"Super Size Me" at 20: How America's obesity conversation has evolved and stalled

The iconic documentary turned 20 this month — the same month Oprah and "South Park" released weight loss specials

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 29, 2024 2:45PM (EDT)

Sign at an abandoned fast food restaurant (Getty Images/dickiedavis123)
Sign at an abandoned fast food restaurant (Getty Images/dickiedavis123)

In the late documentarian Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film “Super Size Me,” it’s clear that he’s casting McDonald’s as the villain from the moment a choir of kids begin enthusiastically singing the “Fast Food Song,” a novelty tune-turned playground standard by the Fast Food Rockers, a three-member band who met at a British fast-food convention in the early aughts. 

You know how it goes. 

Between slightly cheeky lyrics like “I think of you and lick my lips, you've got the taste that I can't resist” and “you’re chunky and hunky, I'm coming back for more” is the ear-worm of a chorus: McDonald's, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut. McDonald's, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut. 

It’s an intentional choice, having kids shout out the lyrics instead of just hitting “play” on the track. A key argument in Spurlock’s documentary — which infamously saw him consuming McDonald’s for three meals a day for a month while tracking the mental and physical health effects — is that fast-food companies knowingly unleashed menu items with highly addictive qualities and substandard nutrition on a generation of Americans who didn’t fully understand the impacts consuming those meals would have on their bodies. 

That includes members of what health professionals at the time of the film’s release had taken to calling the “Happy Meal generation,” the cohort of children who had grown up having fast-food marketed specifically to them with promises of fun and flair. That’s actually one of the reasons Spurlock embarked on filming; in 2003, the parents of two adolescent girls sued McDonald’s, alleging the company’s “making and selling their products [were] deceptive and that this deception has caused the minors who have consumed McDonalds' products to injure their health by becoming obese.” 

Yet running parallel to this argument in “Super Size Me,” which came out 20 years ago this month, is a palpable level of disgust. 

This is largely leveled at McDonald’s and their food (I think of a scene early in Spurlock’s journey when he decides to deconstruct a flabby Filet-O-Fish that had obviously been under the heat lamp for too long, complete with a yellowing smear of tartar sauce). However, peppered throughout the 98-minute documentary are also ample shots of overweight Americans — specifically their stomachs and backsides. 

Every time the camera zoomed in on a thigh dimpled with cellulite or revealed a waistline extending past one’s belt, there was a clear, if unstated, implication: The same food that elicited that level of disgust from Spurlock contributed to bodies that were also worthy of disgust or disdain. This was clearly reflected in a lot of the coverage of the McDonald’s lawsuit, in which the girls at the center of the litigation were frequently referred to as “McFatties,” including by the New York Post. 

Keep in mind, “Super Size Me” was released during the advent of what would soon become the peak “weight loss TV” era, during which wellness adjacent-personalities like Jillian Michaels of “The Biggest Loser” could scream at contestants struggling with their weight and it would be written off as entertainment. This paved the way for MTV’s 2006 documentary “Fat Camp” and litany of similar projects: “You Are What You Eat,” “Three Fat Brides, One Thin Dress,” “Extreme Weight Loss” and “My 600-Lb. Life.” 

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Underpinning both the documentary and the subsequent glut of weight-focused television was the question of who was to blame for the rising rates of American obesity, which former Surgeon General of the United States David Satcher declared an epidemic in 2000. In his introduction to “Super Size Me,” Spurlock even asks the question: “Where does personal responsibility stop and corporate responsibility begin?” 

While the merits of the documentary itself have since been debated and refuted (Spurlock refused to share his food log for the experiment, and later revealed he was heavily drinking at the time which could have skewed the health results) the question of how personal responsibility plays into obesity has only grown more complicated, thanks both to the advent of the Health At Every Size movement and blockbuster weight loss drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy. 

This has introduced a critical moment for the contemporary discussion around obesity, as everyone from Oprah Winfrey to “South Park” has weighed in with a take — and it also offers an opportunity to reflect ow our attitudes towards obesity have, and haven’t, changed in the two decades since the initial release of “Super Size Me.” 

