FAT MARCH AND THE VENEER OF FITNESS by Perry Cohen

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When I first saw the TV show Fat March I thought I was watching some sort of spoof. Surely no producer in their right mind, and certainly one who wasn’t begging to be sued for gross negligence due to the death of a contestant, would put this show on the air. But, no, it was not a spoof. Fat March is real and I have to confess, I watched 9 of the 10 episodes. I can’t explain it. I know that everything about Fat March is wrong. It’s exploitative, degrading, humiliating, and promotes the most unhealthy weight loss plan, short of anorexia I have ever seen. And yet, it sucks me in. Why? I’m not sure, but I’m hoping that in writing this blog I’ll figure that out.

The trainers on Fat March, Steve and Lorrie, put the contestants through the most ridiculous, unsafe and unsustainable workout regimen you can imagine. There is no consultation about fitness, health or nutrition. They simply take 12 morbidly obese and self-admitted sedentary people and put them on a workout plan that begins with a timed five-mile walk. For many of us, a five-mile walk would not kill us, and in fact, might be invigorating. But for a person who doesn’t walk more than half a mile over the course of an entire day and who carries an average of 150-250 extra pounds on their frame, five miles seems like a marathon. In fact, that is just how the producers positioned Fat March. The first episode began in Hopkinton, MA, the starting point for the Boston Marathon. Just hours after the marathoners set off on their 26.2 mile race, the Fat Marchers began their own journey that would lead them from Hopkinton to Washington DC. Along the way the contestants would be forced to sleep in tents, walk distances ranging from five to 26.2 miles, all within time constraints and while under the eye of the voyeuristic cameras.

As expected, at least three of the contestants wound up in the emergency room due to fatigue, dehydration, and overtraining. Several others suffered damage to their joints and stress fractures that could prove to be chronic and recurring injuries.

Why do shows like Fat March get produced? And, more to the point, why do we watch them? Is it because they make us feel better about ourselves, or is it because just like many other things in American society, we’ve spectacularized and commodified obesity and weight loss? I think it’s the latter. We’ve turned a medical condition into a social problem and in so doing have paved the way for television to make a spectacle out of being fat. There is a veneer of fitness in these shows. They suggest that the purpose of the show is to help people with a medical condition take control of their lives, lose weight and regain some of their lost freedoms. Yet, aside from the blogs and web content, which is decidedly separate from the show itself, these reality programs really have very little to do with losing weight. We never actually see the trainers teaching the contestants how to lift weights or build muscle, determine the appropriate time and intensity of their cardio workouts, or adopt healthy eating habits. Instead we see people who are understandably self-conscious about their bodies (aren’t most of us?) paraded around in front of the cameras wearing little other than shorts and a sports bra. The contest, and that is what it is, is not about creating a well-rounded and healthy lifestyle; it is simply about walking and weight loss. To further humiliate the contestants, we then watch them stand on the scales waiting with tremendous anxiety to hear what their current weight-loss is. And, along with worrying about if they are losing weight, the participants also have to play nice with the other contestants in order to avoid being kicked off the show and not only not losing more weight, but losing out on their shot at $10,000 to $100,000 in prize money.

To circle back around to my original question of why I watch Fat March and don’t boycott it the way I feel I should… I think I watch because I’m just hoping that I’ll see some sort of evidence that the training is actually working and that rather than simply sweating off water weight before a big weigh in, the contestants will really learn to adopt and sustain a healthier lifestyle. And yet, I am constantly denied that as I watch and see that these shows are not about inspiring people to lose weight and change their lifestyle. They are about making cheap TV that sells advertisements at the expense of people’s humanity, dignity and even their health. I’m curious to hear what you all think. Is there anything redeeming about shows like Fat March or is it, as I believe simply about showing the drama and boosting network ratings?

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5 thoughts on “FAT MARCH AND THE VENEER OF FITNESS by Perry Cohen

  1. Hi. I’m Will from Fat March.
    Just so you know, just about everyone that has been on the show has changed their lives. I know for a fact that 4 of us are 100 pound losers, myself included (and also including Shane who left to do it on his own week 1). Some of us are doing marathons, myself NOT included, LOL. Yet.. anyway. And just about all of us have adapted a healthier lifestyle.
    I have a blog that speaks about the so called “exploitation” of fat people, if you’re in the mood to check it out.
    You can find it here…

    http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=13624478&blogID=293893448&Mytoken=D8CBFFB6-3611-4F09-A97FBBFC9223291E136400410

    At any rate, thanks for watching…

  2. Hi Will,
    Thanks for your response. I’ve got to be honest, I never expected anyone from the show to actually read my blog, let alone respond. It was really cool to see your post and more importantly, to read what you have to say. Congratulations on being a hundred pound loser. That is quite an accomplishment! Anyway, I am really excited to hear that you and most of the others from Fat March have adopted a healthier lifestyle. And, I really liked what you had to say about exploitation. I agree with you that we are all exploited in some ways and what is important is what we choose to do about or with that.

    And I can’t sit here and be all sanctimonious about Fat March because I’m a PhD student studying the body and culture. So, like the producers of Fat March, I too make my living (and it’s not much of one) talking about, writing about, and showing how people experience their bodies in society. I suppose the biggest differences between them and me are 1) they have a far greater audience than I do and 2) we go about trying to help people in different ways.

    So, really, I’m curious, were the trainers nice to you or was it as absolutely ridiculous of a training program as I saw on the TV?

    Thanks again for writing Will.

  3. I mean honestly, the trainers told us that this was not a program they would give someone on their own. But at the same time, the producers needed to do something to make an entertaining show. The trainers were there to make sure we were ok and to motivate us to get going.
    I’m the type of person though, that this program was perfect for. I needed to be in that type of controlled environment. Would I have liked it, and would have done better than I did, if we started out a little slower, of course. But was I going to do it on my own. No. That’s the straight up truth. I did not have enough drive and motivation to do this on my own and probably would have had a heart attack. So as ridiculous as it was sometimes, I personally, had no other choice.
    As far as the trainers personally. I loved steve most of the time. I loved lorrie half of the time, LOL. We kind of had a love hate relationship, which I wish they would have showed.
    I think thats where they messed up. They focused too much on Anthony bitching me out and not our relationships with the trainers.
    But oh well, what can you do now.
    I know that at almost 500 pounds I would not have done half of the physical activity I did this past week. I’ll be in the 370’s this week and my clothes are still get huge on me, even the newer smaller sizes. And that really is what’s important.

  4. I just watched the last episode of Fat March and one thing struck me as a little strange.. When the contestants were first weighed, the scales acted normally (they went past the final weight and then settled down)

    But when they were weighed for the final weight, the scales looked like they had been rigged. As each contestant stepped on, the needle of the scales went up but stopped very suddenly. The scales had obviously been limited so that they couldn’t go above a certain weight.

    This makes me suspicious about the amount of weight lost by each contestant. Why (if the show’s producers were being honest) was there a need to limit the scales? To ensure a “positive” outcome?

  5. The scale thing is simple. At the very begining, the scale broke (funnily enough, NOT because of the fat people using it) and since that scale was all they had to film with, they couldn’t not use it. So we were weighed off on a digital scale and the one that was shot on tv was rigged to reflect that weight.

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