In his own way, Darryl Roberts is breaking ground as a type of civil rights crusader. Instead of speaking out for animal rights, gender equity or same-sex marriage, though, he's fighting for the right to find one's own healthy weight, free from value judgments dictated by the fashion and diet industries and even the federal government.
I attended the New York premiere of Roberts's documentary America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments, right before heading to the West Coast for the annual NEDA (The National Eating Disorders Association) conference. It was the perfect kickoff to an intensive two days of thinking about eating disorders.
The documentary is a follow-up to Roberts's 2007 documentary America the Beautiful, in which he examined America's obsession with cosmetic surgery and the media environment that shapes our world, in which the average person is made to feel inadequate in shape, size and appearance.
In this latest effort, Roberts wryly skewers a number of targets en route to laying bare America's dysfunctional attitudes toward shape and size: the $50 billion-a-year diet industry, what he says are inflated CDC (Centers for Disease Control) obesity statistics, shifting federal guidelines for BMI (Body Mass Index) that overnight moved 25 million Americans from normal weight to overweight, and the cozy ties between the diet industry and National Institute of Health medical advisors.
In the spirit of Morgan Spurlock's Fast Food Nation, Roberts becomes both long-suffering guinea pig and the viewer's guide to his chosen subject after he discovers his blood pressure is dangerously high, he's obese and in danger of heart attack or stroke. No diet is left unexamined: vegetarian, juice detox, raw foods, Lean Cuisine and what he calls "The Cookie Diet." On each regimen Roberts loses weight initially, only to gain it back through KFC and junk food binges. He learns that for the vast majority of people, diets don't work. The seeming exception to this rule is Roberts's alter-ego and friend Candi, a Chicago real estate agent who has devoted her life to increasingly extreme exercise and nicotine-aided self-starvation.
Next, Roberts takes his investigation to lawmakers and government officials. In Washington D.C. he confronts U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who praises Michelle Obama's anti-obesity efforts but side-steps the question of whether the federal government will stop subsidizing the manufacture of obesity-implicated high-fructose corn syrup.
When I caught up with Roberts today by telephone, he was still traveling the nation premiering the film. He's scheduled to stop in 26 more cities over the next two months, including numerous showings at colleges and universities (for the continually updated screening schedule, click here).
"What people have to realize is that it's not always the weight that causes disease," says Roberts, paraphrasing the message of mind-body healer Depak Chopra, "it's the stress that comes from the social stigma of being overweight. "That's a bigger killer."
While on the road, says Roberts, he's been surprised by the large number of dietitians who are turning out to see the film, as they did in Dallas last night. "They'll say to me, you know what, we get it...we see that diets don't work and what we need to start pushing is the fact that you can be healthy at a wide range of sizes. If we steer people toward a balanced diet, they're going to become healthier whether or not they lose weight."
In one touching interview in the film, Roberts chats with an inspiring, confident and fit professional dancer who, under current federal standards, would be considered morbidly obese. Self-starvation to achieve a weight below one's healthy weight can be unhealthy and dangerous, a point made in America the Beautiful by plus-size model Anansa Sims, the daughter of barrier-breaking African-American model Beverly Johnson. Sims starved herself to the point of collapse on the way to what she thought was a career -making photo shoot, only to be told that she still wasn't thin enough. That's when the light went off and she realized she could be beautiful and a healthy size that felt right on her frame.
Roberts himself eats a balanced diet and bikes five miles a day to stay healthy. "I used to do two miles a day and work out with a personal trainer," he says. "But I woke up dreading it-everything hurt, it was unpleasant and I flat-out didn't like it." So he stopped, added three miles on the bike, and relishes his daily workout. Says Roberts, "I love the wind blowing on my face and feeling good."
Nutritionist Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto, co-authors of The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders, Gūrze Books. Marcia is also author of Nutrition Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders.
Copyrighted by Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto