The Relationship Between Fitness and Self-Respect: Heavyweights (1995, dir. Steven Brill)

(CN: disordered eating and exercise)

I wasn’t a summer camp kid– my one experience was a week at Girl Scout camp between 7th and 8th grade–  but I can see why it’s such a popular setting for movies.  Camp is removed from civilization, but not to the point where survival is in question.  The characters find themselves in a setting outside their normal context (no parents! no bullies!), but still have to function within their temporary community.  There are rules, but those rules exist to facilitate having fun; there are authority figures, but they’re often lackadaisical, or at least easily avoided.  This anarchic context can be the site of recreation or re-creation, usually some of both.  It’s especially potent for adolescents, when summer comes with the hope that some alchemical process will occur over the long, hot days and you will return to school in the fall a better version of yourself.  You will have sex.  You will grow taller.  Your breasts will develop.  You will go on adventures.  And, of course, you will lose weight.

Heavyweights opens with Gerry (Aaron Schwartz) leaving school on the last day before summer vacation.  (The sequence is set to “Closer to Free” by the BoDeans, in case there was any doubt that this film came out in 1995.)  He is characterized as a typical sad sack fat kid: he misses his bus and has to walk home; he can’t throw a baseball over a fence; he stops at a lemonade stand and chugs an entire pitcher.  Upon arriving home, his parents tell him that he is being sent to Camp Hope.  The promotional video sucks him in with the promise of go-karts and the Blob, but he reacts indignantly when he learns that he’s being sent to a fat camp to take care of his ”problem,” as his dad calls it. “I’m not going to camp with a bunch of fat loads!” he protests, separating himself from his peers.

On the plane to camp, Gerry meets Roy (Keenan Thompson), who approaches and asks if he’s going to fat camp.  When Gerry defensively retorts that Roy is also fat, assuming that he is being insulted, Roy readily agrees with him.  Roy is the first self-accepting fat person we meet.  Roy becomes Gerry’s guide to Camp Hope, telling him that it’s a paradise because “nobody picks on you because you’re the fat kid, everybody’s the fat kid.”  (Roy is the only black kid in the movie, and becomes an emotionally supportive sidekick for Gerry, not unlike Al is for McClane in Die Hard.) An excited group of campers, including Gerry and Roy, are chaperoned from the airport to Camp Hope by Pat (Tom McGowan), an adult counselor who has spent every summer at Camp Hope since he was 10 years old.

heavyweights, the blob

Although ostensibly a place to lose weight, Camp Hope is obviously more of a safe space for fat kids.  Tim (Paul Feig), another counselor, “used to be one of us, but then he lost weight,” according to the campers.  They tease him about his “chicken legs,” which he responds to with good humor.  When Gerry arrives at Chipmunk Cabin, he confesses to slick wiseguy Josh (Shaun Weiss) that he snuck in some Oreos, which prompts his cabin mates to reveal their own contraband, kept in a communal supply under the cabin floorboards.  This is followed by a scene of the campers and Pat playing on the Blob.  Set to “The Blue Danube Waltz” and filmed in slow motion, the scene both suggests an idyllic transcendence from Gerry’s point of view, and is a reference to the scene in 2001: a Space Odyssey, where the story moves forward from the prehistoric era to the Space Age.  Similarly, Gerry finds himself millions of years removed from the brutality of being the picked-on fat kid, and achieves temporary weightlessness playing on the Blob with his new friends.  Although Camp Hope is a place where Gerry and his peers don’t have to worry about judgment and ridicule, it’s also not a place where they can push their personal boundaries.  Pat, a lifetime member of Camp Hope, is popular with the campers but isn’t confident enough to talk to Julie, the pretty camp nurse (Leah Lail).

The good times end abruptly, however, when the camp owners announce that they have declared bankruptcy and sold Camp Hope to Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller).  Tony is a fitness-obsessed motivational speaker who is “looking forward to interacting with children for the first time.”  He tells the campers he weighed 319 pounds when he was 12 years old, and had no self-esteem or self-respect.  He brings in a new staff of equally athletic, uniformed counselors and tells the campers their summer will be filmed for an infomercial to promote his weight loss regimen, Perkisize.  Pat is re-assigned to maintenance duties and replaced by the strict, generically European Lars (Tom Hodges).

