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. . . ON FILM

Winter, 2009

Supersize vs Superskinny

4 stars

Reviewed by Ricardo van Sertima

With a massive 27 and a half stone difference between them, Andy and Amy take on the diet swapping challenge meal-for-meal.This British TV show challenges our perceptions of body image and diet. Because diet, like the weather, is almost constantly on many people's minds, the program is fascinating to watch.

Each episode features two people, one who is seriously underweight and one who is morbidly obese. Under the supervision of Christian Jessen, M.D., the two are brought to a "feeding clinic", where they and their diets are introduced to each other. The amount of food each person eats during a typical one-week period is graphically demonstrated. The participants swap diets for the same period of time, matching portion sizes and frequency of eating. The point is to shock each of them out of their unhealthy dietary habits by temporarily taking on an almost opposite regime.

Although this is the real focus of the show, other weight related topics are examined. Gillian McKeith of "You Are What You Eat" is filmed while traveling around Great Britain on a crusade to decrease the size of British "butts". One could almost describe her segment as "informative comic relief". McKeith rounds up groups of women to test various butt reducing techniques. Some examples include, electro-muscular stimulation, special walking shoes, and sessions with a personal trainer.

Yet another segment has a reporter looking into the effectiveness and safety of various weight loss practices, such as diet pills, cosmetic surgery, hypnotherapy and a diet made up entirely of baby foods.

The topics are covered in a way that makes the show entertaining and amusing, but very powerful. The real "meat and potatoes" lies in the struggles faced by the participants who have swapped diets and the outcomes. These people are not actors. The fact that they are real people with real problems engages the viewer, and it is fascinating to watch the clash of diets unfold. Will "Superskinny" be able to stomach "Supersize's" quantities and general lack of healthy choices? Will "Supersize" be able to function on the meager caloric intake of "Superskinny"? And, in the end, will they learn something valuable about their diets and their health? At times, the viewer is held by an astonished curiosity at the participants' body sizes.

What quickly becomes apparent is the supersize's emotional attachments to eating, and the superskinny's mindset with regards to diet. The message in the majority of the episodes is that overeaters tend to be somewhat mindless in their food intake, whereas female under eaters tend to be quite mindful. Interestingly, in the few episodes where the superskinny is male, the eating habits are just as mindless as the supersize but in the opposite way; the male superskinnies spend so little time thinking about food that they do not make time to eat much at all. When the supersize diet is placed in front of them, they have less difficulty consuming it than their female counterparts who are convinced their limited diets are healthy or will prevent aging.

It should be noted that one episode in the Fall 2008 season featuring two female participants did break these themes. The supersize was a gourmet cook who made high quality meals but had problems with portion control. Her superskinny counterpart ate meager amounts of low quality foods.

In each episode, Dr. Jessen spends time with both participants to explain the health hazards their diets will cause. After one week of sharing mealtimes and eating each other's foods, the two participants are sent on their way with personalized diet plans to try out on their own. At the end of the show, they return and are weighed to see how well they have done, and to receive encouragement and more counseling from Dr. Jessen.

There is much to be learned from watching how two people whose sizes are so diametrically opposed react to taking on the other's diet. The emotional, physical and intellectual struggles the participants face are made obvious, and are thus more poignant for the viewer. These aren't contestants on a weight loss game show – the only prizes are improvements to their long term health outlook, and perhaps a life-changing epiphany that just may lead to a life more fully lived. Tune in. This is, for the most part, powerful and rewarding viewing.

Supersize vs Superskinny airs on the Women's Television Network in Canada and on Channel 4 in Britain.

Ricardo van Sertima has a BA in Theatre from the University of Ottawa. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist having studied at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. Currently he is a staff Nutritionist and Supplements Consultant at Rainbow Natural Foods.

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