Staff Writer Theo Sandler reviews the Athena Film Festival screening of the documentary Your Fat Friend. Editor’s warning: This article discusses themes related to eating disorders and fatphobia. 

Your Fat Friend documents the experiences of writer Aubrey Gordon as she goes from publishing short pieces online about life as a fat person anonymously, under the username “Your Fat Friend,” to publishing two novels and a podcast. It forces the audience to examine their own relationships to their bodies and how they think about others’ bodies, creating visceral moments that demand introspection. 

Directed by Jeanie Finlay, the documentary begins with the sounds of water, opening on Gordon sitting in a deep blue pool in the forest. She reads the beginning of her article “Just say Fat,” which asks people to use the word “fat” instead of any of the euphemisms that people often tend to use—like curvy, chubby, or by using body image as a proxy for talking about someone’s physical appearance. Gordon tells the audience: “I need less pity and more solidarity.” 

Throughout the film, we see clips of Gordon as a child, smiling and not yet burdened by the experiences of fatphobia. She describes how swimming was a freeing experience for her as a child, having been on a swim team growing up. However, she doesn’t swim anymore, feeling that the consequences of others’ perceptions and comments are greater than the benefits she might experience. 

Gordon, describing her extreme anxiety in flying, describes experiences of physically cramming herself into the airplane seat, making herself as small as possible to not be an inconvenience. Literally trying to not take up space, she pushes herself into the cabin wall, doesn’t drink water or use the restroom on the flight to reduce other people’s awareness of her. While flying may be for other people a frustrating—but perhaps not dramatically unpleasant—experience, Gordon cannot sleep for the days leading up to flights, worrying about getting kicked off the plane for the size of her body. Gordon remarks that fat people are seen as a “scapegoat” for everyone’s discomfort on the plane.

As the screen pans over seats, I think about the seats in the classroom I’m currently sitting in to watch this film—they are not accessible, and could produce the same experience of discomfort that Gordon describes. I took several classes in that room, and I never needed to think about the seats being the wrong size for my body. 

As Gordon states that birth control is less effective for people over 155 pounds, I hear a gasp from the audience. It’s clear this is not common knowledge. Later on, as Aubrey receives the first vaccine for COVID-19, she states that many needles are not actually long enough to reach the muscle layer for fat people, preparing to ask the provider about needle lengths. She is clearly surprised and grateful that the doctor already knows; a small victory for dealing with healthcare, a fraught issue for fat people.

Cooking eggs and green beans for herself and her mother, Pam, Gordon’s bright yellow maxi skirt matches the eggs. She sits down and they speak about their experiences dieting together, when Aubrey was a child. Together they did the Atkins diet, but more alarmingly, they both took Fen-Phen—a weight loss drug taken off the market because it led to heart valve problems for several people who took the drug. 

Some of the most significant scenes in the movie come from Pam, and her reflections on how she raised Aubrey. She describes how she felt obligated to tell her child to lose weight and diet (as well as to model those behaviors herself), even if she did not think that it would “work.” Having believed this to be her responsibility at the time, she clearly feels apologetic in retrospect. Aubrey’s experience of this was that if her mother, who was thinner than herself, was trying to lose weight, then it was even more imperative for her to lose weight. 

Gordon describes her early experiences with counting calories and the ways in which preoccupation with food led to her eating disorder, as it does for many others—as she cites later in the film, teenage dieting can multiply one’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder by up to 18 times. She emphasizes that the majority of people who try to lose weight (over 90%) either regain this weight over the next few years or may even gain more on top of this. The assumption that losing weight is simple is just not true for many people. 

People are led to believe that a lack of results means they did not try hard enough, and they learn to believe this themselves and perpetuate this belief, using it to interpret the actions of other people. While many assume that fat people are fat because they have not tried hard enough to lose weight, Gordon suggests that “instead of thinking that person should put in effort, maybe the effort got them there.”

