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    Fit, Fat, and Fabulous: Kili Big Follows Plus-Sized Women’s Journey to Mount Kilimanjaro

    By Jan Wahl–

    Has Jan lost it this time? Fat is something to be ashamed of … hidden as best as one can and forcing one to be banished to the edges of society. I beg to differ. It is a loaded word many people dislike. It is a word that can be so hurtful that Tracy Turnblad’s mother never leaves home (Hairspray reference!). But as we know, sometimes self-acceptance is truly liberating. 

    A perfect example of 20 proud, plus-sized women is a terrific new documentary Kili Big. Directed by Ida Roglar, the film allows us to follow these women as they climb … get ready … Mount Kilimanjaro. In Tanzania, it is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. From the training through the climb, this diverse group is nothing if not bad-ass (in a most identifiable way!). It is hearty representation through personal stories and self-acceptance, but the documentary also dazzles with gorgeous scenery and exciting locales. Filmmaker Roglar gives us a deep appreciation for the native guides who provide the women with strength, kindness, music, and love.

    The featured group of women is of all ages, gay and straight, in business and at home. But even the most reticent in terms of personality is flipping societal expectations and stigmas. Each explains their journey, which to many of us seems insane. Their enthusiasm is infectious; their fierce commitment inspiring.

    Eve Bogdanove is one of those brave women. She lives in western Massachusetts and is a trained social worker and psychotherapist. She has been out as a lesbian for 41 years. Chatting with her recently for the San Francisco Bay Times was a joy. “I had done a series of challenges in my life since I turned fifty,” she told me. “I wanted to improve my fitness. I have a big personality and am pretty larger than life. I had recently had my eye removed due to an illness and was feeling the fragility of being alive. I thought, I need to have a big challenge. I like to live among my peers so I thought if twenty fat women are climbing together—hey, me too.”

    She continued, “I never did any kind of altitude. Fortunately, I trained and my trainer taught me cardio. I did become quite ill on the mountain and that was the hardest thing. Altitude sickness distorts your thinking and zaps your energy. Climbing that last bit was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Three people with cameras were following us, completely lovely and unobtrusive.  Even though they were mostly skinny, they were not afraid of the material or of us. I watched them grow comfortable with the word ‘fat.’” 

    “Fat is an adjective but it became a slur,” Bogdanove added. “People have attached morality, human characteristics, and judgement to the word. I don’t think there is anything to be ashamed about. It’s an adjective, period. The impact of all that judgement is deadly for some: eating disorders, suicide, depression. All of that is unnecessary because it is only fat. People think fat is a medical issue. It is sometimes the consequence of an underlying disorder, like diabetes, but it is not the disease. I’m realistic about all that.”

    “I only knew one woman [from the group] before; we were tentmates on the trek,” she shared. “I got to know the others online in the year we were training. I was able to attend one in-person get together in western New York where we tried out our winter gear. Some of them had never been in snow before! When I signed up, I assumed everyone was fine with the word ‘fat,’ but it turned out all of us were in different parts of our fat identity. I got to see women step into their power as a fat person. Many went from shame and fear to understand that it is just a word.”

    Bogdanove continued, “The relationship with the porters was one of my favorites. There were guides and porters, both wonderful: 50 guides and 50 porters. They said from the beginning: ‘We are your brothers. Your journey to the top of the mountain is our prize, too.’ They loved us.”

    “The dance party you see in the film was very special,” she added. “They picked me up! As a fat woman, you don’t often get that experience. It was beautiful. There were two top guys, the most experienced guys. Andrew was amazing. There were a number of women porters. I asked the women to teach me how to say ‘fat women are amazing’ in Swahili. It was such a delight! Our director also made us feel cared for and safe. She is a great filmmaker.”

    “There were more straight women on the trek than queer,” Bogdanove said. “Being queer was something that definitely helped.  When we are marginalized and made ‘other’ and told we do not belong, we can learn a fierceness that is necessary for survival.  That fierceness informed the trek for me: if you can meet it head on, it makes you stronger. Not everybody makes it. I hiked that mountain for everybody. It was a privilege. I brought home grace. I learned about grace in my body and in the planet.”

    Thank you, Eve, and to everyone who made this movie possible. The documentary has been shown at a number of festivals and has won several awards. You can catch the film via the Chicken Soup for the Soul streaming service: https://tinyurl.com/jysyrm45

    For more information: https://www.kilibig.com/

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at www.janwahl.com

    Published on August 25, 2022