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?