Young filmmakers on body image

The latest event by London’s collective Shorts on Tap is an event called Mirror, Mirror: a Symposium on Body Image. Pretty self-explanatory, as per the programme’s tradition, this is a marathon of short films.

But it’s immediately clear how this screening in London’s beautiful Regent Cinema is much more crowded than a regular short film night. This is most likely due to the evening’s panelists: alongside the filmmakers, there is writer and activist Stephanie Yeboah, and TV presenter, actor and disability campaigner Adam Pearson.

As with most compilations of short films, there are some highlights, such as Sundance’s selection and programme opener Adalamadrina, by Spanish director Carlota Oms. The short film is not only memorable for its kitsch 1980s palette, but also because it deals with arguably some of the most awkward sexual phases of coming of age that are often kept away from the big screen. This includes the fat and naive main character spraying deodorant in her panties, masturbating in a very “non-sexy” way and reading up on how to get a guy to suck her tits. Elsewhere, Lucrezia Pollice’s Strip It glorifies body hair in a bright music videos full of flowers and diverse naked bodies embracing one another.

Some of the films have an amateur feel, but there’s a rich variety of underrepresented perspectives, with male anorexia, drag kings, vitiligo and role-play all making an appearance.

The panel allows us to look at the topic in even more depth. Yeboah’s perspective is particularly interesting, as she describes how she stepped away from the body positivity movement after so many white women were picked over less represented ones as spokespeople for the cause, in her opinion turning the subject into a trend more than a movement. Yeboah is particularly frustrated because of the erasure of black bodies, when, in fact, the first fat acceptance campaigns were carried out by the Black and Jewish community, all the way back to the 1960s.

What the discussions bring to light is how body positivity is often nothing more than a commercialisation of curvier bodies that are still required to look pretty and acceptable by society’s standards, albeit in a slightly different way. Fatness and ugliness, especially in minorities, are still far from being a recognized part of the cause. Yeboah praises instead the new current of body neutrality, in her view a more worthy successor of the fat acceptance movement. Being neutral towards our body means focusing more on its abilities, with particular emphasis on the fact that it’s not always necessary to love or celebrate our appearance – sometimes it’s enough to just not think about it.

Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis, is not only part of the panel but stars in one of the films, a documentary in which artist Dagmar Bennett sculpts a statue of Adam, putting into question the very notion of artistic beauty and which subjects are worthy of being represented.

Adam immediately cares to remind everyone that the suffering we go through because of our bodies is not one of the necessary sufferings in life. The sooner we put that in our heads the better we’ll be for it, he argues.

Commercial films that positively represent larger and/or disabled bodies are rare, not to mention they often focus on white characters. Fat celebrities undergo the same ordeal: Sam Smith, Adele, America Ferrera and Jennifer Hudson are just some examples. Tabloids either shame photos of their natural bodies or praise their unnecessary weight loss, without ever stopping to consider the pressure they are on putting on these individuals.

So to sit in a room where these experiences are not only granted a big screen but are talked about, celebrated and analysed is refreshing to say the least. The fact that all filmmakers are rather young is a sign of hope for the future of UK and worldwide film. When organisations such as the BFI decide to promote diversity with their funding choices, the representation of different bodies shouldn’t be a subject to gloss over. If this programme shows anything, it is just how many stories are waiting to be told.

Shorts on Tap organises themed events throughout the year.

Images courtesy of Shorts on Tap.
Image description:
1. A black and white photo of all the panelists on stage. Behind them, the cinema screen showcases the poster for the evening.
2. A still from Adalamadrina. The main character sits on the toilet in a pastel blue bathroom. She has a laptop on her legs and doesn’t wear pants.
3. Adam Pearson looks at his sculpture in a still from the movie he stars in, also named “Adam”.