Big fat contradictions

Weight-loss programming on TV is full of contradictions -- and so is the criticism of it.

Published August 25, 2008 7:50PM (EDT)

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.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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