It’s tough being a young woman in the urban jungle that is New York City. And if you’re broke, drowning in student debt, under-employed and feeling unappreciated because you aren’t a size four, it can prove to be even tougher. Indie film, Brittany Runs a Marathon, realistically captures the challenges, heartbreak and hard-fought personal triumphs of a twenty-something female protagonist trying to succeed in the big city.
This highly entertaining dramedy, effortlessly alternates between scenes that are laugh- out-loud funny and heartbreaking as it explores the correlation between body issues and self-esteem, a subject to which nearly every woman can relate. Specifically, the film deals not only with how being overweight has impacted Brittany physically, but perhaps more significantly, how it has taken an emotional toll on her psyche. Brittany refuses to surrender to being an underdog because of her size and mounts a brave, heroic campaign to run the New York City Marathon.
To the male-written and directed film’s credit, Brittany is never portrayed in a disrespectful or stereotypical manner that Hollywood so often employs in portrayals of persons of substantial girth. Such characters are usually depicted as slovenly, lazy and the object of everyone’s jokes. Brittany is an Ivy-league school graduate, exuding intelligence and wit in every scene. When her doctor informs her she needs to lose weight, she takes almost immediate action to turn her situation around. Quickly discovering she can’t afford the membership fee for a state-of-the-art-gym, she resolves to jog through the streets of her neighborhood, thus also widening her social circle outside of her roommate. Her model thin female roommate, presumably her best friend, repeatedly undermines Brittany’s confidence with insulting comments.
Brittany’s struggle to lose weight, and regain her sense of self-worth is what drives both the story, and the character. The film never makes light of the very real suffering it has caused her. Being overweight impacts her life because it has always dictated the way she’s been treated. And as the film makes clear, the treatment has been condescending and unkind. She loathes the thought of being treated with pity, and resists sincere efforts of assistance or friendship. She longs for human connection and warmth, but has been heartbroken before, and rejects those around her before they can reject her.
In one memorable scene, an intoxicated Brittany fixates on a happy couple woman consisting of a thin man and an overweight woman. Frustrated, she interrogates them about how their relationship happened. Brittany’s implication is clear-that something is wrong with their relationship, and no thin man could possibly see worth in, much less love a fat woman. It’s a difficult scene to watch, but we empathize with Brittany because she has internalized the tyrannical beauty standards of our culture and the self-hatred that it can inflict on even an intelligent, educated woman.
Brittany’s social life exposes the appalling mistreatment she has endured at the hands of the opposite sex. These scenes go a long way to explaining why she is mistrustful of others. Men at clubs only seek her out for blow-jobs in bathrooms when they’re out of other options. When she initially loses weight, she goes on a proper date, and when things become heated, she gets dutifully on her knees, shocked when the fellow then suggests they go into his bedroom and have sex—a telling demonstration of female worth in regards to our appearance and roles in sexuality.
The film does not simplify the issues that it explores. As Brittany starts to shed the pounds, she is unable to shed her feelings of inadequacy. When she is injured and unable to continue her training, she sinks further into depression. Frustrated with her inability to control her weight and thus her life, she reflects on how good she felt when she initially lost weight, “People held doors for me.” The audience will recognize the truth behind the sentiment she is expressing. Ours is a culture obsessed with beauty, fitness and health. Far too often, the standards of what’s considered beautiful are impossible for most women to measure up to, and those that do not will literally have doors shut in their face. The dilemma of feeling powerless and demoralized by these exacting requirements is a universal one for women.
There will undoubtedly be some viewers who feel the film’s message simplifies the correlation between physical appearance and personal happiness. This is a meaningful, on-going debate in which feminists have engaged since back when I was in college and long before. Brittany Runs a Marathon does at times seem to equate weight loss with self-acceptance, and I understand the concern this will generate among critics, feminists, and audience members. The film recognizes this conflict and does include a scene where the doctor makes weight a health issue and actually mentions the metabolic issues that lead some women to have larger bodies, and that there’s a range of what’s considered healthy. It is an important discussion worth having and for which there are no easy answers. SARAH TODD delves into this very topic in this highly recommended article. It’s probably an issue that will never be fully resolved and it’s unrealistic to expect one film to strike the perfect balance. However one feels about this issue, it’s fair to say that this film does a heroic job of portraying a young woman trying to resolve this for herself and finding a measure of happiness in taking charge of her life.
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