Interview: Darryl Roberts, Director of the Health Documentary America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments

by | Dec 2nd, 2011 | 2:35PM | Filed under: Interviews, Movies

In 2007, filmmaker Darryl Roberts directed the documentary America the Beautiful–a look at how our culture creates unrealistic and damaging standards of beauty.

Now Roberts is back with America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments. This time he’s examining how the diet industry and even doctors, educators, and the government drive Americans to obsess over weight and dieting, instead of health.

Roberts uses a humorous, personal approach in his films a la Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, but like those documentary makers, he’s very serious about his subject matter.

Though he makes a failed attempt at a vegan cleansing fast, he also talks to people with eating disorders (including high-school boys and a friend with an exercise addiction). And he interviews both government officials and doctors as he traces the connections between government health recommendations and the dieting industry.

I sat down with Roberts in Chicago earlier this week to talk about the ideas and messages behind America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments.

How do you describe this documentary? Anti-dieting? Pro-health?

Darryl Roberts: The film is saying we don’t have a weight problem in America, we have a health problem, and there’s a distinct difference.

The film’s also been called “anti-diet industry.” Is that the primary “villain” here?

Roberts: I think the villain is BMI, Body Mass Index. That’s the thing that’s being systematically used against us to our detriment. Schools use it, they put it on kids report cards, send it home to the parents; “Oh, your kid needs to lose weight.” Doctors are telling you your BMI is too high, you need to lose weight, take pills, or get surgery.

Your earlier documentary America the Beautiful is about how standards and images of “beauty” are distorted by advertising and pop culture. Did the idea for this new film flow naturally from that one?

Roberts: Actually I was touring the country with the first film, and at almost every screening during the Q and A someone would stand up and say, “You dealt with plastic surgery and fashion and all this stuff in this film, but why didn’t you deal with the dieting industry?” I was like, “Dieting industry?” I had never been on a diet before—dieting was off my radar.

So I did some research on dieting, and that’s when the BMI came up and I saw the connection. Over here they’re saying that you have to be thin to be beautiful, and it’s this unrealistic standard of beauty that’s used by models and advertisers. And then here they’re saying that you have to be a certain size, fit this certain BMI number, to be healthy. And to me, that’s worse because it’s a doctor saying you need to lose weight, it’s your school putting it on your report card, so it’s more institutionalized.

Then I found this website with celebrities and their BMI and lo and behold, Tom Cruise, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, The Rock, Mel Gibson, LeBron James—all these people are technically overweight or obese, and I’m like “This is ridiculous.”

If we have a health problem, not a weight problem, then people are going to ask, “Well, how do we measure that?”

Roberts: That’s the problem. I had a doctor tell me, “If somebody comes in here to my office, and we sit here working through all these health problems and this healthy approach, we’ll only see four patients a day. But if we tell them, ‘Your BMI is high, you need to lose weight,’ and they’re gone in 15 minutes, so we can see 20 patients a day.”

So that’s one of the reasons that doctors made BMI so popular–of course there’s a profit motive in this turnover. It’s not working from the perspective of increasing our health in this country, but it works as far as people making money.

Another thing I never realized was how much influence the dieting industry has over the government to enact policy. The government will tell you we’re becoming more and more unhealthy and unless we stop focusing on the economics of it, it’s not going to change. According to the government, we have a sedentary lifestyle, we eat too much junk food, we’re obese, kids have type II diabetes where they didn’t usually have it before, and by 2020 75% of people will be obese. Okay, so now what? How do we fix it? It’s this scare tactic that makes you diet, it makes you take pills, and get surgery.

So how do we fix it?

Roberts: First off accept yourself as you are–that’s the easy part. Then you become healthy by eating more balanced meals, eating in moderation, and exercising. Anyone who does that will become healthier.

But the reason that you have to accept yourself and love yourself is that sometimes as you become healthier you may not lose weight. That’s the problem right there: People will start exercising, and eating healthier, and they say, “Well it’s not working,” because they don’t lose weight. So they’ll stop, then later they’ll try a different diet, and it goes on.

We have equated being thin with being healthy or being beautiful, and we have to let go of that and say, “I’m fine the way I am, I just want to be healthy.” And then engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors–if you do that you’ll be healthier, which may or may not come with weight loss. Everybody could do that–just live healthier and stop worrying about the weight. I’ve had people tell me, “Oh my god, it’s like a weight off my shoulders.”

America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments is playing at various locations around the country in coming weeks. You can get more information here.

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