Size Matters: We're Just Trying to Help

Tasha Fierce
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Tasha Fierce is a writer living in the occupied Tongva territory known as Los Angeles. You can follow them on Twitter at @tashajfierce and read more of their work on their website.

The Discovery Health channel is among my favorite TV channels, along with The Science Channel, TLC and the regular Discovery Channel. So a couple years ago when they started airing shows about "super morbidly obese" people getting bariatric surgery, I, of course, was quite interested. With sensationalist titles like Half-Ton Teen and World's Largest Man, how could I resist? Indeed, how could anyone resist shows that had promo spots consisting of firemen breaking down someone's wall to get their bed out of the house? Obviously, that's the point. These shows were not meant to teach, inform, or help. They were specifically designed to exploit the misfortune of these victims of our weight-obsessed society for monetary gain.

Bariatric (or "weight loss") surgery to me has always smacked of the kind of "let's just see if this works" procedures that used to be performed on mentally ill people, such as lobotomies. Fat people, like mentally ill people, are stigmatized in this society, and thinness is seen as a goal to be achieved by any means necessary, regardless of the side effects or complications involved in the process of achievement. So it's not surprising that bariatric surgery has become so popular among people of all sizes recently whereas in the past it was seen as a procedure of last resort. But I'm not going to debate the necessity for some folks to have this surgery done, because I do know that for victims of society's imperative to lose weight, yo-yo dieting can cause a downward spiral of unchecked weight gain that may need to be dealt with for the sake of someone's health. How that's dealt with is another matter. However, I do want to debate the wisdom of exploiting the casualties of the weight wars with shows like these.

Half-Ton Teen and its companion shows, Half-Ton Dad and Half-Ton Mom, follow the familiar narrative society expects of how fat people came to be. The subjects are portrayed as having been out of control, eating anything in sight, until they looked down and realized they weighed 800 lbs. This may or may not be the story in the majority of cases like these, but it definitely makes for good TV. They've come to a point where they cannot lose weight by dieting, so they need to get gastric bypass or some other form of weight loss surgery performed to save their lives. Enter the saviors from Houston's Renaissance Hospital, who swoop down to bring them into their inpatient program and transform them into worthwhile human beings again.

I would be less sarcastic about their intentions if these "life savers" weren't producing the shows themselves and actively looking for "super morbidly obese" people to rescue. I'm sorry, but these shows don't help fat people at all; in fact I would say they simply serve to shame any fat people watching the show into "seeking help" by portraying the subjects in the most embarrassing way possible. I fail to see how showing 10 firemen try to roll a man onto a sling in order to drag him out to an ambulance in front of dozens of gawking neighbors helps either the man being carried or the viewer. There is nothing informative about these programs. The science of weight gain is not discussed; the closest they come to a discussion of health is the supposed mental health of the patients, i.e. how they could let themselves go like that.

These shows must be popular, because Discovery Health and TLC are ridden with their ilk. 627lb Woman, Inside Brookhaven Obesity Clinic and Big Medicine, to name a few. All perpetuate the classic stereotype of the out of control fat person and all exploit their subjects for shock value and monetary gain. In addition, by positioning bariatric surgery as a procedure to be done flippantly, they are doing fat people a disservice by causing people to believe that surgery solves everything and giving fatphobes more justification for their concern trolling. The decision to have bariatric surgery should not be come to lightly. Fat people don't need the idea perpetuated that by not getting surgery done we're just being recalcitrant.

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25 Comments Have Been Posted

I haven't had cable for a

I haven't had cable for a few years, so haven't seen any of these shows - I did see an episode of <i>Oprah</i> about the children of an extremely fat woman who died after her bariatric surgery. It strikes me that these programs of "extreme" behavior, situations, etc. - e.g. <i>Hoarders</i> & <i>Intervention</i> - serve the purpose of making the viewer feel better about themselves, and act as cautionary tales.

I was thinking about

I was thinking about Hoarders as well as I read this blog. I've seen 2 episodes of it, and all i could think the entire time was how hiring professional organizers was not the answer to these people's problems. Any treatment or intervention that can be represented by a half or full hour episode is probably not a helpful solution for hoarding or eating to the point of immobility. It is meant for pure entertainment.

