In the ever so popular sideshows of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Fat Lady was a fascinating spectacle staged for the amusement, horror and repulsion of the visitors. She was one of the freaks who was feared, yet also marveled at for her assets, her fat body. Today, there are only few sideshows left (in Coney Island for instance), but the tradition of displaying so called freaks for amusement has not vanished, it has merely switched its medium to television, or more precisely to Reality TV, a genre that is overtly popular and profitable for broadcasting stations. The fascination with “real” people and their lives does not seem to cease as more and more programs that negotiate and mediate reality are produced. The Fat Lady (or the Fat Man for that matter) has not disappeared either, she is one of the stars of Reality TV programs that either try to actively rehabilitate, “heal” her fat body or simply display it as a warning of the effects of the so called obesity epidemic. Programs like The Biggest Loser, I Used to Be Fat, Extreme Weight Loss, and Heavy focus on the fatness of its protagonists and their struggle to get rid of the fat with the “help” of coaches and dieticians.
TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life, a series that premiered this winter, joins this list and is certainly worth a look, because it breaks with many conventions of traditional weight loss formats, like the shaming and blaming game that objectifies the contestants and depersonalizes them. The series is based on the life of Whitney Thore, a 31-year-old-woman who became famous because she dared to show herself dancing on You Tube (“A Fat Girl Dancing”), an act she was both publicly admired and scrutinized for. Despite the unfortunate title and the obviously intended puns, TLC offers a pseudo-intimate and personal portrait of a fat woman in the United States. (The German title, Whitney! – Voll im Leben, i.e. Whitney! – Full of Life, also plays with the ambiguity of words to underline Thore’s “fullness,” that is her fatness, while being evasive about it.) Thore is not yet another pitifully obese contestant trying to win a competition, but a woman who, in the very first episode, smiles into the camera, claiming to simply be fat and nothing else, no pun there. Her ownership of the word “fat” is refreshing and suggests an awareness of the Fat Acceptance Movement that has, ever since its beginnings in the late 1960s, striven to redefine the hate word (see, for instance, the Fat Liberation Manifesto).
Thore seems to be unapologetic about her body and she does not shy away from displaying her fat, female body in ways in which it is not shown publicly – in movement, dancing. The fat body, after all, is supposed to stay hidden and not express or feel any kind of pleasure; we are told it is shameful and ridiculous. Yet Thore dances for her own pleasure and not for the pleasure of those gazing at her. She also offers “big girl” dance classes in her hometown Greensboro, North Carolina in which fat women and their allies can come to experience the same bodily pleasures without shame. She challenges the assumption that fat equals unfit and lazy. The fat-shaming techniques of Reality TV, showing fat people trying to fit in small spaces, trying to find clothes, or simply showing them eating are countered by Thore. She does not hide, she takes part in a fashion show, gets a custom-made bicycle that can carry her weight and celebrates her success when riding it; she prints out hateful responses to her You Tube videos and openly challenges the humanity of these commentators, she goes on dates and fosters intimate friendships, and she openly asks a shoe salesman for wider pumps without expressing any inhibition to expose her size. These are only a few instances in the series that underline the ways in which she perseveres in a society ruled by sizeism.
Unfortunately, Thore’s empowered behavior is only unapologetic because her fatness is staged as a tragic misfortune, a disease for which she is not responsible: She has been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal imbalance in women that can also lead to excessive weight gain. While I do not wish to undermine the severity of such a diagnosis, the series utilizes it to create an inspirational narrative that is full of healthist messages. Pleasure, in the end, is substituted by health and Thore’s dancing becomes a means to an end. Whether fatness is to be categorized as a disease or disability is not a question I can address in this context, but within the sphere of Reality TV, an empowered fat-positive woman like Thore can only exist if she cannot be blamed for her body and wants to lose weight; she needs to win the blaming game to be a role model.
While the first season showed Thore’s return to dancing and to her paternal home, the second season (which began in early September) seems to be more devoted to the healthist storyline: It is dramatically revealed that her chances of getting type 2 diabetes have risen and that she needs to act immediately: “If I fail at this, I can’t reverse it.” “This,” that is losing weight and changing her diet, because, as she once says, “the biggest responsibility I have is my health.” There is nothing to argue against that, yet the close-ups of her crying and mourning the fact that she did not act earlier, followed by announcements of determination to master the challenge turn this series that has the potential to be fat affirming into yet another narrative of the spectacular Fat Lady that functions as an inspiration for the viewers to fear and fight “obesity.” Thore’s ownership of “fat” and her fat-positive politics are overshadowed by medical diagnoses that victimize and infantilize her in the tradition of other reality weight-loss formats.
Photo courtesy of Evangelia Kindinger