Brow Beat

How Did Precious Get So Fat?

Lee Daniels’ Precious provides a hellish tableau of petty theft, physical abuse, attempted infanticide, rape, incest (both paternal and maternal), welfare fraud, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, school violence, teen pregnancy, self-hatred, and illiteracy. But the film’s most arresting figure of urban poverty is the one that lumbers through nearly every frame: The 300-pound Gabby Sidibe . “Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin,” writes New York ‘s David Edelstein , “her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits.”

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That’s part of the movie’s XXXtreme social realism, no doubt. Obesity rates are higher among poor, black females than among any other major group. (The numbers may shock you: More than half of all black women in the United States are counted as obese, and they’re three times more likely than white women to be “severely obese”—with a body mass index over 40.) The broad-bodied Precious and her overweight mom are shown as the victim and perpetrator of the most outlandish ghetto cruelties, and they’re set off against the slender, gorgeous (and light-skinned) members of the bourgeoisie who try to help them.

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So fatness serves as a marker of race and class —no surprise there. But what does the film have to say about the causes of obesity among poor black women?  The mainstream liberals who are likely to be the movie’s biggest fans tend to argue that poor people get fat because they lack access to fresh produce, health clubs, green spaces, or any of the other luxuries that keep rich white folks thin. According to the movie, though, Precious has grown enormous for reasons that have little to do with her ” obesogenic ” environment.

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How, exactly, did Precious get so fat?

1) Her mother force-feeds her . When Precious confesses the depravity of her home life to a social worker, she makes a point of saying that she’s coerced into eating even when she’s not hungry. In another scene, the abusive mother makes Precious eat a dish of pig’s feet and macaroni and cheese. Neglectful moms are often blamed for childhood obesity , but the idea that a parent might force-feed her kids derives from a rather antiquated theory first posed 60 years ago by the doctor and psychoanalyst Hilda Bruch . According to Bruch, mothers express their own anxiety and disappointment through overfeeding.

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2) She wasn’t breast-fed . When Mom has her own climactic meeting with the social worker, she tearfully admits to having bottle-fed Precious. Why? Because her man was drinking all of her breast milk. There’s at least the implication that some of Precious’ problems—including, perhaps, her weight—were the result of lousy postnatal care. A number of studies have suggested that nursing offers some protection against childhood obesity, perhaps because breast-fed infants are better able to gauge when they’re satiated . (These claims are hotly disputed .)

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3) She’s a binge-eater . The film doesn’t place all the blame on poor parenting. At one point, Precious consumes a 10-piece bucket of purloined fried chicken in one sitting—and then vomits at the end of her binge. Once she’s escaped from her abusive home, she owns up to eating “too much sometimes” and gobbles down a second helping of dinner. The message is clear: This girl knows how to stuff her face, even when Mom’s not around.

4) She loves McDonald’s . Nor could Precious have been saved by a trip to the farmer’s market. While she’s at the hospital, having just given birth to her son, a sexy male nurse tries to persuade her to change her diet. But she and her friends have no interest in his “organic fruits and vegetables”; they just want to go to McDonald’s.

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