My Big Fat Fabricated Life: Problematic Portrayals of a TLC Star
Although I've watched every episode of My Big Fat Fabulous Life, and although I have a multitude of opinions about the importance of body positivity and the problematic (and unrealistic) way reality television editing constructs narratives and, well, "reality," I feel a certain amount of trepidation with respect to writing this essay. Discussing body image, body positivity, and the obesity epidemic are weighty issues, pardon the pun, and they are integral parts of My Big Fat Fabulous Life. Regardless, I am sickened by fatphobia and body shaming, topics that we should be discussing openly and respectfully. This is why I want so much to like My Big Fat Fabulous Life. But I just can't.
My Big Fat Fabulous Life stars Whitney Thore. Frequent guest stars include Whitney's parents, Babs and Glenn; her pal-and-roommate Buddy; her dance partner Todd; her (now ex) boyfriend Lenny; and various other minor characters, including her friends, family members, and coworkers. The show depicts what is ostensibly Whitney's daily life, including her love life, fights with her friends, the dance class she teaches, and her sessions with a personal trainer. Whitney has developed a career dedicated to promoting body positivity, which also provides some of the episodes' subplots. This is laudable, necessary work. This is also a touchy subject, and one fraught with related issues such as fat shaming, fat acceptance, and the myriad ways the patriarchy rewards and celebrates women for having a certain body type and punishes those who violate these expectations. Women's bodies are, generally, considered fodder for public discussion, whether it's our reproductive rights, contents of our uteri, or merely the aesthetics of our bodies. My Big Fat Fabulous Life fits into this larger context. It takes a tremendous amount of bravery for Whitney to participate in this TV project. Her (apparent—with reality TV, one never really knows what the motive is and what the editing is) desire to make American culture more welcoming to and accepting of women with a range of body types is laudable. She's certainly not the only person working toward more body acceptance in American culture, but her show helps provide the movement with a face.
However, My Big Fat Fabulous Life has a lot of problems, one of which is that it airs on TLC. One upon a time, during the halcyon 1990s, TLC was the network of choice for nerds. One could tune in for an hour-long documentary about a topic in physics or set the VCR to record a show about biology. Those days are long gone. TLC transformed from The Learning Channel to The Looky-loo Channel, making its money by airing programming about individuals who live in a way that deviates from the "average" American. Now, the network's schedule is filled with shows about "strange" lifestyles, including the Duggars' Quiverfull beliefs, both in the original series and its post-sex scandal spinoff, and polygamists.
Of particular relevance to My Big Fat Fabulous Life is TLC's treatment of obese individuals in its reality TV programming. While it is unkind to gawp at anyone, these shows feel especially exploitative because they document the lives of individuals who are already marginalized and derided in our culture. In addition to My Big Fat Fabulous Life, TLC airs three shows that focus on the lives of obese individuals: Extreme Weight Loss, Fat Chance, and My 600-lb Life. These shows focus on obese individuals who work toward losing weight. The individuals featured on these shows are not overtly mocked by the shows' editors, but the structure of these shows' larger narratives cannot be ignored. They focus on individuals who, like Whitney, face weight-related medical issues. However, unlike My Big Fat Fabulous Life, these shows portray being obese as something that must be remedied in about 45 or so minutes of network airtime, often with much struggle against adopting healthier diets as individuals attempt to undergo extreme physical transformations. My 600-lb Life in particular features people who desire to undergo weight loss surgery. These individuals are, at times, bedridden, dependent on enabling relatives and friends for basic daily tasks, and whose weight severely impacts the quality of their lives. Whitney does not weigh as much as many of the individuals on this show do pre-surgery. Nevertheless, these shows share a network, making it difficult to not consider them as related programs. The similarities between the names My 600-lb Life and My Big Fat Fabulous Life further this association. This connection has the potential to undermine Whitney's work to remove the stigma around obesity, which often includes her emphatic statements that she is happy with her size and is physically active, by tacitly agreeing to be part of this larger programming trend on TLC that portrays obese individuals in an occasionally negative manner.
The way in which Whitney is portrayed onscreen also undermines her ability to disseminate positive messages. During the first season, Whitney lives at home with her parents. This situation is not uncommon for many Millennials, and I'm certainly not going to mock her for any potential economic reasons behind a return to her childhood bedroom. Whitney is not by any means underachiever. Over the course of the show, Whitney discusses how she earned a college degree and taught English in South Korea. These are impressive accomplishments, and they indicate that she is a smart and capable woman. Nevertheless, what we see onscreen undermines any depictions of her maturity or self-reliance. Whitney is often depicted onscreen as childish, incompetent, immature, someone to laugh at, and these instances usually involve her weight. We watch Babs shave Whitney's legs; Whitney's weight prevents her from doing it for herself. We watch as Todd helps Whitney put on her shoes. We watch Glenn bring Whitney food storage containers to help with portion control, which she mocks and derides. We watch Whitney eat unhealthy food, despite the fact that her physicians tell her onscreen that her health issues should be managed through weight loss. We see Whitney split her pants in public. This is not the actions of a character whom we, the audience, are supposed to respect. They are, however, the actions of a TV character whom we can watch, laugh at, and feel superior to. Yes, pants splitting can be funny in a movie; but in real life, it's likely deeply embarrassing for the individual to whom it occurs. And more troubling with respect to My Big Fat Fabulous Life, it further perpetuates the stereotype that overweight people are slovenly and cannot find clothing that fits them appropriately. These are not positive messages, and they undermine Whitney's work and transform her from a (potentially) positive cultural figure into another overweight individual whom we are encouraged to laugh at. This is at the root of my big fat problem with My Big Fat Fabulous Life. These depictions of Whitney feed into TLC's larger trend of portraying obese individuals as reliant on loved ones-cum-caregivers, that obese people require the assistance of others to help them with daily tasks and have unhealthy eating habits. Troublingly, Whitney also becomes part of a larger tradition in Western culture of overweight individuals existing merely to provide moments of brief physical comedy, a genre which has long used overweight people as the butts of jokes. It is counterproductive to transform one of the prominent proponents of body positivity into a negative stereotype of a "fat person," and it brings TLC's commitment to body positivity into question.