I was also thinking about the wedding of Mexico's "fattest man" that was broadcast all over Spanish channels...and I'm pretty sure made it onto Fox at one point. The announcers spoke about he planned to lose weight now that he found love, and had the motivation to do so (for his bride, i'm assuming). The sensation played off the amazement that someone so fat could find love, and that also all he really needed was a good enough reason to lose the weight.

hsofia, that lady who died

hsofia, that lady who died was "Half-Ton Mom" on Discovery Health. She didn't even get a named show.

What a dreadful name for a

What a dreadful name for a show!

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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse

A title just as bad was the

A title just as bad was the title "650-lb Virgin." Because to highlight that he's a virgin is just *so* important.

Ugh, these shows

At least some of them are (vaguely, sort of, kind of) about the medical side of stuff and helping people... plenty of them are just an hour of "Oh my gawd look at the fat people, aaaaah ohnoes", without so much as an offer of help. Is that better, or is that worse, to do a big, nosy documentary about someone's lifestyle habits, go "well that's really bad", and then... do nothing? Say nothing? Walk away without even a token, butt-covering "o hay here's some treatment"?

I can't even stand stuff like Big Medicine, though. I find myself compulsively watching it, but I know it'll hurt. It just makes me mad, because I do not buy into the premise that weight loss is a person's 1# imperative. That show isn't just about immobile fat folk, but almost 'average' looking people that are just... hell, they're <I>my size</i>. And apparently, according to the show's logic, there's something wrong enough with that that they need <I>surgery</i>. WTF no, no no no. :(

Is that better, or is that

<em>Is that better, or is that worse, to do a big, nosy documentary about someone's lifestyle habits, go "well that's really bad", and then... do nothing? Say nothing? Walk away without even a token, butt-covering "o hay here's some treatment"?</em>

It would be better if they weren't basically forced into the decision and if they had more information given to them about the life changing operation they were going to undergo.

It's all your fault, fatty!

The same attitude shows up in every show about weight loss. I've yet to see a show that blames restaurants for increasing the size of portions every five minutes. I've yet to see a show that talks about the lack of access to healthy lifestyles for poorer communities. Or the negative impact of a sit on your ass for 40 hours a week work schedule. Or most importantly, I don't see these shows try to change the stigma of being fat so that fat people would not be too scared to walk outside for fear of being judged. How many times have you heard a friend say, "I'm too fat for the gym." It breaks my heart to hear someone say that they feel too intimidated or self-conscious to go do something they might enjoy, like a swim or a bike ride. And I don't mean that they would enjoy it for the exercise to lose weight - puhlease, girl - I mean for the enjoyable natural chemical reactions that happen when you're physically exerting yourself. It's backwards the way the messages come out.

I watched a documentary

I watched a documentary called "Fat: What They're Not Telling You" and it was really informative. It discussed things like lack of access for poorer communities and larger portion sizes etc. It was on PBS of course. These shows are all about selling the surgery and the diet foods you're going to be eating for the rest of your life.

Voyeurism to the nth degree

I also do not have cable or a TV (I watch all my TV on the internet) but when ever I go home to visit my folks and I do have TV I am mesmerized by these shows, intervention, obsessed, hoarders, pet hoarders (I just discovered this one on my visit last month), celebrity rehab, and the whole range of weight loss shows (biggest loser to super obesity rescue (not really a show)). I also know that this plays to the worst of my character. I do watch because it makes me feel better about life. It is like volunteering at a homeless shelter and saying "well my life could be worse" except then the person is at least helping people at a shelter instead of sitting on their couch. Okay so I am a bad person for watching and enjoying this show, I totally buy that. But:

"They were specifically designed to exploit the misfortune of these victims of our weight-obsessed society for monetary gain."

I don't think you can really say this. On these shows, the people aren't just over weight, their weight is affecting their quality of life in a serious way. If a person cannot get out of bed because of his or her weight the argument that weight has nothing to do with health goes out the window. How exactly are they victims of the weight obsessed society though? If our society were less obsessed with weight this wouldn't have happened? How do you figure? It is definitely Fat shaming, no doubt. Are they victims because they severely overweight or because they are being exploited on TV? In that sense all the people on these kinds of shows are victims of the shows.

I think they're victims in

I think they're victims in the sense that they have most likely gotten to that weight via yo-yo dieting, which screws with your body's metabolism and enables you to gain more and more weight with every upswing. And yo-yo dieting is a symptom of our society's obsession with being thin.

All the ones I have seen..

