Confession: while the goal for many people during the New Year is to give up our vices, I will never turn my back on TLC’s Say Yes To The Dress. Yes, after a steady diet of feminist literature and blogging, it’s difficult to silence the running commentary in the back of my head. “Oh, don’t get a veil, virginity is a social construct.” And so on. But I manage.
That said, TLC is not giving me very many other reasons to be forgiving.
I’ve referred to TLC for a while as the PT Barnum Side Show of modern television. (In my head, of course. This isn’t the kind of comment fit for watching TV with friends or family.) The only thing this ostensible “learning channel” seems to be interested in teaching is how to gawk and stare at people who deviate from the social norm in some way. Let’s turn for a moment to the network’s latest offering: My 600-lb Life.
I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. Worse, this actually isn’t a new show at all: somehow, it’s now beginning its second season. I could describe the show’s premise (which, given its title, is not difficult to figure out), but it might be more productive to let the network’s website do the talking for me:
My 600-lb Life follows the lives of eight people—each weighing over 600 pounds—through their year-long journey as they collectively try to lose thousands of pounds.
Each 60-minute episode tells the powerful story of one morbidly obese individual. Many are home-bound, relying on care just to live day to day. They make the courageous decision to undergo a dangerous gastric bypass surgery in an effort to save their lives and change their world forever.
Their motivations for making the drastic change vary. Some do it for their loved ones, others to be productive members of society, but all of them have one thing in common—they want to be free from a life trapped in a body. My 600-lb Life documents the life-saving, but traumatic, experience of surgery. It’s about the ups and downs of struggling with addiction and dependence, the transformation from being completely dependent to gaining a sense of self-worth, and the inevitable positive and negative impacts their journey has on personal relationships. High-risk surgery, addiction, fear, pain, helplessness, victory, pride: Their stories are as much about heart as they are about weight loss.
Doesn’t that sound like riveting television?
Because numbers and lists are one way to prevent myself from going on an unproductive rant, here are four reasons why My 600-lb Life, and other shows in which weight is the sole plot point, are really what’s weighing us down.
1. Other People’s Bodies Are Their Own Business
The essential problem with weight-centric television is summed up by fat activist Ragen Chastain’s so-called Underpants Rule: that is, everybody gets to be the boss of their own underpants, and it’s none of your business what they choose to do with them. Ideas like “people should all participate in weight-loss programs to make them healthier and more attractive,” or “nobody should exist in a body that I find socially unacceptable” (which, really, covers most issues people have with others’ bodies) are in clear violation here. Really, what does it matter to you what size others are? What effect does it have on you?
Higher healthcare costs because of obesity-related complications? I’m not going to turn this article into a cost-benefit analysis of capitalism and socialism, but it’s worth noting that the United States’ health care system is extremely complicated, involving big pharmaceutical companies, private doctors, health insurance exchanges and rates, and public versus private funding. A massive spending picture that cannot be explained by one single factor, let alone a scapegoat as convenient as obesity.
You’re worried about the social consequences of obesity, like discrimination and low self-esteem? Weight doesn’t cause low self-esteem: social stigma around weight does. Let me introduce the charming concept of “cause and effect.”
You find people of size unattractive? Very simple solution: don’t date them, then. I can promise you that they don’t want anything to do with you, either.
Now that we’ve established that someone’s body size does not affect you, what possible reason could there be to direct a glaring spotlight of negative attention at someone because of their weight? Discrimination and cruelty would be too easy an answer, wouldn’t it?
2. Shows Based On Weight Loss Often Encourage Unhealthy Behaviors
This is a big one: the methods often espoused on weight-centric television programs are potentially dangerous both physically and psychologically, and the risk factors are glossed over in the name of a glamorous “reveal” at the end of an episode. Gastric bypass, the “cure-all” heralded by My 600-lb Life, is an invasive surgery done under full anesthetic to cut the size of the patient’s stomach to the size of a tennis ball. Risks include (*deep breath*): nutritional deficiencies, bleeding, ulcers, vomiting, hernias, infection, leaks in the GI tract (*cringe*), and possible death. Which, though I haven’t seen TLC’s program, I imagine will be treated as risks clearly worth taking.
For me, the most egregious offender in this area, which I’ve touched on before, is NBC’s cash cow, The Biggest Loser. Practices on the show to encourage contestant weight loss have included severe and dangerous caloric restrictions, dehydration, excessive exercising to the point of physical damage, and shame tactics that border on psychological abuse. If it sounds like I’ve rattled off a basic outline of disordered eating behaviors, that’s because I have.
If someone is considering weight loss, that should be discussed in a doctor’s office or with a health professional, not broadcast to the whole world at 8/7 Central. Entertainment value cannot take precedence over physical and psychological well-being, and encouraging disordered behaviors on-screen has to stop. Period.
3. Bullying? Not Cool.
Definition time: exploiting a person because of their weight, height, sexual preference, marital status, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, mental illnesses, or sexual experience in order to make a profit and raise ratings is bullying, plain and simple. (For the link-shy, yes, all those links go directly to shows on TLC’s lineup.) Other people’s lives, regardless of the ways they differ from your own, are valuable, and they deserve the basic right of human dignity.
If I were to remove all the shows from TLC’s lineup that break the basic tenet of respect and dignity, what would I be left with? Essentially, my Friday night bridal show marathon. Which I would be completely okay with.
4. Weight Is Not Interesting
You know what makes good television? Drama. Compelling characters. Unexpected plot twists. Crackling, witty dialogue. I’m even willing to throw a bone to exceptional cinematography and cool camera angles.
You know what does not make good television? Weight loss. Why? Straight-up, I don’t care about the size of other people’s bodies. It does not interest me. People are not defined by a number on the scale or an exercise routine or a diet; they are defined by their actions, their beliefs, their relationships, what they think is important in life, what motivates them to behave the way they do.
I’d love to see more television shows that discuss the reality of the human experience in a more interesting, in-depth way, without narrowing their focus onto the purely physical. The ball’s in your court, mass media. Until then, I’ll continue watching reruns of Orange Is The New Black in anticipation for the next season.
And, on occasion, a few (okay, six straight) episodes of Say Yes To The Dress. Hey, I’m only human.