Fat People on Television.

I don't watch much television. I gave mine up about five years ago when I took part in a TV turnoff week. It was great and I've in essence been commercial free from here on out. Add to that most shows are on DVD within 3 months of their season finale, and I'm a happy camper.

There are a handful of shows that I am able to catch online from time to time, and these have peaked my interest for a few main reasons. The first being the main characters are fat. The second being the women who are the main characters are fat, the third being the shows have prominent characters of color. I find all of the above interesting, because they are rarities.

The three recent shows that I want to chat about have aired or are still on the air. I mean I could go back into the history of body image and television but I don't know that much and frankly, I'm most interested in contemporary views of fat people on TV. American TV in particular. Yeah...

I'm going to chat about three that I really like: Huge, Mike & Molly, and a US import from across the pond, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.


Huge was fantastic.

It's based on a book (sorry I didn't read it) about a group of teens at a fat camp. The show, which aired on ABC Family of all places was rich, dynamic and just so well acted, so like with any good show on American TV, no one watches it and it gets canceled. Truth be told, I think the show got canceled because people were uncomfortable seeing fat teenagers with their shirts off.

I loved how they were so unapologetic about that. Showing the bodies of these teens over and over until we were comfortable with them, and in a way they were comfortable with themselves. I mean it's a summer camp. That means bathing suits and swimming and sunscreen and the like. But they are also teenagers, and that means cliques and rivalries and animosities and on and on. It wasn't just a teen show wrapped up in a fat camp, it was a show about people where for a few brief months, they all were in a place where they all looked the same, but still carried all those stigmas of the outside world with them.

You had the rebel loner, Will, who really did hate herself but was too proud to say so, the amazingly broken camp director, Dr. Rand (played by Gina Torres) who the show followed the most. I mean she made it, she's skinny, on the outside, but man there are some issues that woman had that you know she will never get over. The character I thought was interesting was the 'pretty' fat girl, Amber. She could 'pass'. She wasn't fat enough to be ostracized by regular kids, but she was overweight, and hated herself for it, yet all the other fat kids deemed her the prettiest girl there and everyone wanted to be her friend.

Rarely am I emotionally attached to a show. Rarely can I actually relate to so many characters. It was just so good, but I think ahead of it's time.


A current show I'm really liking is Mike & Molly.

I didn't care too much for the pilot on it's own because every other word out of the character's mouths were fat jokes, but once they got past that and the show hit it's stride, you see beyond what they look like, which is what you would do with anything you like. It's about a cop and a school teacher falling in love after meeting at an overeaters anonymous meeting. I mean its not a drama, it's a situation comedy, like Roseanne was, but the gimmick of this show is their weight, which I find weird.

It's like weight is becoming the new minority in American TV. You know how you would see a random black/asian/hispanic person in a TV show and just wonder how they got there? It's like "We need a new hook...fat people!"

By the by, I find it utterly refreshing that Mike & Molly has two black characters from different parts of the world in the cast. *Finally* a show is saying, 'Yes there are different kinds of black people all over the world.'

It seems that American television just can't get enough of the fat people lately. From reality shows of people loosing weight, one of the biggest (pun intended) ones just launched by A&E, Heavy


(**side note, I actually know the cover model for that show, we met at a friend's wedding**) to situation comedies where the weight seems to be the focus of the sitcom, fat people are hot right now.

Not since Roseanne has there been a fat male and FEMALE lead in a TV series. Heavy men, sure, from the Honeymooners to King of Queens to just about any other sitcom you can name, the hot wife with the lumpy hubby are standard tv fodder. But to see a lovely woman who isnt a supermodel paired up with a hot dude? Never happen. Or never will last.

But there is a huge problem I'm seeing with this surge of shows that you didn't see with other overweight characters in TV shows. All of the characters in these shows, all of them have eating disorders. Really? All fat people are food addicts in America? They all need meetings and therapy and support groups? None of them can control themselves? I think that's a big issue, and pretty offensive. Don't get me wrong, I really like the two shows I've mentioned, but just like America loves to do, highlight the extreme, all we get to see are fat people who need therapy for their eating. That's kind of sad.