Tony creates a strict and overly simplistic binary between healthy and unhealthy, paralleling good and bad.  “Anyone who brings candy into camp is not your friend,” he tells Gerry while searching Chipmunk Cabin for contraband snacks, “He is a destroyer.”  Perkisize consists of grueling exercise and unsafe levels of food restriction (Tony cancels lunch one day “due to lack of hustle”).  He and his staff are in charge because they are athletic, and therefore good, not because they know how to care for children.  Their lack of attention to what exercise is appropriate and feasible for their fat, preteen wards creates an immediate threat.  Julie says that, as a medical professional, she considers Perkicize dangerous.  Lars proves to be a negligent lifeguard with no understanding of how the buddy system works, and Tony punishes campers for gaining weight by taking them on a 20 mile “cleansing” (i.e. without food) hike up a mountain.  Pat tries to stop him, fearing for the campers’ safety, but is ignored and ridiculed because of his size. “The fat man is going to tell me what’s healthy!” Tony sneers. “Nobody really cares what you have to say.”

tony perkis, heavyweights, ben stiller, glide, slide

Tony’s binary view puts fat people squarely in the unhealthy/bad category.  His regime as camp director begins with Evaluation Day.  “The key word is ‘value,’” he explains over the camp loudspeaker.  “Do you have any? Not yet! But by the end of the summer this camp is going to be filled with skinny winners!”  (“Skinny weiners?” Roy jokes, showing the lack of enthusiasm he has for Tony’s plan.)  The kids cling to the old Camp Hope mentality, cheering for Simms when it is announced he is the heaviest boy at camp, but Tony works to break their spirit.  Tony expels Josh from camp for talking back to him.  He invites “jock camp” Camp MVP to play baseball against Camp Hope.  When Tim protests that getting their asses handed to them  won’t teach the kids anything about baseball, Tony retorts that it’s meant to teach them about “life.”  He doesn’t even stick around to see Camp MVP taunt his campers, nor does he seem to care when Camp MVP vandalizes their dock.  Later, he organizes a dance between Camp Hope and the unnamed “girl’s camp,” with the rationalization that making them feel insecure in front of a group of girls (who, of course, would never want to dance with them) will motivate them to lose weight.  It takes a lot of time and motivating from Pat, Tim, and Julie, but both sides eventually start dancing enthusiastically.  Before long, Tony breaks up the dance mid-song and tells the girls to leave, thanking them for their “efforts” and saying “[he knows] this hasn’t been easy,” despite them having as good a time as the boys– including one young couple sharing a kiss before separating.  He wants to instill in them his opinion that they are worthless because they are fat and need to achieve “value” through compliance to the Perkisize program.  There is a capitalist motivation behind this, as Tony wants to make his program into a successful business venture by convincing his future fat tv audience that they need his program in order to achieve value for themselves, but it also comes from a place of hatred for fat people.  Tony’s “motivation” is psychological abuse.

(Returning to the dance for a moment:  it’s worth noting that the presence of female characters in the film is one of Heavyweights’ missteps.  Of the few female characters in the film, none are fat.  Julie is conventionally attractive, and while she supports the campers by trying to get Child Protective Services to investigate Tony and contributing to the expose video, she largely functions in the film as an object for Pat’s affections, a goal for him to obtain as his self-confidence increases with his ability to stand up to Tony.  The girl campers are all thin and conventionally attractive as well.  When one of the girl campers asks her friends, “Why don’t they just lose weight?” another girl snaps back, “Why don’t you teach them to throw up after every meal like you do?”  The joke makes a point about subverting the notion that thin people are automatically experts on healthy behaviors over fat people.  However, I think the more important takeaway is that having zero visibility for girls and women who aren’t thin, and then shaming girls and women for trying to obtain or maintain thinness, is a vicious cycle of sexist bullshit.)

