"My 600-Lb Life" Exploits Its Subjects


 In this excerpt from Weightless: Making Space for My Resilient Body and Soul, author and fats rights activist Evette Dionne grapples with her curiosity in shows like My 600-lb Life and The Biggest Loser.

Each episode of TLC’s long-running docuseries My 600 lb. Life begins inside the identical fashion: with a grunt and a sigh. My 600 lb. Life purports to be the usual actuality tv series, no different than The Real World or the Love & Hip Hop franchise, besides the topics of the camera’s intense gaze are individuals who weigh greater than 600 kilos and, in excessive cases, shut to 1,000 pounds. Across each elements of the franchise — My 600 lb. Life and My 600 lb. Life: Where Are They Now? — we’re launched to people classified as “morbidly obese,” meaning they’re 100 kilos or extra above their “ideal” physique weight, with out regard for how that designation is used to stigmatize people.

For one year — two years if they’re featured on Where Are They Now? — we follow every affected person as they’re guided through a weight-loss program created by Dr. Younan Nowzaradan, a surgeon who behaves as if he’s the Gordon Ramsay of weight loss. Nowzaradan is known for being blunt (and calling it being honest), acting in methods in which may appear extremely cruel, and actually telling his sufferers they’re one extra cheeseburger away from becoming immobile—if they’re not already—and dropping dead. His high-protein, low-carb diet program, which inspires sufferers to consume 1,200 energy a day, is one of many few inside the United States that focuses particularly on people for whom it’s deemed too dangerous to have bariatric surgical procedure due to their size.

Dr. Now, as he’s often called, requires his sufferers to lose a sure quantity of weight earlier than performing a gastric sleeve or full gastric bypass to make sure the surgical procedure is as safe as possible and they've much less chance of dying on the working table. Over the course of two hours of tv designed to humiliate, we follow every patient’s journey—beginning with said fats person, who's recognized by their first name, age, location, and approximate weight, typically struggling to get out of bed, use the bathroom, and shower. Sometimes, the subject— not an individual deserving of dignity, however a subject—can stroll to the bathroom on their own. But often, a caretaker—their child, a neighbor, a romantic partner, a next-door neighbor— helps them sit up, helps them stroll to a portable toilet, after which helps them into the shower.

Sometimes, they've to actually shit of their beds because they’ve completely misplaced their ability to walk. Once they’re inside the shower, the one factor stopping their most intimate parts from being displayed is a small blur similar to the one TV shows use to cowl a raised center finger. Subjects who're able to bathe deal with us to a close-up: cleaning soap pouring over their physique as they try to clear between every fold on their flesh because, as many of them say, their our bodies may develop an an infection if they’re not immaculately clean. Once that’s done, it’s on to the most important thing: eating. The camera zooms in because the topic eats whole slabs of bacon, boxes of doughnuts, a quantity of pizzas, quick food, quick food, and extra quick food.

From the show’s perspective, we have to see these topics consuming because that’s the one way the disgust will actually sink in. These are fats people! the present tells us. Look at them! Do you want to be like them? Stop eating! It’s at this level that the present fully loses itself to depravity. The topic particulars their entire life story from childhood, mostly specializing in how and why they’ve gained weight. The topics were once, as they often put it, “normal size”—until one factor traumatic caused them to start gaining weight. The present reserves between three and 5 minutes for them to doc their worst experiences—incest, rape, the premature death of a parent, being rejected for being transgender—and then conveniently tucks these tears away, because that trauma is deemed a distraction from the general level of the show. Yes, their pasts are unhappy and all, however we’re right here to poke enjoyable at these fats people, and we shouldn’t ever forget it.

