So, continuing to waste my evening cruising the DirecTV listings just now, I ran across the oddest show, “Fat & Fatter.” It’s a reality show about obese people. The narrative follows Ann and Bex, two young, somewhat obese British women, who have come to Smith County, Miss., to spend some time with some MASSIVELY obese sisters there. FYI, the Mississippians are not poor; they live in a nice house. In one scene, the Mississippi women took their UK guests to an all you can eat buffet.
“Why are you putting salt on your fruit?” Bex asked one of her hostesses.
“Because it tastes good,” she replied.
“But don’t you know too much salt is really bad for you? Don’t you feel guilty?”
“I’ll feel guilty tomorrow. Right now, I’m enjoying myself. The food is good.”
The show is playing out like a version of “Scared Straight” for fat people. The program had an interview with Ann’s parents back home in the UK. They are both rather fat. The two said that the reason their daughter is so large is because they fed her lots of convenience food growing up. They knew they were doing wrong, they admitted, but the girl loved that food, and they didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
They just talked to a 52 year old morbidly obese woman who is on dialysis three times per week; her type 2 diabetes caused her kidneys to fail. She was bluntly unsentimental about her situation. She showed the Brits all the wounds on her body from years of dialysis and medical procedures.
“It’s horrible, and it’s very painful. It’s reality,” she said. “It’s my fault. I ate pizza, everything, hamburgers. I was gobbling, gobbling. You ain’t thinkin’ about who to blame. You’re enjoying yourself to death.”
And wow, she was harsh to the younger women. She said flatly to them, ”If you don’t change your lifestyle, you might not be so fortunate to get on this machine. You may die.”
In the next scene, they visited the local graveyard. There was Aunt Tereca’s grave. “She was so fat,” said her niece Diane. Then Diane talked about how horrible her aunt’s medical condition was at the time of her death, because of her obesity. Her gangrene was hideous; when the medics took her boots off, the smell was horrible.
“But later,” said Diane, “when I saw food, I totally forgot about Aunt Tereca.”
The whole thing is such a morality tale. Diane and Delores, their hostesses, made breakfast for their guests the last day. Even though she’s a diabetic, Diane ate two plates of food, including a lot of syrup and butter. Ann said it made her angry to see it — obviously because these women are killing themselves, yet will not make the slightest effort to change. Diane and Delores have a sister who is relatively thin; Ann and Bex asked her why she enables her sisters’ deadly eating habits. The sister shrugs, and says she doesn’t want to make them unhappy.
It was an interesting show. It was about gluttony, straight up, but it wasn’t about shaming the Mississippi women. It was, though, about highlighting the severe consequences of their morbid indulgence with food. There was no way to say that any of these women — the Brits or the Mississippians — were ignorant, or that they didn’t have access to better food. In fact, Ann and Bex went to a local grocery store and bought ordinary healthy food — corn on the cob, tomatoes, chicken, green beans — and prepared it without gobs of butter and salt. Dolores acted like a child, barely choking it down. Said it was “horrible.” She was a woman who would rather suffer and even risk early death than do as much as cut back on the salt and butter on her food. In the end, Ann went back to Britain and got busy exercising. She said that she didn’t want to hear anybody tell her she needed to get active and start eating better, but she’s glad somebody finally did. I think it was the dialysis woman’s stern, no-excuses lecture that motivated her to change.
I think what made this show so oddly compelling was that while it was sympathetic to its subjects — again, everyone on the program was obese — it didn’t sentimentalize them, or get all therapeutic and nonabout their condition. It let them speak for themselves, and what they had to say about why they do what they do about their weight was pretty startling.
Apparently the show aired on ABC last year. A fat blogger on the Fatadelic website went ballistic, calling it “extreme fat hate” and, of course, “racist” (the Mississippi women in the show are black; one of the British women is black, the other white; the Fatadelic blogger is white). But there is no denying that these women in the program are suffering from very serious and painful health problems, conditions that are expensive to treat. One reason health care costs are skyrocketing in the US is because we are growing ever fatter. If it were merely an aesthetic condition, that would be one thing, but to listen to these women and their families talk about the reasons for their obesity is to hear, unavoidably, that there is a moral dimension to their condition as well.