On All the shows that I have watched on the subject of super obesity the narrative does like this:

Something bad happened in the persons life and they began to gain weight and just kept gaining weight.

Now of course this is the narrative that the shows probably push people into. I don't think you can blame yo yo dieting. In the case of obesity to the point that a person is immobilized, it is not about body image, it is not about food, it is about compulsion, it is an illness.

The disease model & victim status

Intervention has a high success rate of helping addicts get clean. While it is a provocative show, the purpose is to educate and entertain the audience at the same time that the addict gets help. One of the ways they do that is to make the addict accountable for their actions while showing sympathy for the various ways they have been victimized. I think the omission of that narrative in the super obese shows does not mean abuse, social pressures, metabolic changes or even calorie/nutrional manipulation* has not taken place. (*I'm thinking about how companies lie about calories and nutritional benefit here.)

I think they could stand to learn something from Intervention in that the addict, the people around them and the how they came to be is just as important as the addiction itself. Intervention helps to humanize people who would otherwise be tossed away as freaks.

The fact substance users are

The fact substance users are still being called "addicts" suggests to me <em>Intervention</em> is more of the same model of substance treatment theory rather than something new, fresh or groundbreaking. The most vital work to be done in treatment of substance use (regardless of the substance) is to destigmatize the folks who face these issues so they won't delay treatment due to shame.

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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse

What is the difference?

Being a graduate of a 12-step program myself, I've never encountered someone who was opposed to being called an addict - please advise.


I understand your general complaints about yo-yo dieting, but I'm not sure the subjects of Half-Ton [Fill in the Blank] are necessarily victims of it. They might have been dieters at one point or another in their lives but, lousy metabolism aside, the way that you even get to 800 + lbs is to eat A LOT of food every single day. LOTS. The reason why they're that size is because they eat way, way too much food. In order for, say, an 800-lb woman to even maintain her weight at 800 lbs is to eat in the neighborhood of 5,000 calories per day. These people have eating disorders that bariatric surgery alone would not be able to correct.

That's how I gained weight:

That's how I gained weight: ate too much food and didn't exercise. But I also had a thyroid condition, but I still ate too much. I doubt I would have gained that much if I had been eating healthy and exercising regularly.

One thing I hate is how when people are discussing eating disorders, only anorexia and bulemia are discussed. What about compulsive overeating? I had that kind of eating disorder, and it was RARELY talked about. So I didn't even know I had an eating disorder and I didn't know how to get help once I figured out I had one.

Bariatric surgery doesn't cure or stop compulsive overeating, a change of mindset, therapy, and not being around enablers can and does.


Compulsive over eating should definitely be categorized as an eating disorder, you are absolutely correct. I think the only reason why anorexics/bulimics are considered to have eating disorders (barring those self-delusional "pro-ana" people...seriously, what's up with them??) is because they're generally regarded as frail women who need to be saved from themselves. I think society generally views morbidly obese people in the 500-800 lb range as disgusting and lazy; thus, their problems, psychological or otherwise, I feel are not given the same amount of respect.

Hardly educational

I can´t disagree with you, there´s a lot of programs in these "educational" TV channels who exploits people physical differences to make a good audience, from over skinny ones to genetically ill borns. That´s the modern virtual circus.

Check it out.

Check it out.

South Carolina is offering state funded gastric bypass surgery to the first 100 state employees to sign up, in an effort to save money in the long run from obesity-related health issues.

This seems really drastic. I wonder about the liability of pushing surgery on a group of people. Is being obese the only diagnoses needed to have gastric bypass surgery recommended? I know this blog thread is NOT about the health-related issues associated with fatness, but I am interested in discussing the medicalization of fatness. I think shows like those discussed here, contribute to this trend. I've also seen a number of 'medical weight loss" centers pop up around my area. I don't know much about the services they offer, but it seems like a way to segregate the population into people who 'workout to get a beautiful body and/or who like to workout' and 'people who are fat and need to workout to be healthy". As if these two cohorts of people could not possibly share characteristics. And while some fat people who would otherwise feel ashamed to go to a regular gym/weight loss center, may find comfort in attending a medical weight loss center, I don't think it's a good thing for fat people to have to consider their weight loss efforts as a "medical" effort instead of an interest in working out, building muscle, breaking a sweat i.e. whatever people do at a regular gym.

