The makers of “My 600-lb Life,” about Americans with severe obesity attempting gastric bypass surgery and one of the TLC network’s top-rated shows, continued filming in late March despite the health risks and compromised immune systems for some cast members. They carried on well after the public health guidance to stay at home and practice social distancing, proving how powerful our fatphobic curiosity truly is.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, sources from “My 600-lb. Life” shared group chats that revealed crew members discussing how one subject’s hospital was on lockdown and not allowing the crew inside to film. Stars who feared for their health during the pandemic were allegedly told not to mention the virus during filming. Only after complaints did the show’s Austin, Texas-based production company halt filming, with the company arguing it was an “essential” business.
Putting cast and crew at risk seems irresponsible. On the other hand, it feels unsurprising for one of the many productions that pretend to spread the gospel of body positivity and acceptance while profiting off of the exploitation of fat bodies and trauma.
For its part, TLC said in a statement that “The safety of our show talent, crews and employees is our top priority. Production on 'My 600-lb Life' has stopped and will not resume until the crisis is resolved."
“My 600-lb. Life” is one of several fat-centric ratings magnets for TLC, which has a penchant for airing shows that turn people into sideshows alongside the similarly freakish plotlines on “Dr. Pimple Popper” and “My Strange Addiction.” The network’s approach to entertainment seems often to embrace the presumption that fat is inherently precarious and undesirable — and yet also worthy of constant surveillance. Fat people are curiosities to be probed and displayed for nonfat people. This isn't to say their pain and challenges aren't real — but do their struggles really need to be mined for advertising dollars?
Take for example the recent TLC miniseries “Hot and Heavy,” which followed three “mixed weight” couples, all of them featuring average-to-muscular men and much fatter women, placing them in scenarios where the woman’s fatness operated as a liability. In a press release before the January premiere, the network posed the dumbfounding question, “Does love really conquer all?” as if so-called mixed-weight couples of various gender and sexuality mixes haven’t always been commonplace. Even the show’s title functions as an odd juxtaposition, positioning thinner as “hot” and “heavy” as the opposite. And somehow, the onus is on the women to prove their worth and beauty, a premise that attracted stinging online criticism.
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To be fair, though, TLC is not the only business built in large part on fat curiosity. The notion that fat is inherently unhealthy has fueled an entire industry of dubious diet pills, one-size-fits-all regimens and health infotainment — not to mention movies and TV. The 1996 film “The Nutty Professor” and its 2000 sequel, starring Eddie Murphy, won an Oscar for best makeup as the comedian wore fat suits, wigs and heavy makeup to morph into five members of a family, all of whom have obesity, fart at the dinner table and leave no stone unturned at buffet restaurants.
In the films, professor Sherman Klump engages in risky experiments to develop a marketable serum for extreme weight loss, both to enrich the university where he works and to solve his romance and self-esteem problems. The Klumps, as a family, played into tropes of fat people as ill-mannered, greedy, inconsiderate and unhappy individuals who take up way too much space both in personality and in size.
The film, which has not aged well, was nevertheless a precursor to fatness becoming a prevailing theme in the burgeoning reality TV landscape of the early 2000s.
During FOX’s run of “American Idol,” Simon Cowell judged contestants, particularly women, on both their vocal ability and their appearance. Meanwhile, fellow judge Randy Jackson’s weight became a common punchline for scorned contestants. The insults persisted until Jackson had gastric bypass surgery to lose weight.
“The Biggest Loser,” which shamed teams of fat people into competing with one another to lose weight in record time, engaged in an approach to fitness that many dieticians now say is unhealthy. The show was rebooted this winter in a “kinder” format, but while the trainers may be different, the guiding principles are the same.
In 2020, it feels strange that we are still having to debate why shows that promote unhealthy ideas about body image are — at best — psychologically damaging for millions of Americans. But despite societal progress in many areas, cultural mores toward weight have not shifted much. Bias and discrimination against fat bodies runs rampant in workplaces, health care and various social settings. Estimates based on current trends suggest that half of Americans will be considered obese by the end of the decade. Even so, in 49 states, employees can still be fired because of their weight. Multiple studies show employers are less likely to hire fat women, with hiring managers less likely to acknowledge their leadership potential and career aptitude and more likely to associate their bodies with laziness and unprofessionalism.
The fear of becoming or being fat fuels eating disorders — which affect people of all sizes. But life-threatening mental and physical ailments can be harder to detect in larger people, who are sometimes told they aren’t “thin enough” to experience an eating disorder. And the media remains all too quick to celebrate weight loss as an accomplishment, despite the fact that losing weight is not in fact synonymous with becoming more healthy, mentally or physically.
It’s OK to be fat. And if reading or reciting that phrase of affirmation causes even the slightest hesitation, a number of factors could be at play. Reality TV shows undeniably contribute to these factors, but a cultural narrative this entrenched is built over time.
Of course, there are ways to enjoy entertainment focused on fatness and large bodies that center humanity and authenticity. For example, the Hulu series “Shrill,” based on the book from writer and comedian Lindy West, takes on fat acceptance, romance and work from the perspective of a woman who still loves herself.
The truth is that struggles with health and self-esteem occur independent of what someone weighs. Dialogues about depression, eating disorders and major surgery deserve to be shown thoughtfully and empathetically.
Hopefully, placing more empowered fat people both in front of and behind the camera and in writer’s rooms can continue to help shift this paradigm. Because sadly, like many things in entertainment (and in life), sometimes we have to see it to really believe it.