By the time our topics arrive in Houston to meet with Dr. Now, they’ve all declared that they’re at their wit’s end. They’re going to die in the event that they don’t lose weight, and he’s their final hope earlier than they eat themselves into an early grave. Dr. Now is certain to reiterate that—over and over again—as the topics break down in entrance of him, begging for his assist and saying that they've no idea how they got to the purpose of being bedridden. He doesn’t peel again this layer of the onion either—being fats is enough. We don’t see him sending his sufferers to psychotherapy to address their points or instantly referring them to a skilled nutritionist who can assist them learn how to nourish their our bodies with out “overeating.” Instead, he gives them a weight-loss goal—lose 50 pounds, 60 pounds, or 70 kilos inside the subsequent two or three months—and a strict diet. Eat 1,200 calories, stroll every day to strengthen your body, and you’ll be good as new, thoughts and feelings be damned.

Following the success of My 600 lb. Life, TLC launched Too Large, one other actuality TV present about fats people losing weight, in 2021. Though it has the identical premise as My 600 lb. Life, it isn’t as degrading, because Dr. Charles Procter, the bariatric surgeon who oversees the show’s weight-loss program, helps the sufferers in every aspect of their lives rather than berating them for ratings. He acknowledges that many of his patients—like Corey, who gained weight after his mom rejected him because he’s gay—need greater than a strict meals regimen. They want a physician who cares about their overall well-being. While Dr. Now typically doesn’t ship his sufferers to psychotherapy till they’re in hazard of regaining the weight they’ve lost, Dr. Procter instantly refers his sufferers to a counselor. While Dr. Now pokes enjoyable at his sufferers who're struggling with their hygiene, Dr. Procter talks to his sufferers about the advantages of hiring an in-home well being aide.

While each shows deal with fatness as a humiliating condition, Too Large has discovered a way to humanize the people it follows, permitting them to maintain their dignity. It’s an exception in a bigger pool of shows that would rather embarrass fats people than assist them in no matter way they need, whether or not it’s losing weight or getting a housing voucher to prevent them from becoming homeless. There comes a time inside these shows when the topic is inspired to “debut” their smaller body, showing off their new determine to household members and friends who’ve been ready for a reveal that proves their loved one has been cured. These beforehand bedridden people are now able to suit into garments that used to be inaccessible to them. They’re off crutches, out of wheelchairs, and able to stroll round their neighborhood. Their children respect them once extra because they no longer have to deal with them. They start dating and, sometimes, they fall in love. They become visibly confident, wearing flashier, splashier shirts and bolder wigs, placing on a piece of jewellery or two, including an additional switch to their walk.

These shows inform us that losing weight not solely lengthens a person’s life however additionally gives them the confidence to face life’s obstacles, take a risk on love, and make others proud inside the process. What they don’t inform us, however, is the ethical conundrum that accompanies shows airing some people’s final moments for the sole purpose of poking enjoyable at them. Multiple sufferers have died both whereas filming My 600 lb. Life or inside the months and years afterward, and their deaths are nearly always attributed to “obesity.” Many of them die from coronary heart attacks, a fear that plagues me as somebody with coronary heart failure, so Dr. Now is often praised in Reddit boards for attempting to save their lives. But what sort of savior would flaunt a person’s illness on tv for ratings? Apparently, one who understands that fats jokes are a particular kind of currency that may always be cashed in season after season.

My mom and I often used to joke that we ought to try to be cast on The Biggest Loser, particularly when the present was in its heyday on NBC. “We ought to throw our name inside the ring,” my mom would say to me half jokingly. “Oh no, I don’t think so! You won’t embarrass me on television. Plus, we’re not even fats enough. They’d kick us off in two weeks.” The Biggest Loser is a actuality TV present that rewards people for losing weight. The person who sheds the most pounds, no matter how it’s attained or if it’s sustained after the season ends, is awarded a money prize and the adoration of millions of tv viewers who simply can’t believe how quickly they dropped all these pounds. For a quantity of years, People journal would dedicate a canopy to debuting the svelte new physique of every season’s winner. During the show, every contestant would discuss how their weight was holding them again in various elements of their life—from their ability to discover and retain gainful employment to their psychological health. Once the quantity on that scale is lower, the world is suddenly extra open than it has ever been before. Their weight—their “super obesity,” if that phrase floats your boat—is stopping them from living even a marginal portion of the lives that ought to be open and available to them.

