The obesity epidemic is one powerful bit of news media shorthand. Use it in relation to young people and its potency intensifies.
Premiering on CBC TV tonight at 8pm, Teresa MacInnes' film Generation XXL challenges the knee-jerks. She follows four participants from a group of 12 who participated in the Fit Intervention Program last March. The week-long program was not a reality TV-style boot camp but rather a retreat, a place for contemplation and discussion—direct talk from and between the kids themselves—about struggling with weight, what that struggle does to their self-esteem and body image, what food they eat and why.
In other words, the kids carry the film, despite being in vulnerable positions talking about their bodies on camera.
Ranging from 14 to 17 years old, the four subjects come from North Preston (Raya Izzard), a First Nations reserve in Millbrook (Vincent Sylliboy), Halifax (Kat Curwin) and Dartmouth (Greg Penney).
"I found out that even though I'm overweight I'm still generally healthy," Curwin says of her experience. "My blood pressure's almost perfect. I have low cholesterol." Like the film, Curwin's point zeroes in on just one aspect of the prejudice cast at overweight people (that they're all ill), while it exposes one of the fallacies (that all thin people are automatically healthy) in the obesity epidemic coverage. "I'll see skinny girls at my school and they're eating way worse than I am."
Besides physical aspects, there are lasting emotional effects too. "I think I have a lot more self-confidence. I'm more mature now," she says. "I have a lot more supportive friends and really found my place at school."
Curwin practices Tae Kwon Do and plans on competing in the sport. She also makes her own sushi. "I love to cook and tend to cook things that are healthier for me.
"I feel better about it but I still really want to lose weight," she adds. "I've been trying but it's hard at school because it's all the food they expect teenagers to like—fries, hamburgers and stuff. I try to find better choices in the menu but it's really difficult."
On the eve of the TV premiere, Penney remains enthused about the experience. "A week away at camp—you can't beat that with a stick," he remarks, showing the same wit as he does on film.
As with Curwin, the film includes heavy moments with Penney, his vulnerability exposed and a little more raw. In the end, he says, "a lot of personal boundaries were broken down by it."
He talks about the effect of his parents' divorce and the teasing he's endured at school. There's one sequence in the film where all the camp participants write down and share the names they've been called.
"I've become way more comfortable with my body," Penney says. "I don't let teasing bother me anymore. I've also become a little more serious and I've stopped being the class clown. Not that I've stopped altogether."
Indeed he hasn't, but now his humour springs from self-assuredness, not deflection. "You can look 50 pounds less if you just wear the appropriate clothing—things that fit loosely kind of, a lot of black with horizontal stripes. That's the key to me looking as good as I do, if I may say that."
MacInnes does a good job to let the kids be on film. There is no voiceover or narrator to contextualize their thoughts. Just the kids interacting with each other, their parents and program instructor Peter Davison.
"I saw them quite a bit before we even started filming, hanging out with their family," says MacInnes, who works with her husband and cinematographer Kent Nason. "You get to spend time with people and eventually they become themselves."
They become, in the end, more than symbols of the obesity epidemic. "It's this culture of fear we live in, right? I'm torn about that because it's not socially responsible to feed kids sugar, processed and fast foods and push it on them, which we do, and then turn around and say "Oh my god, there's an epidemic!'"
Given its point of view, the film doesn't lapse into finger-pointing and ranting. "It's not so much that they're doing something wrong," says MacInnes, "but we're all doing something wrong."
The solution may be as simple, she says, as taking the time to listen to what kids have to say.
Generation XXL airs Thursday, March 8, at 8pm on CBC.