It's a culture shock going from television that says fat people are a spectacle and need help because there is something wrong with them, to a show set in Africa where a fat person is just that, and there is nothing wrong with it.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency isn't really about the size of the main character Precious Ramotswe (played by Jill Scott). Based on a series of books, its about her being a cunning, smart, and independent woman solving crimes. But you port that over to an American audience where you hear characters constantly say, 'fat', 'fatty', 'big', 'traditional build' in tandem with being attractive, and it probably short circuits people's brains!

You can't be a fat beautiful woman character. You can't be the competition against a skinny woman. You can't be pursued by amazingly attractive men. You can't be comfortable in what you look like and not be thin.

Not in American TV. Because here in our television shows weight as a problem to overcome, but in this show, its just a part of the culture. No, not everyone is going to be skinny. Some people just like to eat and it does not mean they have a problem with food. So its amazingly wonderful to see the character Jill Scott plays (who herself has had some weight issues in her own American career) be such a dynamic strong and attractive character in this show.

I guess this is where I send a shout out to Jennifer Hudson. Sweetie, you are not going to stay that size. You just won't.

I hope I am making since with this because I have been wanting to do this post for a long time. I can't really think of much else to add so I'll just leave this out in the aether. How do you feel about the way overweight/fat people are being highlighted in American TV? Any other TV shows (US or from another country) that have non skinny characters that you like?

I would love for this to generate some discussion because I would adore dialog on this.

23 comments:

  1. Great post, I may share bits of this with my ladies. I've been thinking along similar lines for a while in a way... About individual beauty, and inner beauty... Hmm let me try to frame this thought briefly....

    Ok- Why can't we be like ourselves and be beautiful? It's exactly what you're talking about- some people will be that weight and they don't have a pathological disorder. That's just their genes and their bodies. I think you do great work fitting your body in gorgeous clothes and sharing the clothes with us, its a very positive way to view body-beauty-sewing intersections.

    But related to that, I wonder why we can't get it through our heads to love other naturally occurring physical differences? I'm white. I have rather pale olive skin. I could tan and risk skin cancer, or I could go and get sprayed orange but I choose to allow my skin to remain its natural pale hue. Since I live in the tropics, that means covering up and wearing sunscreen to keep my skin healthy. Why should I risk my health or get spray-painted to uphold some odd idea of beauty? It's bizarre.

    The other thing that bugs me is half the time if I glance at a celeb magazine I have to read the captions to figure out who I'm looking at. It's like a starlet goes to Hollywood and then in a desperate bid to get work or whatever goes and has all the individuality surgically removed from her face. I see it as the same sort of issue.

    Is it all a product of our image-obsessed mass culture? Is it because we're all so damaged we can't look in the mirror and decide we like what we see? I don't know.

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  2. Oh and as a long time fan of the books, I'm pleased this is being made into a show by the Brits, who usually aren't afraid to be outside the mainstream. I could only imagine the mess that American producers would make of these books.

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  3. Gavin & Stacey. It's finished now, but I loved Nessa. (It's British, by the way.)

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  4. I absolutely refuse to watch the A&E show, Heavy because I feel that it demoralizes the people and their issues...and I feel the same way about Hoarders and Intervention!

    As for Huge...it was aimed for a teenage audience and truly teenagers just want to look, sound and be like their peers. While it was a good idea, it was never going to succeed. Though I did watch a few issues and really enjoyed it.

    ...and I agree with you about Jennifer Hudson...even Oprah stopped trying to lose weight and just live healthily.

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  5. From a British teen's point of view, I think that No.1 Ladies Detective Agency was the most charming of all of them. I also love Mike and Molly.
    The British are slowly getting the gist of this having normal sized women on tv but our government can also be unbelievably offensive to people over a size 12. They often use the word "Epidemic" when talking about overweight people, They see it as an illness, which in its rarely extreme form prehaps it is. But for a UK size 14/16 girl it is increasingly hard to feel happy in your own skin. Thankfully for me, I have turned to sewing to make myself feel better by making clothes that fit and flatter me for who I am not spending hours feeling crap in a dressing room squeezing into clothes tailored to fit a 5 year old childs body not a womans. Advertising can be amazingly poisonous and TV do need to reconsider how they portray people because at the end of the day they are only offending the majority of their audience by preaching that we are the unnaturally shaped ones. Go look in an Art Gallery and see how we have been this way for hundreds of years. x

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  6. I agree with everything posted here. I love that Shelley looks so hot in her clothes and I also love that I find happy women of all sizes online to identify with and be happy for and with.

