Tube Tied: Let's Cut the Fat, Shall We?

Michelle Dean
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I'm a big advocate of the political power of popular culture. I want to make every single person who is still saying, "I just don't understand why they have to be so public about it," sit down and watch The Laramie Project. The ability of narrative to move us is a side of feminist activism we don't talk about much, but it is, to me, the best one we have, which is why I love writing about pop culture from a feminist angle. I don't go, as I've said before, for monocausal explanations of just about anything. But I do think there's some relationship between seeing something depicted in a story and finding it easier to approach in real life.

The exception that's been proving my rule lately is the appearance, suddenly, of a spate of television shows about fat people: More to Love, The Biggest Loser, Drop Dead Diva. I put it this bluntly because in general, I'm an advocate of fat acceptance, and that includes calling fat what it is: fat. The Washington Post, in what one supposes was a hamfisted attempt at solidarity, recently proclaimed that "fat is fabulous" on television these days. They went on to speculate: what could possibly be behind this trend of having so much adipose tissue on display? Could it be that the fat people are taking over (the article slyly notes that "adult obesity rates increased in 23 states last year, and nearly one-third of all children in 30 states are considered overweight")? Alison Sweeney, the host of The Biggest Loser, limply offers that it must be about people connecting with the "human spirit."

I suppose I could agree with her if I thought any of these shows had the least thing to do with the "human spirit" of anyone at all, let alone fat people. Summoning people for reality show cattle calls isn't my vision of human compassion, and I hope it isn't yours either. As for Drop Dead Diva, I turned the show off after watching for two episodes. Margaret Cho and a charming star in Brooke Elliott cannot rescue a premise in which the personality of some poor fat woman has been summarily dispensed with so that a "thin soul" may learn a Very Important Lesson. Hell no.

No, I think this has a lot to do with a theory about body image I've been working on for awhile now: nothing can suck most women in faster than the vortex of a body image discussion. Try it out when you're out sometime, if you haven't noticed this trend already: complain about some "flaw" you have, and watch what happens. I realize that that sounds an awful lot like "them girls are so unreasonable and superficial!" so let me say this: I don't think this is our fault, ladies. I think it is the world around us that keeps us preoccupied with our so-called imperfections to keep us from looking up.

But what I want to say about this entire trend of shows in which there is some kind of fat protagonist is this: if the show is about them being "fat," instead of about them being "human," we are being duped, friends. We are the targets of a very smart little marketing strategy that has discovered that to the vast majority of women, body-talk is irresistible, and here these programs provide an avenue for us to feel "solidarity" in our misery. If only we could learn that living in a fat body ain't so bad - you could totally get on a show where a trainer barks at you and you sweat for everyone's pleasure or else get to compete with a bunch of other women for some poor schmuck to give you a CZ ring and dump you a week later! C'mon, who wouldn't want to be fat in this society with that kind of "connection to the human spirit on offer"??!?

Anyone... ?

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4 Comments Have Been Posted


I agree with your points entirely. Putting fat 'freaks' on show is not the way to gain acceptance for all body types. I am fat but can actually go for days at a time without thinking about my body shape - I'm too busy living my life! Yes, we do need a more representative cross section of body types on tv - not to mention skin colours and physical abilities - but the way to do that is not to display people 'because' they are fat. Let's just show life as it is, with all it's flaws!

I totally agree with you. I

I totally agree with you. I also feel like the way fat people, especially fat women, in television shows such as these are portrayed is insulting and belittling. It seems like they're saying "these women are great, EVEN THOUGH/DESPITE THE FACT that they're overweight." Maybe the emphasis should be on something a little deeper and more important then a woman's appearance and looks? It's good to see women with more normal bodies in popular culture, but on the other hand, it just puts a larger emphasis on one's appearance and body image.

Newsweek noticed something too...

They put together<a href=""> "How Obesity is Portrayed in Movies" </a>going over some pretty comprehensive fat archetypes, "Real Thin People Faking Fatness", the "Hot Fat Mess," the "Chubby Funny Best Friend," and the "Fat Black Matriarch."

Strangely, Bonnie Grape of <i>What's Eating Gilbert Grape</i> is given her own category.

<blockquote>St. John and Bernstein point out Bonnie a rarity in film. "It was the first compassionate film portrayal (at least on our media radar) that attempted to show a very large person with some emotional depth and complexity," they write. It doesn't glamorize obesity, but instead shows consequences both of morbid obesity and the stigmatization around it. Bonnie Grape was a flawed woman fiercely loved and protected by her family, one with problems and ambitions and real pain. </blockquote>

I think is code for "Huh! Imagine! A character of <i>actual</i> character who has more going on than just being fat!" which is enough to garner your own little fat stereotype.

Anyway, it's flawed but interesting, definitely worth a look!


Most of my circle of friends and I range from 350-500+ pounds, and not once can I remember any of us sitting around having a bitch fest about our bodies, or crying like the reality show unfortunates featured on these painfully embarrassing tv shows. For the most part we are all secure, confident, healthy, body-satisfied women who have better things to do with our time than watch that shit, or throw pity parties.

That is an interesting point about Bonnie Grape. It is good that an obese character is featured in a less one-dimensional light, but being obese doesn't mean playing the sad fatty, either.

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