For instance, in her live broadcast with Weight Watchers earlier this month called “Making The Shift: A New Way to Think About Weight,” Winfrey urged viewers to do away with the shame surrounding one’s weight. She shared a story of how Joan Rivers “challenged” her to lose 15 pounds during an interview in 1985, a story she also recounted in her cookbook “Food, Health and Happiness,” which was released earlier this year.

"As we reconcile the shame stories we have all experienced, I’m on a mission to keep this conversation going and help us better understand the complexity of weight health."

“Joan sat behind Johnny’s big wooden desk, telling me that she didn’t want to hear my excuses and that I shouldn’t have let this happen,” Winfrey wrote. “The audience laughed nervously as she wagged her flawlessly manicured finger at me, pointed out that I was still 'a single girl,' and challenged me to come back 15 pounds lighter next time she hosted. And the whole time I just sat there smiling breezily, wanting nothing more than to crawl under my chair.”

The livestream came off Oprah’s public admission that she had used medication to help maintain her weight at a healthy level. 

“As we reconcile the shame stories we have all experienced, I’m on a mission to keep this conversation going and help us better understand the complexity of weight health and how we can use the science and what we know now to enhance our lives,” Winfrey said. 

Exactly two weeks later, “South Park” released a special double-part episode called “South Park: The End of Obesity” on Paramount+. In it, as Salon Senior Editor Hanh Nguyen wrote, the entire town of South Park is attempting to get their hands on weight loss drugs, with varying results. 

“As with everything ‘South Park,’ anyone and everyone is fair game for satire,” Nguyen wrote. “There's the American healthcare system, which proves too Byzantine for the boys to navigate when trying to obtain medical help for their friend Cartman. Meanwhile many of South Park's adult residents seem to have gamed the system or received the drugs illegally, and are now holding weight loss parties where crop tops appear mandatory. A few like Stan's mom Sharon, however, are out of luck. Her insurance won't cover the drugs since she doesn't have diabetes, so she instead has turned to an alternative.” 

The alternative is simply getting a prescription for Lizzo, a reference to the singer behind body positive hits like “Juice” and “My Skin.” Lizzo has been a vocal proponent of the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement, which centers on the belief that healthy habits, like eating well and exercise, should be done to enhance wellness rather than to simply lose weight. In a fake advertisement for the product, an announcer promises that “"Lizzo makes you feel good about your weight, and it costs 90% less than Ozempic . . . In case studies, 70% of patients on Lizzo no longer care how much they weigh.” 

Sharon eventually offers her own first-person testimonial after trying Lizzo: “I've lowered my standards and my expectations. I don't give two s**ts!"

The idea that the HAES movement encourages complacency or glorifies obesity is a common argument among its detractors, including Jillian Michaels of “The Biggest Loser” and early-2000’s weight loss television fame. In 2020, she actually challenged the assertion that Lizzo should be celebrated for encouraging her fans to love their bodies as they are. 

“Why are we celebrating her [Lizzo’s] body? Why does it matter?” Michaels said during a segment on BuzzFeed News’s AM2DM show. “Why aren’t we celebrating her music? ‘Cause it isn’t going to be awesome if she gets diabetes.” 

Michaels later posted a longer comment on social media, writing: “As I’ve stated repeatedly, we are all beautiful, worthy, and equally deserving. I also feel strongly that we love ourselves enough to acknowledge there are serious health consequences that come with obesity — heart disease, diabetes, cancer to name only a few. I would never wish these for ANYONE and I would hope we prioritize our health because we LOVE ourselves and our bodies.” 

However, as indicated by the renewed cultural emphasis on weight and weight loss, American culture is still struggling with what exactly prioritizing one's health actually looks like just as much as they did two decades ago.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Analysis Mcdonalds Morgan Spurlock Oprah Winfrey South Park Super Size Me