    However as someone who has battled her weight for a lifetime, I have to mention one thing--health. If diabetes and heart disease are in your family as it is in mine, then we need to understand that our weight can cause or exacerbate this tendency. It is happening to me.

    If I could do one thing differently than I have, it is to get serious about my health much earlier in my life.

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  7. I think that when Roseanne started, TV execs were worried that American audiences would have a problem with scenes that implied that Dan & Roseanne had an active sex life - much like the characters on Golden Girls (older women gettin' it on? Shocking!).

    Catching Roseanne now in reruns, it's actually refreshing to see a long-term couple in (more-or-less) happy domesticity. Who cares what they look like! More shows like that, I say!

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  8. Thank you for this post! I am American but live and work part of the time in Mexico City. In the US I feel like an unattractive overweight burden on society. In Mexico City I feel like a normal, perfectly OK professional woman. Because I sew, my biggest "fashion" issue is finding shoes that fit my size 10.5 wide feet! Thank you again for raising the crazy-making delusions of U.S. media images and fantasies. And like you I don't watch much TV except what I catch on the internet. And like Carolyn, I cannot bear the heart-breaking reality shows like Hoarders. I just do not see any redeeming value in exposing people that way. There is simply no way to believe that such shows are either compassionate or educational.

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  9. Thanks for all the comments so far! Keep them coming!

    -Sulymo, Im not delusional. I know a lot of overweight people do struggle with their weigh, but is ALL of it to the point of needing a support group? I guess thats my issue. ALL fat people portrayed on American TV seem to need outside help for being fat. What? Where is the balance? Where are the normal fat guys and gals just kickin' around?

    There is always extremes: 105 pound model wife with her fat hubby, or a 300-400 pound couple. No mainstream. I understand that mainstream does not get ratings, but it is exhausting to have to whip your head from one side to another.

    -Carolyn, I watched the entire series of Huge. It was aimed at a teen audience because of the young cast but it was not just a teen show. It was too good to just be a teen show, and I think the show knew that. Its a real loss that it didnt make it.

    -Emma Louise, I totally know what you mean about Roseanne. Im sure they felt that way about The Cosby Show, too. But in the end it just didnt matter. Its just not that big a deal, I guess :)

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  10. I agree with you totally. I was born fat and well over a half century later, I'm still fat. What makes me different from those crying-I'm-so-fat-I-hate-myself ladies (and some men) is that I have never hated myself. Every time I see a person on TV crying about being fat and hating themselves, I just want to slap them. No one likes to be around anyone that does not like themselves, and they treat them accordingly.

    I was lucky enough to be born in the South where fat (black) children were referred to as "fine" and skinny children were referred to as having "consumption" (tuberculosis). So, living in Southern California where women are mutilating their faces and bodies (excessive use of plastic surgery), I'm proud to be an overweight black woman that was told that she was fine from the day she was born. That really makes a difference in a child's life.

    Our girls white, some blacks, and others are dieting before they even reach 10 years old. Some because of their peers and others because of their insecure mothers, or a combination of both. I once had it out with a doctor that told my daughter that she should weigh 40 pounds less, when she was just a little girl with size 10 feet (woman size) and long fingers. I was not going to have some small-framed tiny lady lowering my daughter's self esteem. ...and my daughter, she's "normal size" today.

    The thing that bothers me is that much of this dieting is because people just want to look better. What about being healthy and looking better in the process. Why can't a woman get up, put on her makeup (if she's into that), put her perfume on, put on some sexy underwear (because it makes you feel good, no matter the size or age). In other words just love herself. Bottom line, just love yourself now while traveling to your destination, even if it's weight loss. Why do women beat themselves up about being fat while fat men (most) think they're kings no matter what their size is.

    Don't get me wrong, at my age I'm trying to walk more and eat better. You will not fine white flour, processed sugar, and white rice in my kitchen, not for the past 30 years or more. But I love it and I will eat it when I'm out, in a moment. I will not beat myself up about it; I'm not ashamed when I eat it; and I will not hide to eat it. Never mind if that size 00 model is unhealthy; she doesn't have an eating disorder, but that fat girl--size 12--definitely has one.

