There has been a lot of great work lately on fat, health, and reality TV. While many reality TV scholars can point out while blind-folded the oppressive depictions of fat bodies on shows like The Biggest Loser, the BBC’s latest show, Obesity: Post Mortem, really, how should I say… takes the cake.
You can read about what happens on the show here, or here. Both of these accounts also detail why this show is, in academic terms, totally fucked up. I watched a few clips and found it really triggering. I don’t think you need to watch it to get a sense of what happens on the show, the above articles do a good enough job of that.
I haven’t let myself think about this show from my own personal perspective because, well, it is painful. But as I work through Charlotte Cooper’s book Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I understand that in any social justice oriented field, of which Fat Studies is one of many, we must make these conversations and reflections personal. It is important we talk about our personal experiences as a way of contributing to the production of knowledge about ourselves. When we don’t, television shows like Obesity: Post Mortem get to guide the conversation about bodies that look like ours, like mine.
If you are close to me, you know that for the past 12 years I have seen many different doctors and specialists about digestive/gastrointestinal concerns, chest pain, migraines, back and joint pain. I have night terrors, do not sleep properly, and am always tired. I have spent years worrying that I am diabetic, that I have cancer, a brain tumour, or ulcers. I am truly afraid that I am going to die. I am a hypochondriac.
If you are really close to me, you would know that I have had multiple x-rays, EKGs, blood tests, allergy tests (including gluten and lactose sensitivities), and even a botched endoscopy (so fun!).
If you are not close to me at all and lack a fat politics analysis, you might assume that these health problems are a direct correlation with the size of my body, and might assume that these health concerns stem from my diet.
Every single one of those tests came back negative, or came back above-average or perfectly normal. Not one test concluded that I have a physical ailment (well, except one x-ray on my left ankle, which indicated that I have a bit of trauma to the area from when I twisted my ankle and ripped all of the ligaments in my foot as a kid). At my most recent doctor’s appointment, I was told that I have better iron and vitamin levels than most young women, that my blood sugar is (and has always been) perfectly fine, that I do not have cancer, and that my heart and lungs are incredibly strong.
Every test result indicated that I am not going to die. And yet I am still anxious, I am still scared, I still have days where I am afraid that my body is going to give out and that it is my fault, my own moral failing, even though I am physically perfectly fine.
(There is a lot of excellent writing from fat activists and scholars as to why, if my body actually did have a physical health concern, that it is none of your business, that it might not be related to being fat, and *once more for the people in the back* that any intersections of health and fat are none of your business, anyways).
Frustrated and overwhelmed, I have read a lot in recent years about how mental health issues can manifest in the body as physical pain or discomfort. Indeed, my doctors (both medical and psychological), have suggested that I am an incredibly anxious person, and that my anxiety manifests in upset stomachs, head aches, and exhaustion. I now face the daunting task of unpacking the causes of my anxiety in expensive counselling sessions, some that I am lucky to have insurance for, however, many come from my own pocket. This means that sometimes I don’t have the money or time to commit to my own health care, to deal with things that happened to me, out of my control. The additional burden on fat bodies is exhausting, overwhelming, and unfair.
What I am concerned with now at this point in my life is asking myself ‘how did I get so anxious? So stressed out? So sad?’. Fatphobic micro aggressions and direct assaults on my person because I am fat are, I am completely certain, the root causes of my health concerns.
I have been a target for bullies most of my life, having had anyone from classmates in elementary school to random strangers on the street harass me for being fat. I have had well-meaning yet concerned family members approach me about my weight, asking me (and only me) if I want to go for a walk after dinner, or encouraging me to exercise and diet, even as a pre-teen when my body didn’t know what it wanted to look like yet. And I don’t completely blame them, because shows like Obesity: Post Mortem and all the other fat tropes in media give us permission to police each other and our bodies, to incite fear in ourselves that we are not okay.
As Katy Lee writes,
As an obese person I can tell you what ruins lives. It’s the gnawing anxiety when you watch the news, because you might be today’s Headless Fatty and see yourself minding your own business while a news anchor tells the entire country how you’re a drain on the economy. It’s seeing a body like yours get cut up on TV so the nation can call it disgusting and dangerous as entertainment. It’s worrying that this program might have a knock-on effect, and having to brace yourself because, for the next few weeks at least, there might be an uptick in the fatphobic abuse that people scream at you in the street. Fatphobia ruins lives, and it makes for strange and disrespectful television.
Indeed, being fat didn’t make me sick. Fatphobia made me sick. I am still paying for it, literally and figuratively. And I deserve better. I deserve at least one night of good sleep.