On reality television, fat people are the new gay people. Earlier this year, Fox was forced to cancel two gay-themed reality shows, the short-lived Playing It Straight and the never-aired Seriously Dude, I'm Gay, due to protests from advocacy groups and general viewer indifference. These shows, which I discussed in a Slate article at the time, exploited cultural fears about homosexuality by making gay men the "wild card" in traditional reality-show competitions. To their credit, audiences responded with a shrug. But the evil forces that plot new reality shows have now turned their attention to a new sideshow attraction: the overweight.
Reality television has chosen this season to mine the American obsession with body size. The Biggest Loser (NBC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET), a weight-loss-themed reality series in which two teams of dieters, the "reds" and the "blues," compete to see who can lose the most pounds per week, has been expanded from an hour to an hour and a half per week. VH1's Flab to Fab(Mondays, 8 p.m. ET), which will start its new season on Nov. 29, subjects overweight fans to the diet and exercise regimens of their favorite celebrities. (Last week's teaser episode, a rerun from last spring, featured three women keen to emulate Jennifer Lopez.) And Showtime's Fat Actress, scheduled to premiere in 2005, is already being widely publicized as a comedy/reality hybrid in which Kirstie Alley, playing herself, seeks to overcome Hollywood's prejudice against large women and jump-start her television career. Finally, there's Toccara, who, until she was voted off the show last week, was the "plus-sized" anomaly among the svelte beauties on this season's America's Next Top Model (UPN, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET).
All of these shows share a deep ambivalence toward excess flesh, seeking to eliminate it even as they depend on it for their very existence. The title of The Biggest Loser says it all: The more you lose, the more you win, but even if you take first place, you're still a loser. While television executives may be congratulating themselves on their inclusiveness, they have created reality programming that capitalizes on Americans' fear and hatred of their bodies, making the differently sized the stars of a freak show.
In this video clip promoting Fat Actress, for example, Alley systematically works away at a huge plate of spaghetti as she explains the show's premise: For every 5 pounds she loses, she will be allowed to stay on the air an additional week. Alley can have her spaghetti and eat it, too—she can be fat and still be a TV star—but only if she is willing to make her weight the sole focus of the show. The Showtime Web site for Fat Actress lauds Alley as "bravely willing to lampoon her image," which, the press release goes on to cluck disapprovingly, has been "mercilessly ridiculed over the past few years." It's hard not to hear the self-congratulatory hypocrisy in this formulation—isn't Fat Actress just another form of the same merciless ridicule?
The Biggest Loser, which at its new hour-and-a-half length is more desperately in need of slimming than its subjects, takes that hypocrisy to a new level. The vast majority of screen time is taken up by shots of the 12 hefty candidates in skimpy bathing suits and tank tops, clambering over obstacle courses or submitting themselves to abject "challenges." A segment called "Oversized Pop Star" asks the teams to sing about their weight struggles in front of an audience. These contests are billed as a chance for the participants to strut their spunky self-esteem, but for all the carefully rehearsed pride, there's no question that the show's organizing principles are voyeurism and humiliation. In one of last week's challenges, the red team was presented with a gooey cinnamon roll and a telephone and told that whoever consumed the roll would be allowed a phone call home. The way this trick was set up—if you eat the treat, you get to make the phone call—was particularly diabolical in that it equated gastronomic deprivation with emotional restraint and face-stuffing with familial love.
America's Next Top Model is crueler in its treatment of its participants. Many of the Top Model "challenges," for example, blatantly handicap heavier women; last week, a demonic stylist set the women loose in a designer department store and gave them 15 minutes to come up with a "head-to-toe look." Toccara, visibly stymied by the challenge of finding chic clothes in sizes 12 to 14, meandered glumly among the racks while her slim competitors raced to and fro, accumulating multiple options. "I was a little worried about Toccara because her pace was very slow," sniffed the stylist afterward, conveniently ignoring the sizing issue. When Toccara was voted off at the end of the episode (for reasons that the usually ruthless hostess Tyra Banks seemed unable to articulate), she gamely tried to rationalize her role on the show as a trailblazer for large women in fashion: "I'm just grateful that maybe I made a path for someone else." Unfortunately, Toccara's role at times seemed more like that of the sacrificial calf. Enormously popular with fans of the show, she was nonetheless doomed to be voted off; it was as if Toccara simultaneously represented the identification with larger-sized bodies and the cultural need to punish those who possess them.
Flab to Fab combines the celebrity aspirations of the beauties on America's Next Top Model with the self-loathing of the dieters on The Biggest Loser. But the women who participate in this hourlong competitive workout show don't need supermodels and stylists to belittle them; they can do it all by themselves. "I can't believe I go out in public looking like this," moaned Angelique, a perfectly presentable, if chubby, young woman who was one of the three contestants on last week's show. Another, Victoria, wept as she blamed her weight for her romantic difficulties: "I'm 32 years old, and I'm alone." Lachrecia, the heaviest of the three at 190 pounds, seemed painfully aware of her status as an object for the viewing audience's vicarious disgust. In an interview segment after her initial weigh-in, her self-assessment is strangely depersonalized: "A person that weighs 190 pounds and has 43 percent body fat is someone I see on TV or on the street and think: I'm nothing like them."
Each of these series is careful not to overtly mock its participants, but that hasn't stopped the press from doing so—one reviewer suggested that the red and blue teams on The Biggest Loser rename themselves the "Butter Buddies" and the "Lard Lovers." Given that around 64 percent of the American population is overweight, one wonders what kind of masochistic schadenfreude is behind the success of these shows.