    I can go on and on about this. I would like to make a few points. The size that people are today is much larger than when I was growing up. Many reports have said that this is because of the introduction of corn sugar into our diets in the 1970s. If this is true, and I believe it to be so, why is the government allowing this. I came up taking physical education classes. Has anyone noticed that many of these classes have been eliminated from our school system, especially in our poorer areas? Why is it that our children always have to suffer and their academic programs cut when our government needs to save money.

    I love seeing fat women; my mother was fat, my grandmothers were fat. I love fat fashion magazines, until they disappear off the bookshelf after a few months. I love seeing a variety of types of people in my world. Why do people that are afraid of getting fat (you know that is what's happening--fat phobia), afraid of or dislike different types of people, why do they have the right to present to me what they feel to be perfect people? Because I let them.

    I better stop now; thanks for a wonderful post!

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  11. I have always been fat and in fourth grade, was made to go to 'fat class' at 7.30 am before school. They weighed us and announced to everyone how much we weighed. Crap like that can scar a kid for life....and it has.

    I have two kids, one who was never fat, but has a terrible diet of nothing but Dr Pepper and paenut butter crackers. Never will a vegetable cross her lips. I have another child who was fat, but made a choice to eat healthier, excercise more and with the help of puberty, is now a slim young man who can buy the skinny jeans he wants to wear. His diet is varied, he gets his veggies every day.

    Skinny does not make for happy or healthy just as fat does not mean unhappy or unhealthy. Why does everyone think as fat folks we need fixing?

    I am happy and live a full life. i just happen to like food. I am however making an attempt to excercise more and eat less of the things that are bad for me. It only makes sense.

    We have alot of shows here in the Uk with titles such as 'Fat Teens', 'Fat Fmailies', 'The 20 stone Teen'...and the list goes on. It makes me sick that these kids are being exploited and seen as defective. It is just sick.

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  12. I love your post.

    There are so many reasons for people to feel that they need to lose weight. It can be because of health issues, not happy with the way they look, and whatever other reasons.

    I consider myself thick & healthy, and I feel light as a feather. But, to be honest with you I eat in small portions. My biggest problem is I don't have much physical activity in my life which I need to change, eventually.

    I love Jill Scott in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I agree with you about Jennifer Hudson. They are a few such as America Ferrea and some others they will not remain their size for long.

    I've noticed once these celebs get hired for shows as they were all of sudden they're like a size 7. Not sure, if it's the media, or because they weren't happy with the way they look. I'm aiming more to the media...I'm just saying.

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  13. Great replies, everyone!

    -Lee Duncan, one thing I have always said the gov. could do to actually impact the health of the nation was to end corn subsidies. Most of the corn grown in the US isnt food grade (as in get it at the grocery). It HAS to be processed. The subsidies actually keep the price of the corn down so farmers have to grow more in order to make any money. So you have a glut of this product that food companies make into anything they can from Twinkies to colas to cat litter.

    If those subsidies were to end, cheap food would be more expensive, and the domino effect would happen in a matter of months. It would be spectacular.

    -Pixie, I loved what you said :)

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  14. I haven't seent he tow first shows you mention, but I watched The No 1... just a few days ago. I have enjoyed the books a lot and thought the series very well done.

    Many people seem to equal a person who is overweight with a person who are are stupid and lazy. I can imgaine that for some, the idea of an attractive and smart woman who is not model thin, is offensive.

    I don't watch much television, so the only character that springs to mind as not being thin and still smart are Garcia in Criminal Minds. She is also an unconventional dresser, but there have, as far as I have seen, never been any mentioning of her weight.

    Are you familiar with an UK SF comedy called Red Dwarf. The main character was a black man complete slob (toned down eventually), uniterested in keeping fit but for all his bad habits a smart and ethical person. In the US pilot he was changed into a conventionally handsome white man for no good reason at all. (The original cast of the series were just four characters, two of them black. For contrast the other black character was a very fit and well-dressed man)

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  15. I had no idea there was a US version of "Red Dwarf". I just bought the three first seasons on DVD and is currently laughing my butt off and reliving my then crush on the original Dave Lister. Those dreads, those boots, the army pants..