But so as to get entry to that brand-new life, there’s a grueling gauntlet fats people should endure. We should push our our bodies to their limits on nationwide tv to present the normal, thinner world how depressing we're in our present states. We should prostrate ourselves in entrance of these that can assist us see the error in our ways—in this case, the bariatric surgeons and health coaches who will scream at us till we see the light. And then, we should restrict how a lot meals we consume and train excessively till we lose sufficient weight to qualify for the cowl of People or for bariatric surgery.

For many years, I avoided shows like My 600 lb. Life. Though my mother, who has experimented with nearly every diet on the market, was a devoted viewer of what I’ve known because the fats actuality TV present vortex, I’d leave the room when The Biggest Loser or True Life: I’m Fat as Hell graced our screen. I did this for myriad reasons, however let’s start with the obvious. These shows are ridiculously exploitative. People lose and gain weight all of the time, however shows that use this premise to drive ratings—whether it’s WE tv’s Mama June: From Not to Hot or TLC’s Wednesday slate of fat-focused television—reinforce the very concept that fats our bodies are an issue to be solved, a conundrum in dire want of being fixed. Even the milder fare, like 1000-lb Sisters and One Ton Family, that are precisely what their titles suggest, feed into this idea. Eventually, though—as is often the case when you’re living inside the identical home with someone—my mother’s consumption pursuits bled into my own. My 600 lb. Life became one of many shows that we shared, that we're inside the universe of, that we have a secret language about. “Have you watched our show?” became second nature for us on Wednesday nights after we’d each completed working.

People lose and gain weight all of the time, however shows that use this premise to drive ratings reinforce the very concept that fats our bodies are an issue to be solved, a conundrum in dire want of being fixed. 

My obsession was sparked by a single episode: A 42-year-old Black woman named Octavia lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with a roommate. She weighs greater than 650 kilos and hasn’t left her mattress in nearly three years, so she makes use of a pail on the finish of her mattress as a toilet. Her roommate, who moved in with her when she became bedridden, brings her a bucket with soapy heat water so as that she can wash as a lot of her physique as possible. The best second in Octavia’s entire day is when her sister brings her niece and nephew to go to her. Their visits increase her social interplay and permit her to pressure her sister to buy her lunch and dinner. Candy is the language she shares with her niece and nephew, whom she permits to attain into an enormous plastic bag and take away a piece or two to enjoy.

Though Dr. Now tells Octavia that it’s harmful for her to maneuver to Houston to be shut to his clinic, she disobeys him, packs up her apartment—her bed room had been inside the lounge to start with—and rides inside the again of a van, a go to so painful that she complains about her aches and pains the entire hours-long ride. When she arrives in Houston, she’s instantly chided by Dr. Now for making the trip, after which shot down. Because Octavia hasn’t misplaced any weight since their preliminary phone call, she’ll want to lose greater than 50 kilos in two months so as to qualify for bariatric surgery. Dr. Now is worried about Octavia’s overall well being because she’s unable to face or walk, so he hospitalizes her to hurry up her weight reduction and assist her start walking. Though not every affected person is hospitalized, many of them are, relying on the general state of their health. Octavia’s placed on an intensely restrictive diet, and nursed—tough love, be damned—back to some semblance of health. By the time she leaves the hospital, she’s misplaced greater than 60 kilos and she’s able to face for a brief interval of time and take a few steps. It isn’t sufficient for bariatric surgery, however it’s sufficient to be launched from the hospital and show to Dr. Now that she can lose weight on her own.

