'Famine Within': a bare-bones look at body images

August 24, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but does it have to be so skinny?

That's the provocative thrust of "The Famine Within," a documentary unspooling at the Charles for two days. The film, by Katherine Gilday, examines the extent to which women have been oppressed by completely unrealistic body ideals -- the syph-like 5-10, 120-pound hourglass shape all the supermodels come in -- which they cannot hope to achieve themselves.

Ultimately, it's an essay in power. Beauty, being an arbitrary concept and not an absolute, is subject to usurpation by corporate interests. If the movies and the fashion mags chose as their ideal a body shape that is really a freak of genetic whimsy, it means that the other 99.9 percent of women are going to either hate themselves or crucify themselves upon the Golgotha of a diet.

What follows is depressing: almost a police state of weight watching, a KGB of calorie-tyranny in thralldom to the almighty icon of slim. This agony increases with age as a woman's metabolism changes and it takes several times more work to lose several times less weight. The result is almost a slave caste: women taught to hate themselves because they can't fit into the size 4 they wore to the senior prom and yet completely unable to do anything about it, even see a larger perspective.

This happens to be something of a hot topic in current feminist circles: Naomi Wolf's book, "The Beauty Myth," has been arguing the same point from its lofty position on the best-seller list for months now.

Gilday's argument is advanced with a great deal of earnestness and very little wit; it's not exactly a barrel of laughs. Her technique is somewhat suspect, however: she has three models, almost like the witches in "Macbeth," serve as a kind of ironic chorus and she cuts away from their angular stylings and voguings on a walkway to somewhat dogged interviews with heavy women, psychiatrists, anthropologists and the like. I guess I'm brainwashed, but after a bit I was longing to return to the models.

The point made, over and over and over and over, is that the model's body type has been systematically stylized in the past several decades, so that now its deviation from the norm is positively unhealthy. A chirpily unself-conscious fashion executive codifies the objectification of the woman's body with great brio: "Oh, we can't use girls with short necks. The longer the neck the better. And they have to be high waisted, with lots of legs. It doesn't matter how tall they are if they don't have enough leg."

The movie is somewhat selective in its target search. I was somewhat surprised that it ascribed this evil to a blurry "media conspiracy," which is a completely unhelpful notion; name names or go away. At the same time, it is unable to fix any blame on the one personality who has made a fortune off the neurotically thin body shape, Jane Fonda and her aerobic videos.

In its second half, "The Famine Within" becomes almost exclusively focused on eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and it loses interest in the meanings of body shape. The design is reasonable: first half, theory; second half, consequences. But I found this section, which is quite repetitive, not nearly as provocative.

'The Famine Within'

Documentary.

Directed Katherine Gilday.

Unrated.

***

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