I'm not sure what to make of Alessandra Stanley's recent piece on television programs about weight loss in the New York Times. It's essentially just a catalog of weight-related paradoxes she has observed: clothing sizes getting smaller while Americans get bigger, ads for Burger King flanking "Today" show segments on dieting, the viewer's tendency to empathize with "Biggest Loser" contestants while (she presumes) being repulsed by them. "Viewers are caught somewhere in the contradictions," Stanley concludes.
As a body-acceptance activist, I'm caught somewhere in the contradictions of Stanley's essay. She says the depiction of very fat people on shows like "The Biggest Loser" "feeds complacency" in part by making viewers think, "If the morbidly obese people on screen can drop 100 pounds, then even the chubbiest kid on the couch can fit into a swimsuit by summer." How does being inspired to diet represent "complacency" about one's (or one's kid's) fatness again? She decries the "carnival side show" aspect of shows that highlight supersize contestants, while referring to those people as "unimaginably large" (um, not to viewers who are or know folks that size), as "clumsy and vulnerable as the human blobs of the future in 'Wall-E,'" and existing in "the potato chip abyss." Hey, way to dismantle that "freak" image!
Yet, she also says things I wish I'd written, like, "These plus-size transformations are spellbinding, admirable and even enviable, but they are also teases, making impossible transformations seem just a commitment away. The lonely, self-hating journey of weight loss is turned into an exhilarating and emotionally fulfilling team sport." She acknowledges that "against a loop of talk shows and made-for-TV dramas about eating disorders, Americans are goaded into ever more drastic and extreme expectations of physical perfection." And she even gives a nod to fat-rights groups that object to the way weight-loss shows "frame obesity as a character issue or a public-health menace and further stigmatize those who do not conform." That's a lot more than I've come to expect from most journalists. So, since Stanley seems to be in a mood to explore contradictions, I hope she'll appreciate my (bigger than average) gut reaction to her article: Shut up, Alessandra Stanley -- but also, more of this, please.