But when she will get home, she gains weight instead. When she involves the clinic for her subsequent weigh-in appointment, Dr. Now tells her she’s always blaming somebody or one factor for her weight gain rather than taking management of her health. In his eyes, Octavia’s lack of self-discipline is the issue and it’s her lack of self-discipline that will eventually kill her. As I watched the episode, I felt frustrated by Octavia. Why couldn’t she simply say no to the “unhealthy” meals her roommate is bringing into their apartment? Why can’t she simply force herself to walk, even when it’s simply from her mattress to her entrance door and back? Though I know weight reduction is by no means as easy as doctors purport it to be, I nonetheless purchased into Dr. Now’s manipulative rhetoric. After all, lose weight, save your life doesn’t appear like that difficult of a mandate. I can remember turning to my mom on the sofa and asking, “Does she want to live or not?” She simply shook her head. By the finish of that episode, I was hooked. I went again and watched every season of the show, and I kept biking through these self same emotions: jubilation for these that follow Dr. Now’s program and lose weight and frustration with these that simply can’t appear to get themselves collectively sufficient to follow his diet.

For these seeking Dr. Now’s care, consuming “healthy” and exercising isn’t enough. I know that. And yet, watching fats people try and fail to lose weight nonetheless ensnares me a lot that My 600 lb. Life has become appointment tv for me. I’ve been studying fatphobia for so lengthy that I can pinpoint obscure fatphobia inside the most “body-positive” pop culture. I know My 600 lb. Life shouldn’t be airing on television. I know TLC has constructed its wealth on the literal backs of individuals from marginalized communities, collectively with trans people (My Pregnant Husband; I Am Jazz), little people (Little People, Big World; The Little Couple; and seven Little Johnstons), undocumented immigrants (90 Day Fiancé, anybody?!), and fats people, however somehow, a community that places a bull’s-eye on the again of the very community I write and advocate for attracts me in week after week.

As ashamed as I am to confess this, there’s a particular two-part episode of My 600 lb. Life that I’ve watched, repeatedly, each on TLC and in perpetual reruns on Hulu. It options Janine, a woman in her mid-fifties who's solely able to maneuver herself by motorized scooter from her mattress to her bathroom and to a native McDonald’s and back. There’s no doubt Janine is lonely, and she repeatedly says that she’s depressing in her body. She lives alone in Seattle, hundreds of miles from her siblings, who reside in Colorado. Both of her parents, who adopted her when she was a few months old, are deceased, and she ponders in the event that they ever actually loved her to start with. She believes they deliberately handled her differently than her siblings. Knowing that Janine’s organic mom was fat, her adoptive mom put her on a diet on the age of four, and she’s been on the wretched weight-reduction plan path ever since.

Janine is so lonely, in fact, that her cat is her solely company, and she carries on full conversations with him as she eats waffles covered in strawberries and whipped cream. If My 600 lb. Life were actually invested inside the well being of its subjects, Janine’s tormented past—being abandoned, being adopted right into a household that cared far extra about the bodily size of her physique than her psychological health, and being so remoted that she has to rent a stranger from the web to journey with her to Houston—would’ve been Dr. Now’s primary focus. Instead, Dr. Now repeatedly shames Janine for not seeking care sooner. It begins when she makes an try to journey to Houston by plane and suffers a debilitating panic assault that forces her to be carried off the plane on a stretcher and hospitalized. Next, Dr. Now yells at her for not abandoning her motorized scooter, although it’s clear that she’s unable to stroll with out it. When she begins telling Dr. Now’s nursing staff that she can’t stroll with out assistance, he calls her “delusional.” We see, repeatedly, that Janine is calling out for help, and nobody is willing to step in and intervene in a way that preserves her dignity.

It takes two hour-long episodes, a quantity of breakdowns, and an invasive process that actually causes her hair to fall out for Janine to be taken seriously sufficient to meet with a psychotherapist, who merely tells her to forgive herself for everything she’s done to “punish” her body. I have watched this episode of My 600 lb. Life so often that I can recite it nearly phrase for word, beginning with the second Janine makes use of a metal contraption of sorts to wipe her butt and says, with jest and in full view of the camera, “Want to know how a fats woman wipes her ass? This is how.” There’s no logical reason for me to be so obsessive about this show—even browsing Reddit threads throughout and after episodes to gauge what different people are saying, and crying when episodes finish with the topics dying.

