Boston Features

America’s Unhealthy Obsession with Thinness: A Review of the Documentary Film – “America The Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments”

By Lisa D’Agrosa, RD

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week kicked off Sunday, February 26th.  MIT’s wellness community, along with Active Minds at MIT, the Eating For Life Alliance and Timberline Knolls, hosted a free screening of the documentary film “America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments.”  The movie event promoted  the concept of “Healthy at Every Size.” After the movie, a panel of experts in the field of eating disorders answered questions from the audience.

The film itself was powerful, yet humorous at times.  It made me laugh, and it made me cry.  It follows writer and director Daryl Roberts, on his journey to health after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat.  In addition to his story, the film highlights a girl obsessed with working out, a plus-size model, a woman who has suffered from an eating disorder for over 20 years, and a group of young boys in treatment for eating disorders.  Roberts also interviews government officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and various weight loss doctors and nutrition experts.  He collects testimony from a member of the panel which voted in 1998 to lower the BMI threshold for overweight from 28 to 25 – a measure challenged throughout the film as an accurate tool to determine health.

The dieting industry brings in 50 billion dollars a year in America.  Fifty percent of women and twenty-five percent of men are on a diet on any given day.  And yet, ninety-five percent of diets don’t result in long-term weight loss.  Roberts’s film challenges us to accept ourselves and make efforts to be happy and healthy at every size.  Along the way, he entertains the audience by trying raw foods and yoga.

Roberts’s weight fluctuates with every diet he tries. Finally, after meeting with a registered dietitian who helps him to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into his diet, as well as an easy exercise routine of riding his bike, he loses a small amount of weight, but most importantly, he improves his blood pressure and heartbeat.  He meets with Deepak Chopra, the renowned mind-body pioneer, to focus on reducing stress in his life.  It is only then that his blood pressure normalizes despite his BMI still classifying him as obese.

Most nutrition professionals can agree that the BMI index is a flawed measurement. BMI uses the same formula for men and women, and as we know, men and women have different body compositions.  The BMI formula comes from a statistician named Adolphe Quetelet in the 1800s.  It was designed to measure populations, not individuals.  In the 1970s, Ancel Keys used the BMI formula in his research on diet, and it caught on in popularity.  It is now used as a marker by insurance companies, in research and to determine if someone is underweight, overweight, obese or in a normal weight range.  One of the takeaway messages of the film is that someone can have a high BMI, eat right, exercise and be healthy.  And someone can have a BMI in the normal range and practice severely unhealthy practices to maintain that weight.

I think anyone at Friedman would enjoy this film.  It brings a fresh perspective to the dieting and body image crisis and challenges the concept that America is suffering from an obesity epidemic.  It discusses that there are mental health implications to calling a child, a woman, or a man obese.  It isn’t the same as telling someone they have the flu.  Rather than focus on weight and BMI, the film emphasizes the need to focus on healthy behaviors, both physical and mental.

A question presented to the panelists asked what can people do to see change, when it seems like policy makers are not doing enough to help those suffering from eating disorders and disordered eating.  Juliet Zuercher, a registered dietitian who works with Timberline Knolls, said that as cliché as it sounds, one person raising awareness about disordered eating and films like this help change the culture.  Health is about so much more than size.  Another important point brought up in the panel discussion was that the images we often see of those suffering with eating disorders are very extreme. But, someone can have unhealthy thoughts and disordered eating habits and a normal weight.  Whitney Post, the Co-Founder of the Eating for Life Alliance, stressed that it is important to encourage anyone to get help if they come to you and are feeling distressed about food or their body.

Darryl Roberts closed by answering a question about his own health.  He says he tries to eat different colorful foods and ride his bike ten miles a day, but most importantly he has reduced the stress in his life, because “health is not just what you eat…health is something far beyond that.” America is walking a thin line between health promotion and the perpetuation of thinness as a beauty and health ideal standard.   Films and events like this are helping to raise awareness about eating disorders and disordered eating.  Hopefully, we will start to see positive and healthy changes soon.

*Photo source

Lisa D’Agrosa is a first-year Nutrition Communications student and a registered dietitian.  She enjoys yoga, baking and attempting to knit. She hopes to help promote positive eating habits in America.  Read more @

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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