When she saw the trailer for the movie “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” Kerstin Blomquist’s first thought was, “Oh, no. They’re doing it again!”
Blomquist, an associate professor of psychology at Furman University, studies how to prevent disordered eating and how to promote a positive body image. She thought Hollywood had made another movie perpetuating negative stereotypes about people with obesity — that they’re less worthy, less intelligent and less successful than people who are thin, or that their value lies in merely being funny.
Then, she saw the movie. “The movie was surprisingly better than I expected. It dealt with obesity and weight bias in a much more nuanced way than previous movies I’ve seen,” Blomquist said.
In the movie, Jillian Bell stars as a 29-year-old woman dissatisfied with life. When a doctor tells her to lose 55 pounds, she decides to run the New York City Marathon. Eventually, Brittany learns that a goal weight or shape, and even a goal event like the marathon, are not the keys to a healthy, happy life.
“When the movie turned the corner and Brittany realized it’s not about the weight, it’s about holistic health, I started thinking, ‘OK, this movie gets it’,” Blomquist says.
Holistic health, Blomquist says, includes mental, social, financial, occupational and spiritual health, as well as physical health. “At first, Brittany began obsessing about her weight, exercising excessively and restricting her food, which did not turn out well for her. After she turned the corner, she seemed to start pursuing holistic health, which didn’t include these unhealthy behaviors.”
What the movie gets right
Blomquist was pleasantly surprised about several healthy aspects of the movie.
- Eventually, Brittany threw out her scale and focused on health instead of weight. “It can be unhealthy to pursue a specific weight or shape,” Blomquist says. “When we perpetuate the notion that thin is good and fat is bad, we perpetuate weight stigma and the ‘thin ideal’ presented by the media. It’s a false notion that being thin will give you all these positive things in life. Brittany tackles body image in a way that says we should embrace our bodies, whatever size or shape they are.”
- Brittany experiences weight bias toward herself and others. “You can clearly see that she judges herself and others based on weight,” Blomquist says. While an accurate depiction, Brittany eventually learns that health isn’t a certain weight or shape. “Health is not a look. It’s a behavior. It’s important not to assume that someone’s health behaviors are based on their weight. Someone can be healthy without fitting the thin ideal.”
- Many women, and men, are like Brittany: they are dissatisfied with their bodies. “Her struggle is very consistent with what women experience. She has this goal weight; most women have a goal weight or a particular part of their body they want to change,” Blomquist says. The more we accept our bodies, the more likely we are to take care of them and engage in healthy behaviors.
- The physician in the movie presented weight in the context of health behaviors. He asks about Brittany’s sleep, her eating habits and exercise.
What the movie could have done better
- The physician presents a weight goal, which can be problematic. Blomquist says, “Unfortunately, we see physicians putting too much emphasis on weight and BMI (body mass index), and not enough on healthy behaviors. We want to present health as what you do, a behavior, and set measurable action steps for people to pursue.” Telling someone to lose 55 pounds? “That’s very unhelpful.”
- Food shaming. Brittany stops eating foods she likes, or she eats only lettuce for lunch so she can have a higher-calorie dinner. “These are not the messages we want to send,” Blomquist says. “Eating pizza or ice cream is not bad, just as running a marathon doesn’t make someone superior.”
- Movie Brittany was surprised when the doctor brought up weight. Real Brittanys are aware of their weight. “Most people who have struggled with weight, know,” Blomquist says. It’s generally unhelpful to point out someone’s weight.
Blomquist says she hopes movie goers understand that “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is portraying common behaviors – like food shaming and obsessing about weight – as unhealthy and ineffective, or that running a marathon or other forms of exercise aren’t the answer to life’s problems.
“The takeaway is that it’s not about your weight or shape — it’s about valuing your body and yourself as a person so that you care for yourself, and you will likely be able to better care for others,” Blomquist says.
In the Hollywood ending, Brittany realizes this. She even gets the guy. “She allows herself to be vulnerable because she’s begun to accept herself and believes that she can be loved,” Blomquist says. “And you can be loved at any weight, size and shape.”