But as I’ve watched and laughed and cried, it’s become clear to me: feelings of superiority can breed the most monstrous behavior. Fatness is intertwined in my very being; I don’t know who I am if I’m not fat. But I’ve additionally prided myself on not being that fat. Many fats people have that second when we stroll right into a room—sometimes with strangers, sometimes with friends— and we glance around, sizing up everybody round us and attempting to determine if we’re the largest person there. For me, that second dictates a lot about what occurs next. If I’m the largest person inside the room, I really feel an innate urge to shrink, to make myself as unobtrusive as possible. I place myself in a nook the place nobody can see me, lean against the wall, and pretend as if that is pure posturing.

But on the uncommon event when I’m not the largest person inside the room, when I size everybody up and gleefully discover somebody bigger than me, it imbues me with a wicked, false confidence: “Now there’s one other person to focus their consideration on.” I no longer have to be a wallflower because one other person can fill that role now. In these moments, I siphon that different fats person’s energy. Suddenly, I have an effervescent buoyancy, and I really feel assured sufficient to socialize, to talk to strangers, to place my shoulders back, maintain my head high, and personal a room.

That same dynamic functions in my obsessive, repetitive watching of My 600 lb. Life. As I absorb the subjects’ stories, no matter how tragic they are, I get to reinforce to myself that I’m superior because my weight is “under control.” I’m nonetheless mobile. I can nonetheless stroll right into a plus-size retailer and buy clothes. Doctors discriminate against me, however I’m not on the mercy of any particular supplier to obtain the care I need. In different words, I’m able to create distance between the fats physique I inhabit and their fats bodies. I know I gain nothing from investing in fatphobia and perpetuating it towards these bigger than me, and yet, it’s a lot simpler to laugh at fats people on tv than to consider these laughing at me.

Dr. Now routinely tells his show’s topics that they smell, that their our bodies have an odor, that they could be living a greater life in the event that they simply slimmed down. He often couches these insults in humor and feigned concern, pretending as if his cruelty is actually about preserving his patient’s life. The reality, however, is that he’s able to play up their shortcomings for the camera—bringing in equal quantities of ratings and disgust from viewers who've purchased into the concept that it’s solely their consuming habits and by no means their genes or their trauma which have launched them to the purpose of immobility. It’s painful to confess that I really feel morally superior to fellow fats people on actuality television. I am sure—nearly positive— that this will disqualify me as a fat-positive activist. People might screenshot parts of this essay and unfold it on social media to show that I’m a fraud or that I purport to care about fats people in public, however in private, I am simply as complicit in fatphobia because the very people and establishments I criticize.

Unlearning is a difficult process. It first requires you to look inside the mirror, admit that you’ve benefited from a system on the expense of other, extra marginalized groups, after which actively work to create new commitments and behaviors that dismantle that system. But when you’ve been indoctrinated right into a fatphobic theology the place thinness is the god to be idolized, and every element of your life underscores this worldview, it turns into easy to pick aside people whose our bodies are extra unacceptable than yours, even when solely slightly. Peering out the window and asking, “Do I stroll like her? I hope not. She’s waddling,” covers my very personal fear about being the person being judged inside the way I’m judging. I deploy these skills, forged in fire and struck against iron, whereas watching My 600 lb. Life. I’m particularly responsible of doing this when said person refuses to follow Dr. Now’s program and continues to both gain weight or lose it extra slowly than Dr. Now would prefer. “That’s an absolute shame” is one of my favourite retorts, adopted by “Well, that episode was a waste of time. They didn’t lose any weight!” I sofa these barbed feedback inside the extra pores and skin I’ve formed over time. I’ve learned that it’s higher to strike first, to preemptively project earlier than the echo can return, even when it comes on the expense of your self image. You see, if I am obsessive about this show, then nobody can be obsessive about me. ●

From Weightless by Evette Dionne. Copyright © 2022 by Evette Dionne Excerpted by permission of Ecco, a division of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No a half of this excerpt could additionally be reproduced or reprinted with out permission in writing from the publisher.


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