Some occurrences of fatphobia in My Big Fat Fabulous Life seem intended to construct an antagonist against which Whitney can battle. Kerryn Feehan, a thin "comedienne," appears in two episodes of season three. Conventionally attractive and thin, Kerryn seems to serve no purpose except to represent the sort of feedback our culture gives overweight people, and her only purpose in the show's larger narrative is to mock Whitney for being obese. Her cruelty toward Whitney provides My Big Fat Fabulous Life's audience with someone whom we can actively dislike, and therefore more closely align with Whitney. Kerryn's second appearance on the show occurs during the end-of-season clip and discussion show. Kerryn comments that Whitney walks in a manner best described as a "waddle," which seems unnecessarily mean and, perhaps, a brazen ploy on the producers' (and writers'?) part to create conflict and draw viewers. Calling herself the "honest police," Kerryn asserts that Whitney is "not the epitome of health" and that Whitney would be happier if she were "healthier...to medicine, and, um, to science." Buddy, Whitney's longtime friend, asks Kerryn, "Are you a real person? Is this fake? I don't get it. You're pathetic." This is precisely the question I have for Kerryn and Whitney's interactions. Why is Kerryn on the show? Is it to provide Whitney with a concrete nemesis, to provide body shamers with an actual physical representation and an abrasive mouthpiece to make Whitney's no body shame campaign seem all the more necessary? (Really, this isn't needed—anyone with a brain understands that body shaming is ubiquitous and poisonous in American culture.)
Thus, My Big Fat Fabulous Life establishes tension between Whitney and Kerryn, "plus size" vs. "thin," protagonist vs. antagonist, kind and thoughtful vs. unpleasant and condescending. Kerryn, on the show at least, is a horrible person, and she seems quite proud of being thin. The show's editors portray fatphobic individuals as one-dimensional mean girls, and Kerryn's presence on the show seems intended to show viewers that thin women are cruel to obese women. These narrow depictions do nothing to increase dialog. It is an attempt to state that obese women as protagonists and thin women are snarky, mean, hateful antagonists. This pits women against women, which is toxic and anti-feminist (not that TLC has ever shown itself to be a feminist network). Having Kerryn as a stand-in for thin women also actively undermines the body positivity movement. It's profoundly unhelpful for the larger body positivity movement, which is not just to ameliorate the condition of obese individuals, but rather intended to help everyone feel better about our bodies.
Kerryn's onscreen interactions with Whitney simply make it easier to side with Whitney without having to think too much about it. We have a visceral reaction to Kerryn's mean girl antics, and we want to defend Whitney. Yes, we should identify and criticize Kerryn's negative speech and behavior, and consider how it reflects fatphobic speech in American culture. However, we should also call out the show's editors for portraying Whitney in occasionally fatfobic ways, as discussed earlier. Kerryn is a more obvious and concrete antagonist to identify. We can see her being mean to Whitney onscreen. Arguably the show's editors have more potential to harm the perception of overweight women, and their work is less visible than Kerryn's. The cast of My Big Fat Fabulous Life argues with Kerryn onscreen regarding the way she speaks to and about Whitney, but these individuals are silent onscreen regarding how the show is edited. This silence also makes it more difficult for the audience to understand that onscreen portrayals of Whitney might not reflect her life, and that they might not be positive for Whitney herself or beneficial for the body positivity movement in general.
Not all of My Big Fat Fabulous Life episodes portray Whitney as an object of pity or someone we should laugh at. The show's editing and plots are uneven, and its messages contradict each other at times, but more positive moments occasionally shine through. Despite the myriad ways we see Whitney depicted or discussed unfavorably or discussed in unkind ways, we also see Whitney depicted as interesting and kind. Notably, she is depicted as sexually desirable and sexually active. This deviates from the mainstream American depiction of overweight women. Whitney discusses her sexuality onscreen. She dates, and later breaks up with, her boyfriend, a bearded Southern hipster who painted a semi-nude portrait of her during the early days of their relationship. We watch as her coworker Roy flirts with her. Neither of these men are as heavy as Whitney. The narrative is that Whitney, despite what American culture says about what constitutes an attractive body type, is sexually attractive to men, and she's attractive to men who represent a spectrum of body types. This is an important message, and one of the few messages of My Big Fat Fabulous Life that dovetails with Whitney's work promoting body positivity and the related fat acceptance movement. Whitney' love life, as depicted on the show, is perhaps the most positive aspect of the entire series and has the most potential to change perceptions of overweight women.
The messages we receive about Whitney through her TV show conflict, and at times cancel out, each other. Thus, in a very real way, they undermine the work she can do for the body positivity movement. The show's depictions of Whitney alternate between mockery, sympathy, and admiration. In reality, Whitney Thore is a complex woman who has accomplished a great deal in her life, and she has the potential to do a great deal of beneficial work in American culture for both the body positivity movement. Her personality, emotions, and social interactions cannot be adequately captured on an edited reality television show, especially in one that airs on a network with a history of questionable portrayals of obese individuals. Whitney has the potential to be a powerful force in the body positivity movement, as long as her television show does not undermine her message.
Tamara Watkins spends her time contemplating how television constructs realities and messages, which is a decent academic justification for her habit of watching reality TV.
Pictures from My Big Fat Fabulous Life's TLC page.