Rachel Frederickson from The Biggest Loser
Under the auspices of reality television, there is an entire subculture of shows devoted exclusively to the obese. These shows, with an articulated focus on fat people, seem to vary significantly from program to program. Some, like The Biggest Loser, follow your standard competition and transformation narrative. Others, like Fat Chance, invoke the reality dating show: only here, participants are considered un-dateable up until the point where they lose weight and therefore become eligible for love. The medical angle is covered in programs like Fat Doctors or My 600-lb. Life; celebrity-centred programming can be found on Celebrity Fat Fighters. Some programs, like Fat Families, shift away from the individual, while others focus on kids: Too Fat for 15: 500 Pounds and Counting or Supersize vs. Superskinny: Kids, a spinoff of the adult version. With few exceptions, these programs are about weight loss, and regardless of their differences in approach, each is a variation on a single theme: being fat really sucks.
The popularity of these programs is not surprising. They are the products of a culture that is both deeply fixated on and has a vested interested in propagating the idea that weight and appearance are barometers of individual worth. That fat-centric content has flourished within the genre of reality television is equally unsurprising. Reality TV promises its viewers anomalousness and authenticity—fat-centric programs have both. Fat-centric reality television programs seldom focus on the slightly to moderately overweight individual, the person who needs to lose 20-30 pounds, the sort of person that mostly adheres to the standards of acceptable outward appearance. Instead, they tend to focus on, and emphasize, the extremes, those for whom fat has become disruption. As for authenticity—never have you seen people so vulnerable. Where the “reality” offered in most reality television programs feels performative (and often is), the participants on these shows are genuinely struggling for the cameras—sweating, crying, and suffering. By their very participation in the show, they are defenseless. Their food intake, schedules, weight, and bodies become public knowledge. Within a reality television landscape where ironic detachment is often the norm, the vulnerability on display is striking.
In Hunger, Roxane Gay describes being overweight as an experience in which “your body becomes a matter of public record … constantly and prominently on display.” The vulnerability of participants in fat-centric television programs is rarely the kind of vulnerability that builds bridges between people and across experiences. Instead, it is the vulnerability of those who are powerless, who give but can’t take, who await dissection. The overarching interest in the fat body specifically, in the spectacle of it, is borne out in the structure of these programs. For shows that are ostensibly about weight loss, fat-centric reality television programs focus most of their attention, if not all, on the pre–weight loss body. Here, the camera spends a gratuitous amount of time cataloguing overhanging stomachs, flabby arms, sores, and swelling. The post–weight loss body is of considerably less interest (unless the weight loss is too extreme, as in the case of Rachel Frederickson on The Biggest Loser).
In shows that focus on the super-morbidly obese, like TLC’s My 600-lb. Life, the focus on the fat body is especially pronounced. On this program, the naked, fat body is regularly on display, with cameras filming participants even as they shower or use the bathroom. The bigger the body of the participant, the less privacy they seem to be afforded (or, the more different your body is, the less respect it deserves). While participants are emotionally vulnerable in front of the cameras, too, so much of their vulnerability stems from the degree to which their physical bodies are made the focal point of every scene.
And yet, desiring acceptance, love, and the privacy that comes with a body that isn’t considered a spectacle, participants in these programs are willing to give everything in exchange for the possibility of return to the land of the thin.
My 600-lb. Life is a particularly devastating example of the exploitative and debasing nature of much fat-centric reality television. The intimacy is too much, the pathos too intense, and as the show builds with scene after scene of fat bodies in pain, it begins to feel less like it is working toward some conclusion (weight loss) and more like it is attempting to establish some essential difference. As if to say that the body of the viewer (you) and the body of the person on the screen (them) are made of completely different matter. Clips easily locatable online have titles that gesture toward both abject misery and alienation; one clip reads: “Kristen Feels Like a Prisoner in Her Fat,” another: “Diana Doesn’t Feel Like a Human Being Anymore.” These takes are symptomatic of a show that, in lieu of focusing more heavily on the journey and aftermath of a significant change, revel in the misery and isolation of the fat experience. In the final summation, fat-centric reality television programs are built on the foundation that fat is fundamentally different, which in turn is justification—this is their appeal, their claim to relevance.
In My 600-lb. Life there is a conclusion: the gastric bypass surgery that participants were working toward. Follow-ups show smaller, more active participants, but they are still not at the end of their weight loss journeys. The essential difference hasn’t disappeared, only changed its shape. Where the fat once was, there is loose skin that hangs down in folds. For most participants, the next step in the process includes additional surgeries to remove excess layers of skin, and there is an entire program on the same network that is dedicated to this premise. Skin Tight follows people as they consult with doctors and undergo surgery to remove the layers of skin that remain after extreme weight loss. Like its predecessor, Skin Tight has a fascination with the pre-surgery body, all its lurid details and dissimilarities. For many participants on Skin Tight, the skin that remains is more than just a reminder that they were once fat but also a reminder that they still inhabit bodies that do not meet the standards of normality. Where once they were haunted by fat, now they are haunted by skin, that ghost flesh that follows them around. They no longer carry the weight, but they are still othered by it—permanent residents of fat land.
Fat-centric reality television programs proffer the bodies of its participants as strange and alien things. At the same time, under the guise of being ultimately concerned with weight loss, they suggest that, while there is a border between us (thin) and them (fat), it’s one that can be crossed. Within each fat person is a success story, a prodigal son or daughter just waiting to come home. But the border, even as it’s constructed within the landscape of reality television, is a chimera; the obsessive focus on fat bodies within fat-centric reality TV is a manifestation of the desire to keep fat people suspended in a place where they can be scrutinized. And yet, desiring acceptance, love, and the privacy that comes with a body that isn’t considered a spectacle, participants in these programs are willing to give everything in exchange for the possibility of return to the land of the thin. This is the essential pathos of these programs—watching people on screen who want to rejoin a society they feel ostracized from, even while they are participants on programs that relish in the opportunity to both ostracize them and fix them firmly in the place where they are most miserable. Yes, participants continue their lives and weight loss journeys after their episode has ended, but at that point, we can no longer see them. While we still can, the camera invites us to gape.
Kathryn Stagg is a writer and researcher whose work has appeared in the Hamilton Review of Books and The Puritan‘s Town Crier. She lives in Toronto.