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“The Whale”: A Theme of Redemption

the whale

“The Whale”: A Theme of Redemption

I hadn’t planned on seeing The Whale for reasons that had to do with the disrespectful depiction of obesity and fatphobia in movies, but when Brendan Fraser won an Oscar for his performance, I changed my mind because I love a good redemption story. I had no idea that the movie was also about redemption. 

The Whale brought up strong emotions for me – but not the same feelings that many critics of the movie felt. 

Roger Ebert wrote that it’s “an abhorrent film, but it also features excellent performances. It gawks at the grotesqueness of its central figure beneath the guise of sentimentality, but it also offers sharp exchanges between its characters that ring with bracing honesty.” Many said it was hard to watch. People get uncomfortable around really fat bodies. In the film, the food delivery boy fell to the ground, running away, and the online students gasped when getting a glimpse of the central figure, Charlie, who was 600 pounds. I was sad and angry because the movie brings to light a common story of an uncommon life that few understand. 

Activists protested that they cast a normal weight individual who wore prosthetics rather than hire an obese actor. I felt the portrayal, although fabricated, was authentic and true to the human experience of living with severe obesity. Brendan was able to bring humanity to the role. We saw Charlie – the man, the father, the lover, the teacher, the good and decent person – without making this movie about his body. People don’t decide to end up in these body-bound and home-ridden situations; they all have real and sometimes tragic stories like the main character in this film. Religious trauma leading to suicide, love, loss, secrets, regret, redemption, and binge eating disorder are themes in Aronofsky’s The Whale.

Throughout the movie, Charlie inflicted more pain and trauma on his body with every episode of binge eating.  

He eats to numb his pain but also sadly to harm himself. One binge episode, brought on by rage, was truly depicted: a frenzied, dissociative process of stuffing anything edible he could find. It wasn’t about the food. He understood that he was dying, his health compromised due to too much strain on his heart, and yet, he continues. He loses hope.  

I have seen this play out in the lives of the clients that I treat. Those that want help have few options. We simply aren’t equipped to care for them. Many can’t get medical procedures that they need due to their girth, as the equipment will not accommodate their size. Even eating disorder treatment centers don’t have the proper furniture and special equipment for showering, transferring, and mobilizing. 

For instance, we spent six weeks preparing for a client’s admission to a reputable treatment center only to be discharged a day later because their “bariatric bed” was too small to accommodate my 450 pound client. It was a traumatic experience for her. Every treatment center that I have worked with that has tried to accommodate large-bodied clients has gone out of business because insurance wouldn’t pay to treat these individuals. 

Loved ones are torn as to how to care for them. Charlie’s caretaker brings in supersized meatball subs, while the daughter offers only to make a turkey sandwich with no mayo – and yet, who is being crueler? It’s complicated. Within the medical and eating disorder treatment communities, we also can’t agree. There’s outrage over obesity medicine and their pills and surgery recommendations, but binge eating disorder is a real mental health issue with no treatment options for those that need more than virtual cognitive behavioral therapy. We need to do better. Meanwhile, real people with real stories are suffering, feeling trapped in their own bodies and unable to leave their homes. 

The movie, The Whale, was named for an essay by Ellie, Charlie’s daughter, written about the book, Moby Dick. 

He considered it the most honest piece of work he had ever read. Charlie implored his students to write something honest. The Whale may have had a metaphoric meaning, referring to the size of Charlie, but this movie was not about his size. It was about honesty and being redeemed for mistakes. I hope we find redemption and figure this very real problem out.


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