In February of 2016, Aubrey Gordon shared a blog post by publishing it on her computer. The post, titled “A Request from Your Fat Friend,” was an open letter. She chose not to use her name when signing it. In the letter, she expressed her need for solidarity and anger instead of pity and sympathy. This was in response to her experiences of being denied medical care by doctors and lacking understanding from her thinner friends. Gordon identifies as a fat woman and at the time of writing, wore a US dress size 26 (equivalent to a UK size 30). She also addressed the issue of self-disapproval and body shaming in her letter, stating that she will remember how others talk about themselves and her. Surprisingly, the article was read by 40,000 people within a week, which was impressive for someone without a strong online presence like Gordon, who is a community organizer from Portland.
After eight years, Gordon has become a successful author with her book making it onto the New York Times bestseller list. She is also one of the hosts of the popular podcast Maintenance Phase, which has been downloaded over 60 million times. Filmmaker Jeanie Finlay, known for her documentary Seahorse, has been documenting Gordon’s life since 2017. Her latest film, Your Fat Friend, follows Gordon’s transformation from a unknown blogger to a prominent public figure who fights for justice and liberation for people of all sizes. However, as Finlay reveals, Gordon struggles to have the same conversations with her parents and her confidence wavers.
Finlay, speaking from her office in Nottingham during a video call, ponders the significance of aspiring to change the world when one’s own family struggles to even say the word “fat” aloud. The film delves into this concept through Gordon’s interactions with her imperfect yet deeply caring parents: Pam, a retired teacher who dieted with her as a teenager, and Rusty, a former pilot who is uneasy about his daughter’s weight.
Gordon, who is joining our call from her home in Portland, describes herself as a large presence. She explains that she fills up a room with her voice and personality, demonstrated through her booming voice and animated hand gestures. Those who listen to Maintenance Phase will recognize Gordon’s contagious laugh and charm. On the show, she and her co-host Michael Hobbes use their wit to debunk various wellness and weight-loss myths, such as the body mass index and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s questionable 2004 book Diet. However, when it comes to discussing her own body, Gordon admits to feeling overwhelmed and becoming meek and subdued.
Finlay’s film, which received the audience award at Sheffield DocFest 2023, highlights the extent of Gordon’s elegance and strength by capturing the moments in which she appears smaller. During a warm Thanksgiving dinner, a slender older woman suggests that everyone at the table “reduce their weight by 15lbs” when they return home that evening. Gordon responds with grace and compliments the host’s cooking. In another scene, Gordon, who has battled an eating disorder in the past, shares an embarrassing story with Finlay about a stranger who took a melon out of her shopping cart at the supermarket, claiming it had “too much sugar for you”. Additionally, when Gordon’s father orders her a customized birthday cake, the celebratory moment is dampened by his insistence that it be sugar- and gluten-free, even though she never requested such changes. These small moments reveal the ineffectiveness of “body positivity” as a defense against daily discrimination. The constant, subtle teasing is just as likely to unsettle Gordon as a direct insult or hurtful online comment.
Upon viewing Finlay’s completed film, Gordon was impressed by its portrayal of non-fat individuals as integral to the stories of fat people. She notes that these characters are not portrayed as heroes. Her desire is for the film to inspire viewers to reflect on and potentially change their well-intentioned actions. She compares this to the popular “Are we the baddies?” meme featuring David Mitchell, referencing the sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look where a Nazi soldier realizes the misdeeds of his side.
Finlay’s original idea was to create a film essay focused on the topics of fatness and the history of dieting. She had hoped that Gordon, who was still unknown at the time, would write the voiceover. However, after meeting Gordon and their family, she realized that exploring a paradigm shift would be more compelling than arguing for its necessity. Finlay explains, “When I collaborated with Freddy McConnell on Seahorse, his personal journey had political implications.” The film follows a transgender man’s journey to pregnancy and highlights his humanity through intimate and domestic storytelling. Similarly, in Your Fat Friend, Finlay applies this same approach.
Finlay asks Pam in the movie if she expected her daughter to lose weight and become smaller by putting her on a diet at 14 years old. Pam responds that she never thought that would happen. This interaction causes a profound shift in Pam’s beliefs. The next day, she admits to Finlay that she has been rethinking her approach to parenting and feeling deep regret. Finlay reflects on the power of asking simple questions and how having a camera allows for the opportunity to unlock new perspectives.
Gordon expresses that it was an emotional and remarkable experience to witness her mother’s journey, but it was also difficult to see a loved one struggle with their mistakes. She did not anticipate the level of personal involvement when signing on to create a documentary about her family. However, throughout the film, her parents, Pam and Rusty, undergo a significant transformation (be prepared to shed a tear when you see them in the audience at Gordon’s book launch). Gordon shares that even after filming ended, her parents have continued to enthusiastically support her work.
“My mum has started having some boundary-setting conversations with people in her life about how much she’s willing to hear about diets,” says Gordon, grinning. And as for devoted Maintenance Phase listener Rusty? She overheard him on the phone to a friend the other day “yelling about the inaccuracy of the BMI”.
Finlay states that the central message of the film revolves around striving to be a good parent. She began working on the film when her daughter was 13 years old. Finlay clarifies that her daughter is not overweight, but she wanted to ensure that her daughter did not hear negative messages about her body from her parents. Finlay reflects on her own upbringing and wishes that she had grown up in a world where the word “fat” was viewed neutrally or even positively.
“I first encountered Aubrey while attending Weight Watchers,” recalls Finlay. However, during the filming process, she abruptly stopped participating in the program after being instructed to visualize a future version of herself in a mirror. “The idea of constantly striving for a certain body image is just promoting disordered eating, disguised as a guided meditation,” exclaims Gordon, visibly disturbed. “That’s definitely not for me,” she adds in a subdued tone.
During the meeting, Finlay expressed her thoughts by stating, “My life will not improve if I lose weight. I will simply be thinner. I am content with my life as it is.” She then left the room.
Finlay explains that creating the film has allowed her to express her emotions towards her own body in a new way. She sees Gordon’s body as imposing and alluring. The movie begins with Gordon in a hot spring. Finlay wanted to capture her like a grand mountain range. Gordon gave Finlay control over where to position the camera, as she believes there is no unflattering angle for her body. Gordon expresses that bodies like hers are often portrayed on screen as menacing “boogeymen” without heads. It was a strange experience for her to be filmed with affection, fascination, and inquisitiveness.
“Are you suggesting that either you are clumsily falling on a banana peel or you are the main character in Darren Aronofsky’s film ‘The Whale’?” Gordon mentions, alluding to the film. “Those seem to be the only stereotypes for overweight individuals. However, in the US, two-thirds of the population falls into this category. We have a diverse range of experiences beyond just crying and being ridiculed.”
The movie “Your Fat Friend” will be shown in UK theaters starting on February 9th.