Sunday, August 23, 2009

23 - Fat TV

For those of you waiting patiently, after a bit of back and forth between Kerry Mitchell (president of Addition-Elle) and me, we are supposed to have a conversation sometime this coming week. As soon as I have something to report, you, the awesome blog fans, will know about it. In the mean time, I want to talk reality TV; specifically, fat reality TV.

The trend towards featuring heavier people on reality TV began slowly with shows like The Biggest Loser and X-Weighted. But a crop of new shows this summer has turned this light trickle into a deluge (or at least a fast-running stream). The afore-mentioned weight loss shows are still around with the addition of Dance Your Ass Off and the one-woman weight-loss journey, Ruby. More to LoveThe Bachelor for the heavier set—features a big guy who is very psyched to be choosing from a bevy of big girls. And with this influx of fatty programming has come a valid questioning of whether these shows are actually about the denigration rather than the empowerment of overweight people.

A great deal of criticism has been leveled at all of the programs, with special censure for More to Love. In my opinion, the concept isn’t actually that bad. The bachelor in question, Luke Conley, makes no bones about how much he loves the voluptuous women in competition for his attentions. And a show that features women who wear double-digit dress sizes in a competition that doesn’t have to do with making them feel bad about their weight is certainly something to talk about. But it’s not all good news. Of all the comments on Fox’s website about the show after the first episode, 65% of them were entirely about the network’s unfortunate decision to post each contestant’s height and weight on the screen every time she was interviewed, as well as at elimination time. This is by no means a clear indicator of the percentage of people watching who are upset by this practice and, to be frank, I’m sure there are plenty of people tuning in, who are thrilled to the point of wetting themselves to have that information. But it does make one wonder if the producers really want to treat the contestants like they do the “regular” bachelorettes, or if the show is simply about making a buck at the expense of heavier women.

At least on More to Love, though, there’s question as to the intentions of the makers. No such question enters my mind when it comes to the programs focused on weight loss. Losing weight on TV hasn’t been dignified or even remotely fun since sometime around the Richard Simmons Sweatin’ to the Oldies infomercials. Contestants on The Biggest Loser, X-Weighted and Dance Your Ass Off spend weeks being humiliated, torn down and shouted at “for their own good;” which is why I love what little I’ve seen of Ruby. Ruby Gettinger is the most likeable person I’ve seen on reality TV, ever. She has weighed as much as 700lbs in her life and has lost over 400lbs before and during the show. In the episode that I watched most recently, her adorable ex-boyfriend came to town to help her find a new trainer because she’d just “fired” one. Ruby appears to be surrounded by a number of very supportive, down to earth people—rather than a bunch of self-righteous weirdos—and she does not evoke pity in the least. Instead, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I have to admit, she’s really inspirational and super refreshing. She represents what inclusive TV should look like all the time.

In Susie Orbach’s recent book Bodies, she talks about the Western fixation with the body as a personal renovation project, rather than the place in which we live and breathe. In the book’s opening pages, she makes the following comment, which, I think, characterizes so much of our attitude towards weight and weight loss: “The body has become a new focus in both women’s and men’s lives...the individual is now deemed accountable for his or her body and judged by it. ’Looking after oneself’ is a moral value.”

I can’t think of a context in which this rings more true than in weight loss reality TV. I think an unfortunate number of people in the personal training business have never learned a thing about human nature or how to actually motivate people. Reading that excerpt in Bodies reminded me of every clip I’ve ever seen of X-Weighted’s Paul Plakas and every other trainer on every other reality TV show. They all seem to feel they have a license to belittle contestants because these people have committed the mortal sin of having ever gotten fat at all. It’s like some sort of church of fitness presided over by a gaggle of very hell fire and brimstone preachers. I wonder if these contestants have a lot of success keeping off the weight they’ve lost on the shows with no one around to threaten them anymore?

Recently I watched a show, that was the anti-Ruby, and probably the worst case of self-inflicted fat reality TV I’ve ever seen. It was a Discovery Health special called My Big Fat Body featuring actor/comedian Frank Payne. The funny man narrated the program, which resulted in a simultaneously hammy and pitiable hour of Payne sounding strangely surprised, and then depressed, about how unhealthy he’d become. I expected the show to be about Payne’s actual weight loss attempt, but it was mostly an hour of Payne being told that he was basically about to die by one doctor after another. He spends a useless day at the Stanford University Human Performance Lab, a centre designed to help top athletes find their teeny, tiny flaws and fix them, so they can go on to become super heroes and demi-gods. I’m not sure what the point was in putting Payne on the O2 max machine to do a stress test while he ran. The dexascan, which basically showed him his skeleton in relation to his body size, also seemed irrelevant. Payne was a large man with some health problems—a fact that was obvious before he ever set foot in the building. But he must have gotten something from the experience; in a moment of clarity (or delirium) afterward, Payne declares that he has to “get fit or die.”

By the end of the program, Payne is down 60lbs from an original 363lbs, which is impressive. But the show is full, front to back, with dramatizations of Payne eating uncontrollably, shots of his alleged weekend food intake, and an army of health professionals calling him a “ticking time bomb” and generally tut-tutting at him. There’s even a brief visit with a surgeon to talk about a gastric bypass that Payne never has. The time spent looking at Payne’s actual attempts at weight loss amount to about four minutes—how inspiring. While I’m glad he got what he wanted from the show, it seemed like he was required to check his dignity at the door from the get go, and that’s unfortunate. An experience that will likely change Payne’s life for the better shouldn’t have to be wrought with such cart loads of humiliation. But, for the moment, I guess that’s what keeps people on the couch watching.

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