As excited as we are for our annual respite from the cold, the heat of summer—also known as “swimsuit season”—can bring with it anxiety, and for some, feelings of shame. What does television have to do with swimsuits and bodies? For one, television has a long history of contributing to and exacerbating body anxiety both because the majority of women on television weigh far less than the statistically average woman (potentially contributing to poor body image among viewers) and, until recently, most fat* bodies on television were only exhibited as part of weight-loss programming. Fatness or any kind of non-idealized body on TV, then, is more likely to be something that is hated and deemed in need of transformation rather than as something to be accepted or even—gasp!—celebrated.
In fact, The Biggest Loser has long been a popular show about weight-loss, spanning 16 seasons and 28 different iterations around the world. Its popularity spawned numerous copycats, as is television’s way, including MTV’s I Used to Be Fat, A&E’s Heavy, CW’s Shedding for the Wedding and ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss. These shows are often criticized for treating fat bodies as undesirable ‘before’ states, positioning weight-loss as necessary not just for health, but also as necessary to begin one’s life (I guess birth is no longer a worthy signifier).
Most participants on these programs exercise six-to-eight hours a day, engage in extreme calorie restriction, and according to some former-participants, use diuretics and purposeful dehydration techniques to cut weight before the spectacularized weigh-ins that conclude each episode. But the only interest these programs actually serve is that of the dieting industry, which is in perpetual need of individuals dissatisfied with the size of their bodies, or shape of particular body parts, and who are willing to try various services and devices to comport to the thin ideal.
However, the reign of these shows may be coming to an end, as it is unclear whether The Biggest Loser will return for a seventeenth season amid continued controversy and a sharp decline in ratings. Further, a recent influx of body positive, or dare I say fat accepting, programs are finding huge followings and generating a lot of buzz as being the antidotes to otherwise body-hating TV: TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life and Lifetime’s Big Women: Big Love.
My Big Fat Fabulous Life started as a viral YouTube video featuring Whitney Thore, “Fat Girl Dancing.” Of course, numerous viewers of the video criticized Thore for her carefree and badass dancing at 380 pounds (I mean, how dare a fat woman dance!), but many praised her body confidence and fat positivity. The TV show documents Thore’s life, particularly her dealing with polycystic ovarian syndrome and wanting to lose weight through dance. And even though she does desire to lose weight, she refuses to put her life on hold until she does so, opposite of shows like The Biggest Loser. The cameras follow her as she dates, hangs out with her friends, unapologetically indulges in pizza now and then, teaches an empowering dance class for other fat women, and openly discusses the stigma, discrimination and outright hostility that many fat women experience in their daily lives. In other words, Thore shatters a lot of fat stereotypes: she is active, eats healthily and is confident in herself despite the prevalence of media and societal messages telling her she should feel to the contrary.
Similarly, Big Women: Big Love follows five “plus-size” women as they navigate the world of dating and relationships. Despite a few annoying fat puns here and there, the show goes a long way to busting the myth that fat women are romantically or sexually undesirable, as well as the notion that fat women are desperate for companionship. Lots of men desire the women on Big Women: Big Love (it’s all very heteronormative), but the women are after their perfect matches, displaying self-confidence and high self-worth while celebrating the aspects of their personalities and bodies that they love. Here, again, some of the women want to lose weight, but also again, none of them are willing to follow the common televisual trope of putting their lives on hold until they are thin.
Despite the warm reception of My Big Fat Fabulous Life and Big Women: Big Love, and the general representational expansion of the types of bodies now exhibited on television, weight-loss programs won’t disappear entirely as long as claims remain that we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic. Case in point: A&E is about to release Fit 2 Fat 2 Fit, which will unfortunately depict trainers gaining weight in order to lose weight in tandem with their fat television participants. But, if you’re like me and you want to see programs that are less shaming and sensationalizing of fat bodies and more celebratory of all the shapes and sizes that bodies can be, then check out Big Women: Big Love and My Big Fat Fabulous Life instead.
Melissa Zimdars wants to thank everyone for reading The Tube over the last three years! Even though her viewing schedule is now based on Eastern Standard Time, she is happy to always be connected to Iowa Citians through the shared experience of watching television.
This article was originally published in Little Village 179