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  16. One huge difference in size is health and nutrition. The average female height and weight has been steadily growing, which is a good thing. I am quite small, though 5'8", but if I compare myself to 40s sizing I'm huge! lol

    Our society worships physical perfection, which is an unattainable ideal. Even beautiful, thin models believe they have flaws, just as an example. If the ideals of female beauty aren't happy with themselves, who can be?
    I prefer to (try to) opt out of the whole game.

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  17. Thank you for this lovely post.
    British shows seem to have slightly less of a "you can't be an actor because you're fat (or because your teeth aren't perfect, for that matter)" rule than American ones, I think. But in terms of shows with lots of fat people, the early series of Fat Friends was great. Terrible name notwithstanding. It centred around 6 or characters who met at a slimming club, but focussed mainly on their separate (though slightly overlapping) lives outside the club. They were different ages, cultures, situations and degrees of fatness. The series centred around their "real lives" rather than having weight issues as its main focus, though it did give some nice parodies of weekly slimming meetings. Check it out if you can.
    And yes - "fat" for TV is way different from out here in the real world.

    They changed the Red Dwarf guy into a handsome white man? Where do they get off? My favourite, almost-zero-budget TV series!

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  18. The US version of Red Dwarf never went longer than the pilot. For obvious reasons... It is somewhere on the Red Dward DVDs, but I have forgotten which. It is really and truly very, very bad. Red Dwarf is one of my favourite shows too and have some really clever thoughts on identity and character. We are currently re-watching them

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  19. Carolyn, I watched a couple episodes of Heavy and I was moved to tears a few times (and Im the biggest cynic I know). I was stunned at how unbelievably positive the show was to encourage the people it follows.

    I was expecting the sensationalism of Hoarders, which makes me sick sometimes, but this show was no where near that. The people are followed for 6 months and you get to know them and what they overcome. From the start they are told this isn't a magic pill. It will take work and its a complete lifestyle change.

    The look of emancipation on the faces of the people at the end of the show is priceless.

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  20. I wish there were more t.v. shows, movies even books that had normal (i.e. fat by industry standards)main characters. As a kid I was naturally skinny but once I hit my 20's I gained weight. I was still thin but all around me I was bombarded with ads and magazines saying I wasn't thin enough. I am now in my 40's and have the body size and shape that all of my female ancestors had; big up top, barrel like in the middle and small on the bottom. In other words, according to society, fat.
    We, as women, need to quit buying into what society tells us is the only way to look, act, dress, be! You, Shelleyj, are an awesome pioneer in this and I think you are fabulous! Keep it up!

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  21. I too loved this post. I am a very big woman ~ currently 306.5 pounds ~ albeit one who is actively seeking to shed some of that weight. However, my prime concern is simply my health. Aside from the fact that there is adult-onset diabetes in my family, including my mother, I have ongoing back problems. I know that the less "excess" weight I am carrying, the better the situation will be with my back condition.

    I grew up in a family where the women on my mother's side were, in the main, all pretty large ladies. I can't ever remember a time when my Mum wasn't talking about her weight! I was a "normal" sized child but as soon as I hit puberty, I started to gain weight much faster than any of my peers. I admit that I did feel different to everyone else and having a mother who is obsessed by weight issues (not that she has ever permanently gotten any slimmer!) certainly didn't help the situation.

    It's only since I've got older (I'm now 50) that I have finally "made peace", as it were, with my size. I do know that probably sounds a tad contradictory since I have already said that I am currently trying to shed some weight! However, if it were not for the problems I have with my back, then I would not be going down the trying-to-shed-weight route. I am simply re-educating myself on healthy eating and sensible exercise, and have been seeing my weight decrease by a nice, sensible 1 to 1.5 pounds each week.

    Apparently the maximum I should weigh for my height according to the "healthy weight range" is 154 pounds! I can't ever imagine myself weighing as little as that ~ I can't even REMEMBER when I was last that size, it was probably around the time I hit puberty LOL Like Jill Scott's character, Precious Ramotswe, I am a "traditionally built woman! ;-)

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  22. Don't forget that U.S. lawyer show. I am not firm on my memory. I think it began as "The Practice" and eventually was renamed "Boston Legal"? One of the featured, serious, successful lawyers was played by Cameron Manheim (sp?). I think her physical heft, and possibly height (I'm not sure if she is tall) contributed to her confidence as above-average height supposedly helps men in their careers.

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