Picks and Pans Review: The Famine Within
The alarming incidence of eating disorders and the relentless epidemic of diet books has already made it clear that American women are preoccupied with their weight, but this 90-minute study of that preoccupation is nonetheless fascinating, provocative, sad and surprisingly nondoctrinaire.
Written and directed by Katherine Gilday, a Hungarian-born documentary maker who lives in Canada (this is her first full-length film). The Famine Within is devoted mostly to interviews—with doctors, social commentators and psychologists as well as with women who have had eating disorders of all descriptions.
Most poignant is Christine Alt, sister of mainstream star-model Carol and herself, at 5’10½” and 155 lbs., a “large-size” model. Alt, who revealed details of her eating disorder to PEOPLE earlier this year [Feb. 17], again recalls seeing a picture of the emaciated anorexic singer Karen Carpenter before her death. Alt says she found herself wondering, “How could I get that thin without dying?”
It is equally painful to hear a series of young women, including one bulimic in her early 20s, discuss their obsessions with weight, and their battles with binge-eating and, vomiting.
Gilday’s research is shallow, without any attempt to discuss how cultures outside North America approach the issue of women and weight. Her subjects, though, avoid the temptation to blame women’s eating disorder problems wholly on society. Social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, for instance, deplores the fact that despite recent advances, women “still spend so much time on presentation of self, on our appearance.”
Gilday’s narration, read in voice-over by Dr. Joyce Brothers sound-alike Rebecca Jenkins, lapses into such arcane generalizations as describing women’s weight as “a symbolic arena in which a larger cultural battle [involving the gender power struggle] is waged.” Some of her observations seem outdated, as when she contends that when girls are taught to eat, “ladylike behavior” is defined as “eating small amounts without too much evident enjoyment.” Gilday’s film, though, could have a profound effect on girls and young women. It addresses concerns that will be familiar to anyone who has ever puzzled over the effects that the Miss America pageant and similar image-creating phenomena must have on young American girls’ notions of what should be important in their lives. (Unrated)