Supersize Me. Heart Sharp Video. 96 minutes. Directed by Morgan Spurlock. DVD or VHS.
That there are more than 30,000 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide came as no surprise to me. That there is a McDonald’s inside a Harlem hospital nearly gave me a heart attack.
Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock’s recent documentary, is overflowing with Mcfacts like these that would rattle the fast-food cravings of even the least health-conscious consumers.
In August 2002, the parents of two obese girls sued McDonald’s in an attempt to hold the corporation responsible for their daughters’ weight gain and health problems. One of the key questions that emerged was whether eating McDonald’s food on a regular basis could be part of a healthy diet. Although not officially acting on behalf of those suing McDonald’s, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock decided to test the McHealthy diet and took up the challenge of eating double quarter-pounders with cheese on a daily basis.
Much to his vegan girlfriend’s chagrin, Supersize Me leads viewers through Spurlock’s cholesterol and deep-fat-fried mission of eating solely at McDonald’s for a month. His rules are simple: For 30 days, eat only foods found on the McDonald’s menu; only supersize meals if asked; eat every item on the menu at least once; and make sure to get three full, square meals a day. To make his experience “average,” Spurlock also limits himself to walking as much as the average person in America, 5,000 steps a day.
At the start of the film Spurlock visits four different specialists to establish that he is a healthy individual with good to normal levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, body fat, and just about every other bodily chemical and hormone you can measure. As you might imagine, his health deteriorates rapidly, creating dramatic tension as the audience is left to fret over the life-threatening conditions he develops during the course of the film. Without giving all the goodies away, I can say that Spurlock’s transformation is nothing short of amazing. After 12 days he gains 17 pounds. At 21 days his doctors tell him to stop eating McDonald’s food because he is at risk of liver failure. And after one month of consuming what is estimated to be eight years’ worth of McDonald’s food, Spurlock’s nutritionist reveals to him that he consumed 30 pounds of sugar and 12 pounds of fat in total. Spurlock really was supersized.
Aside from his own personal quest for a coronary, Supersize Me spends significant time exploring how education fits into the fast-food frenzy. Spurlock most incisively critiques the pressures being exerted upon schools by high-stakes testing and rapidly shrinking school budgets, where classes like physical education and health receive short shrift because they are not on the tests. One school he visits offers physical education to its elementary students for only 45 minutes per week . Spurlock continues to critique several other aspects of food in schools, including highlighting the similarities between federal food subsidies and fast food, taking aim at corporate soda and candy sales in the school hallways, and reminding us of Reagan’s infamous declaration that ketchup constitutes a vegetable in school lunches.
But Supersize Me takes time to do more than just critique. In a brief but useful portrait, Spurlock visits Central High School in Appleton, Wis. Central High is a school for students labeled “at risk” of failure or dropping out. A local health conscious bakery, Natural Ovens of Manitowoc, works with the school to provide healthy meals at a cost very close to what schools pay for federally subsidized foods. Spurlock notes that there are very few discipline issues to deal with at Central High even though it supposedly has the most rough and tumble students, a phenomenon he largely credits to the fact that students there are offered balanced, healthy meals in school.
Supersize Me does get too big for its britches at times. Despite the best of intentions, it falls into the trap of equating body fat with being bad in a way that is potentially detrimental to peoples’ self esteem. The movie seems to imply that people are obese or overweight because they’re surrounded by bad food, make poor choices, and have limited opportunities to learn about or change their personal health. While these are a part of the equation, other factors do play a role. Issues of social pressures, access to time and other resources, body image/self esteem, and coping behaviors, are equally important to understanding peoples’ eating habits.
While Spurlock does touch on these issues, he does not give them nearly enough treatment to ease the stigma of obesity and overeating from the shoulders of overweight individuals. And while Spurlock’s writing and politics are clearly sympathetic to why people become overweight, the gaze of the camera occasionally still objectifies “fat people” as comedic at worst and pitiably unhealthy at best. As someone who has spent his life at varying degrees of being “fat,” I know I left the theater feeling uneasy about being even moderately overweight.
With Spurlock’s increasing girth as a testament, Supersize Me is clearly about consumption. This focus on intake, however, completely neglects how fast food is produced and therefore misses a myriad of related issues. For instance, while we watch Spurlock giddily order his McGriddle for breakfast, we never get to know what the work conditions are like for the employees who take his orders. Similarly, other issues “behind the scenes” of the fast-food industry are absent, like McDonald’s role in the burning of rainforests or the regular use of antibiotics in most U.S. beef.
Using smart humor and personal experience, Spurlock has made a powerful documentary that can educate audiences about the unhealthful horrors of eating McDonald’s food. Supersize Me could also be a powerful tool to use in high school classrooms, especially if it is accompanied with materials about body image and self esteem and books like Fast Food Nation that look more deeply at the social, political, environmental, and economic issues related to the fast-food industry. Additionally, Supersize Me could also make an excellent prompt for a discussion about the “hidden curriculum” of food in our schools. Teachers could ask students about the type of foods they have access to, what health and political lessons they learn from their school food. And they could ask what alternative, healthy models for school food exist and why they aren’t implemented more regularly. If the food is bad for students, why do schools serve it?
Ultimately, it is Spurlock, in tandem with food politics, that makes Supersize Me a good movie. He manages to poke fun at himself while laughing at the absurdity of McDonald’s. And he allows the audience to be afraid for his health while being outraged by the political-digestive injustice of it all. It is his honesty and openness to the camera, vomit scene and all, that give life to all of the dead food Spurlock eats for our education and enjoyment.