As she sits deveining shrimp, Gordon discusses her experience with eating disorders and the added pitfalls of seeking treatment as a fat person. Anorexia diagnoses require someone to present with a certain BMI—if someone’s weight falls above that number, despite fulfilling all other qualifications for anorexia, they are likely to be diagnosed with atypical anorexia. 

While theoretically a similar diagnosis, this distinction can reduce the amount of care a person receives, in addition to any added stigma they carry as a fat person engaging with the healthcare system. Citing several examples where medical practitioners expressed disbelief and made cruel comments towards fat people seeking treatment for their eating disorder, Gordon remarks that she did not pursue treatment for her eating disorder because she feared that similar comments from medical personnel would worsen her symptoms.

Throughout the film, we are continually reminded of the inherent contradictions between Gordon’s theoretically anonymous online persona and the actual experiences conferred by her rising fame. Even without personal information available, Gordon still is subjected to an onslaught of negative comments, criticizing appearance and even her humanity. The words are superimposed on the screen as she sits in the dark reading, which I later found out was actually a projection of the words onto the walls in her house. 

These cruel comments are contrasted with the appreciation she receives from many readers online, who express gratitude for her words and ability to counter social myths about body size. These comments are paired with colorful, bright shots of nature. Aubrey receives a thank-you message from Adele after writing that people should stop commenting on Adele’s recent weight loss. Other figures also call attention to Gordon’s posts, including California Governor Gavin Newsom, actress and activist Jameela Jamil, actress Minnie Driver and activist Monica Lewinsky.

Finlay, in the Q&A portion, explains that despite many people’s interpretation that the internet is not real life, these words do affect people, disrupting their lives and self-image. The projection is a way of demonstrating that hate comments do in fact “seep into the walls of the house” and therefore are not necessarily as easy to ignore as many might assume. Gordon also emphasizes even fat people with small followings are subjected to this sort of vitriolic hate.

Despite her attempts to maintain anonymity, she experiences doxing—her personal information is leaked online—with her social security number, name, and location posted onto message boards along with pictures of her face. 

It is this kind of fear that produces her trepidation of fully opening up, of publishing under her actual name, or even of being willing to film her life. It is not only her fear about physical danger but also from being so vulnerable and open online about her life experiences, feeling she’s given people “a roadmap to hurt me.” Despite these fears, Gordon’s level of fame and recognition changes dramatically throughout the time shown—she goes from being an anonymous writer on Medium to an author of two books, the co-host of a podcast, and the subject of a documentary. 

Her newfound fame or recognition is not all unpleasant, though—the last scene of the movie is of Aubrey’s book release, at a local Portland bookstore: Powell’s City of Books. Powell’s holds a significant emotional space for Gordon, having grown up in the area. We see the significance of being able to release and give a talk about her book to a gathering of fans, eager to see her and get her signature on their copies of her book. 

Once the documentary was finished, a Q & A follow up video was shown—Gordon and Finlay sit in a room with red floral wallpaper and eclectic decor—an egg chair, orange leather seat, and four velvet-covered theater chairs are placed throughout. In a bright blue and maroon pleated dress, Finlay discusses some of her motivations for reaching out to Gordon about making a film—seeing it as a way to induce change in the world more broadly and in terms of relationships between people.

Gordon, in a deep green pantsuit, recalls that she joined the project because of the considerate and compassionate lens that Finlay used for previous subjects in her films. While becoming public was a concern, she also had to contend with losing her anonymity if she ended up publishing her book. So despite this being another step in “becoming visible” she understands it as part of the progression of her experience.

At its core, Your Fat Friend is about extending kindness and understanding—to others and to ourselves. To others, because their bodies may not look the way we expect, or because they do not respond to their bodies with the intent to change themselves. And compassion for ourselves, if our bodies do not look the way we want, and as we contend with these complex issues and discover what exists beyond many of the rules we’ve been told for our entire lives.

Your Fat Friend poster via Athena Film Festival