Tony’s treatment of the campers is villainous, but it’s not an unusual attitude towards fat bodies.  Consider the martial language employed to advertise diet and exercise products (e.g. fat blasting), motivational workout sayings that portray pain as a desirable outcome, the success of The Biggest Loser.  The driving thought that unifies them is that a person’s body must undergo extreme means to meet a certain standard of fitness (although this usually means a certain weight and shape) in order to deserve respect, to have value.  Tony believes that by continually punishing the campers– even going so far as to remove the Blob from the lake, despite it being an incentive for them to go swimming– he can get them to lose weight and become people who he deems worthy of respect.

After Tony tells the campers their 20 mile hike has been “extended indefinitely” until they are in good enough shape to beat Camp MVP in a relay race and provide a happy ending for the infomercial, they rebel.  They outsmart and imprison Tony and liberate the camp with a bacchanalia of their favorite foods.  Even Tim joins in the celebration, ripping his shirt off and covering himself with s’mores.  As with the Blob scene earlier in the film, this scene is also slow motion and set to classical music, this time the overture from La Gazza Ladra, which is also featured in scenes of gang violence in A Clockwork Orange.  The reference to the droogs’ self-destructive nature is appropriate, as the campers’ unbridled hedonism proves to be almost as painful as Tony’s punishing workouts.  The next day the campers are covered in gunk and nursing hangovers.  Pat takes the opportunity to present a more moderate course of action.

heavyweights, la gazza ladra

Although the movie focuses more on the campers’ experience, Pat has been experiencing his fair share of character development, as we see through his interactions with Gerry.  Sitting together on the decommissioned go-kart track, Gerry tells Pat that he wants to “go fast” for once in his life, to which Pat responds by playfully pushing him around the track in the go-kart.  Later, Pat tells Gerry about his fantasy of being athletic like Camp MVP, and that he’s “tired of being the fat guy.”  Gerry tells Pat that he’s “cool, everybody knows that,” but asks him, “When are we gonna start sticking up for ourselves?”  Seeing that, although they have defeated Tony and his crew, the kids haven’t learned anything, Pat sees the opportunity for them to start making their wishes into reality.

Pat’s leadership of Camp Hope is different from both Tony’s and the campers’.  He talks about restraint and self-respect.  He never mentions weight loss in his speech, and speaks about these goals in terms of “we” and “us,” not stationing himself above the campers as Tony did.  We see scenes of Julie teaching a nutrition class, and the staff and campers exercising together as a group: some of them are walking briskly, others are running, but everyone is having a good time.  When Gerry’s parents come to visit for Parents Day, his father disappointedly remarks that he doesn’t look any different, but Gerry quickly responds that he “feels good,” which his mother admits is “important.”

Having defeated Tony, the remaining challenge for Camp Hope is their annual competition with Camp MVP, the Apache Relay.  (As is traditional with many summer camps in the USA, Camp Hope is not above a little tacky cultural appropriation, and the campers are dressed in American Indian costumes for the race.)  Camp Hope is used to losing every year, but the self-confidence and teamwork they have learned over the course of the summer pays off.  They cheer each other on and use their individual skills to stay in the competition.  Gerry is able to “go fast” in the go-kart race and is even able to use his fatness to his advantage, as Pat coaches him to “use [his] weight on the curves.”

As I’ve discussed in previous articles, fat characters often embody lack of moderation.  Heavyweights does use this stereotype to a certain extent, such as a scene in which a pack of underfed campers hungrily chase a cow around a field.  Heavyweights breaks this mold, though, by making Tony the ultimate figure of excess, culminating in an epic meltdown in front of the campers’ parents in which he tries to prove his physical superiority by walking barefoot on broken glass.  The ideal situation through which the campers find their happy ending is in line with real-life wellness philosophies like harm reduction and Health at Every Size: using self-respect as motivation, not a goal.  In the end, the campers don’t even place value having won a competition against rival Camp MVP, and Pat throws the Apache Relay trophy in the lake.  The campers become different people over the summer, but instead of achieving the change that Tony envisions for them, becoming “skinny weiners” like the Camp MVP kids, they find the ability to stand up for themselves and find confidence in their individual skills and interests.  It’s not the happy ending one would expect for fat characters, but it’s arguably the best one for fat kids to have as a cultural reference.

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