang that if you want to lose weight, all you gotta do is “Fall in love with a man that you can’t trust / One who won’t treat you right/ And while he’s out messin’ ’round / Worry ’bout him every night.” Those are real lyrics, from a real song called ‘Try the Worryin’ Way’ that plays from the phone of documentary subject Aubrey Gordon, the Portland, Oregon, author and podcaster who found a global audience writing about anti-fat bias under the pseudonym YrFatFriend. Gordon, as we’ll see throughout Jeanie Finlay’s documentary, has an endearing way of skewering diet-culture absurdities while revealing the harm they cause. The Fabulettes’ lyrics are no more ridiculous than the messaging we see in Gordon’s collection of retro diet books, which Finlay flashes on the screen in a montage reminiscent of Listen Up Philip (2014). One memorable 1980s cover – Help Lord… The Devil Wants Me Fat!, featuring a cherry-topped ice-cream sundae photographed as if it were under police interrogation – inspired the poster for this film.
We can laugh it off as archaic, but little has changed. Gordon points out that many of the books are just the shoulder-pad era versions of keto or paleo diets, selling ideas that are repackaged and peddled each decade, even though, she says, more than 90 per cent of diets fail to lead to weight-loss in the long term. Contemporary attitudes towards fatness – and by extension fat people – remain hostile. Gordon’s eloquent essays, from which Finlay extracts lines that pulse across the screen, speak of a world full of “physical spaces that never anticipated your size” – unusable theatre seats and refunded plane journeys. Even among friends, there is an accidental cruelty to be found in conversations where they ridicule their own bodies, discussing, as Gordon puts it, “how to avoid the horrible fate of looking like me”.
Finlay’s docs often deal in hidden identities – the Scottish rappers Silibil N’ Brains who swindled the music industry in The Great Hip Hop Hoax (2013), the masked singer Jimmy Ellis in Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (2015). Your Fat Friend was intended as a story of Gordon revealing her identity to the public, but the pandemic shifted the timeline, giving more space for Finlay to explore Gordon’s relationship with her parents – her mother Pam, maker of vibrant Paul Klee-ish paintings, and father Rusty, a laconic but loving pilot who left when Gordon was a teen, emerge as key characters. Finlay takes her time teasing out of them conversations that lead to quiet revelations. When told that Aubrey felt watched while eating growing up, Rusty responds – “I know she did, because I was the one watching her.”
Finlay approaches the material much as Gordon does her friends and family’s relationship with anti-fatness – soft, generous, questioning, and filled with empathy. At a Thanksgiving dinner, which is of course being filmed because of Gordon’s work debunking diet myths, a guest is heard talking about food regret before the plates have been cleared. Gordon gives a tight smile, clearly frustrated but patient. Like most of us, she picks her moments to challenge such cognitive dissonance in loved ones.
These casual, at-home scenarios make up much of the film, Finlay more an unseen guest at the table than fly-on-the-wall. But there is the occasional flourish. Serene moments of Gordon floating, starfished, in a lake break up the less intriguing shots of web pages and supportive celebrity tweets (James Corden, Monica Lewinsky) that communicate the virality of Gordon’s writing. With that virality comes the backlash – vicious responses to her work are projected on to Gordon’s wall as she stares at a screen. It’s a familiar technique, but one that hits on the tension inherent in advocating for change using individual experience. Personal stories can change minds – but sharing them opens the door to personal abuse: “It’s like giving people a road map for how to hurt me,” Gordon says.
But she pushes on, secures a book deal, launches the podcast Maintenance Phase, which brings her activism to an even wider audience (its episode on the junk-science behind BMI, which we see being recorded here, is worth a listen).
Pam observes her daughter’s ascent with pride, but tells Finlay that memories are starting to bubble up. She shares her regret at bringing Gordon to Weight Watchers as a teen, and gets to the core of what TikTok loves to call a ‘generational curse’: “You do the best you can with what you’ve got at the moment,” she says. Which begs the question – what will we do now, with what we’ve got?
► In UK cinemas from 9 February.