The Discovery Health channel is among my favorite TV channels, along with The Science Channel, TLC and the regular Discovery Channel. So a couple years ago when they started airing shows about “super morbidly obese” people getting bariatric surgery, I, of course, was quite interested. With sensationalist titles like Half-Ton Teen and World’s Largest Man, how could I resist? Indeed, how could anyone resist shows that had promo spots consisting of firemen breaking down someone’s wall to get their bed out of the house? Obviously, that’s the point. These shows were not meant to teach, inform, or help. They were specifically designed to exploit the misfortune of these victims of our weight-obsessed society for monetary gain.
Bariatric (or “weight loss”) surgery to me has always smacked of the kind of “let’s just see if this works” procedures that used to be performed on mentally ill people, such as lobotomies. Fat people, like mentally ill people, are stigmatized in this society, and thinness is seen as a goal to be achieved by any means necessary, regardless of the side effects or complications involved in the process of achievement. So it’s not surprising that bariatric surgery has become so popular among people of all sizes recently whereas in the past it was seen as a procedure of last resort. But I’m not going to debate the necessity for some folks to have this surgery done, because I do know that for victims of society’s imperative to lose weight, yo-yo dieting can cause a downward spiral of unchecked weight gain that may need to be dealt with for the sake of someone’s health. How that’s dealt with is another matter. However, I do want to debate the wisdom of exploiting the casualties of the weight wars with shows like these.
Half-Ton Teen and its companion shows, Half-Ton Dad and Half-Ton Mom, follow the familiar narrative society expects of how fat people came to be. The subjects are portrayed as having been out of control, eating anything in sight, until they looked down and realized they weighed 800 lbs. This may or may not be the story in the majority of cases like these, but it definitely makes for good TV. They’ve come to a point where they cannot lose weight by dieting, so they need to get gastric bypass or some other form of weight loss surgery performed to save their lives. Enter the saviors from Houston’s Renaissance Hospital, who swoop down to bring them into their inpatient program and transform them into worthwhile human beings again.
I would be less sarcastic about their intentions if these “life savers” weren’t producing the shows themselves and actively looking for “super morbidly obese” people to rescue. I’m sorry, but these shows don’t help fat people at all; in fact I would say they simply serve to shame any fat people watching the show into “seeking help” by portraying the subjects in the most embarrassing way possible. I fail to see how showing 10 firemen try to roll a man onto a sling in order to drag him out to an ambulance in front of dozens of gawking neighbors helps either the man being carried or the viewer. There is nothing informative about these programs. The science of weight gain is not discussed; the closest they come to a discussion of health is the supposed mental health of the patients, i.e. how they could let themselves go like that.
These shows must be popular, because Discovery Health and TLC are ridden with their ilk. 627lb Woman, Inside Brookhaven Obesity Clinic and Big Medicine, to name a few. All perpetuate the classic stereotype of the out of control fat person and all exploit their subjects for shock value and monetary gain. In addition, by positioning bariatric surgery as a procedure to be done flippantly, they are doing fat people a disservice by causing people to believe that surgery solves everything and giving fatphobes more justification for their concern trolling. The decision to have bariatric surgery should not be come to lightly. Fat people don’t need the idea perpetuated that by not getting surgery done we’re just being recalcitrant.