Slim Hopes

formerly in Wild River Review

by Kimberly Nagy

Coverage of Slim Hopes first took place through the Institute of Empowerment (now Sage Girl empowering girls to live vibrant and authentic lives). Their film program and discussion series is designed to raise critical media awareness in teenagers.

There’s a French saying that goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Which brings me to the 1995 documentary entitled Slim Hopes, one of the many films challenging media stereotypes offered by the Media Education Foundation,

Because if Slim Hopes narrated by Jean Kilbourne is certainly dated, it’s hard to argue that the main subject of the film—the national U.S. obsession with dieting (especially among women)—has not changed much at all.

In 2011, Money magazine reported that two-thirds of the American population were overweight or obese. In 2008, Business-Week found that each year Americans spent “40 billion dollars on weight-loss programs and products.” From Jenny Craig to Dr. Atkins products, that’s a lot of cold hard caloric abstinence and/or food substitution.

I have to admit that I actually enjoyed my low-tech (completely free) first-time diet around the age of 13 many many years ago.  My weapon of choice was calorie counting and I guess you could call it a scaled-back form of starvation. I lost weight quickly and in the beginning, I kind of liked the self-imposed hunger I held inside (and heard inside my grumbling stomach) until I let myself devour the most amazing Chef’s Salad, ever, around dinner time. The food tasted more flavorful when I ate less—and the good news was I ate more vegetables. I felt so awake and aware for the first few days but the honeymoon didn’t last.

Soon, I got spacey, confused, and started to drag.  I couldn’t sleep. My mom got worried (though she was a dieter herself) when the scale dropped to 100 pounds and I communicated no plans to alter my new lifestyle. In my mind, the more weight I lost, the more I had a chance of having some pretty skinny girls’ legs rather than my own ridiculously muscular thighs and calves (that, of course, stayed muscular no matter what) that never seemed to fit into the tight jeans. But that night, my mom and I talked, and with her urging, we made dinner together—and I ate it all.

My mom used my favorite foods to sway me from my diet and perhaps not much else would have worked.  Because had you warned me that severe caloric restriction in girls my age could result in osteoporosis and hormonal problems later in life, it probably wouldn’t even have even registered as a mild concern.  I mean, that was later, right? My problem was right now: How was I ever going to look like a skinny girl in gym class?

This is really what the philosophy of dieting is all about—immediate gratification with a hefty dash of all too human but nevertheless a media-inspired neurosis.

I completely agree with the documentary Slim Hopes in questioning a societal obsession that has girls as young as eight stressing about their diet (this age has actually gone down to age 7.) And the salacious nature of an advertising industry that “sells” an unrealistic body type over and over again—as though it were the only answer to every problem—and the greatest depiction of health.

But though Slim Hopes depicts an amoral advertising industry with a huge misogynist streak—I was a little skeptical of its wholesale castigation of “them”.

Because who is the advertising “industry” and did “they” alone invent using women only as sexual objects? Did our expectations simply become more photo-edited and/or homogenous? Is there a larger problem in a centuries-old belief system that instructs women that their greatest hope for material security and the most important creative use of their time is to ensnare a man through the sole use of their looks? (And what does it mean that girls as young as seven are convinced their worth stems mainly from what they wear and how they look.) Are girls taught that what they think and say will be valued at all?

On the other hand, for adults, men and women, is wanting to be attractive a locked-in part of our biology? And can we honestly say that this is one-hundred-percent bad? Should we be honest and realistic with our children so as to guide them through some tricky navigation?

As for diets, I swore them off long ago, but my favorite non-dieting advice now comes from the author of In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan:

“Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”