I also think that these medical weight loss centers have probably increased in number to take advantage of health insurance dollars, as more and more doctors want/are asked to to prescribe something for their fat patients.

There's tons of these

There's tons of these "1-800-GET THIN" signs everywhere around here (L.A. area). Commercials too. It's for the LAP-BAND. Extremely annoying, but I do have to admit I slip into the "wouldn't it if it were that easy" mindset and dream for .02 seconds of magically losing 100lbs. Which pisses me off even more because if those billboards weren't there I wouldn't think of it at all. Pervasive/invasive.

Thank you. These repulsive

Thank you. These repulsive programs have a hell of a lot to answer for and are totally instrumental in relegating the issue of defining and dealing with morbid obesity to 'poking the fat freak with a stick for laughs'. For increasing the odium toward the morbidly obese while contributing nothing.

I don't know how you get to be 500 pounds, on a detailed, personal level, though I'm certainly no stranger to extra weight. How you can afford to keep consuming the presumably considerable amount of food required while being unable to work, why the little armies of enablers that seem to surround every incapacitated obese person are never questioned about their roles or motives. Why it's fine to subject the obese to highly dubious surgeries often without the benefit of disinterested clinical advice. I'm particularly disgusted by the number of young and even teenage people being lured into gastric surgery before they even have a chance to live lives independent of the circumstances that are probably making them fat in the first place. Why not just neuter them at the same time, one wonders?

Why are there no 'documentaries' even taking a stab at answering these obvious and pretty important questions? Because no one really gives a flying fuck about the obese shut-in unless they can film them being forklifted out of their bedrooms. Like it will never happen to them.

Just adding another example

Just adding another example of gawkerism disguised as concern on the telly that I happened to catch today while channel-surfing: Style Network's new show, "Too Fat for Fifteen: Fighting Back." It centers on teens and tweens who are sent to Wellspring Academy, a weight-loss boarding school. See the show's official website here:

Um... okay, first of all, it's not on TLC or Discovery Health..... it's on the Style Network. Yes, the <i> Style Network </i>. WHATTT?

Secondly, I find any TV documentary depiction of the "obesity epidemic" as it affects children particularly icky. They are only 2 episodes into the series (yeah, they've got a whole series!), but from what I've seen so far, it's the same old "we-know-you-are-fat-and-sad-and-we're-trying-to-help-you-but-you-have-to-be-willing-to-help-yourself" deal.

So far, there's been a situation in which one girl leaves camp for the weekend to attend a festival with her family and comes back 4 pounds heavier as a result of not sticking with "the program." Disappointed comments fly from the Academy directors and counselors about how it's her responsibility to control herself, and she's brought in for a special therapy session (more like a shame-fest) where she is asked to list all of the illegal foods she ate while celebrating with her family, and to state why she knows that this is wrong.

They also feature a boy who is not only fat, but extremely emotional and on anti-depressants as a result. He is portrayed by the editors of the show as being incredibly lazy and always "looking for excuses" to not participate in activity. Much of his segment was a montage of him telling the cameras how tired he was, yawning, saying how much he missed home, that he felt sick/had a headache/was in pain, and even contained a clip of one of the super-hunky counselors saying that this boy usually winds up crying every day and how his weight and overall attitude is the boy's own fault. They explain that there are 5 status levels that each student can attain while at the academy (with nifty names like "traveler," "discoverer," "adventurer," and so forth). This boy's application to advance to the next level gets turned down as a result of his "laziness" and apparently, his not wanting it enough.

The show's most popular character, as evidenced in the discussion forum on its website, is Tanisha, a teen who arrived at the school weighing 510 pounds. They use nothing short of circus-freak rhetoric when talking about her on the show and in advertisements for the next episode.

Yet another TV show that wants so desperately to "save the fatties," but ultimately perpetuates the stereotype that fat people are out of control, lazy, and in constant need of guidance and surveillance by those who have achieved thinness.

Honestly though, for someone

Honestly though, for someone with a past compulsive eating disorder, it REALLY helped me to list what I was eating, and why it was bad to (over)eat those foods. And as someone with a past of compulsive eating, for me, it IS about having and learning self-control. Changing the way I feel about food was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. And I still slip up. However, learning that I do have control over myself, to just take power over my cravings and to just stop eating helped me like no other.

I'm not saying that the girl in the show has a compulsive eating disorder, but maybe her counselors know something the viewers do not.

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