I have been watching a lot of TV lately, mostly while breastfeeding my baby boy. Once I get the hang of this new and repeated activity, I can no doubt do something more productive while nursing, like reading collections of short stories. [Aside: I am currently obsessed with figuring out how to write short stories that aren’t total crap]. Back to TV: While lying prone in a hospital bed last week, recovering from surgery with a mewling newborn nestled on my chest, I began to watch random programs that I had never seen before, including one called My 600-Pound Life. My initial reaction was probably commonplace: fascination mixed with equal parts of horror and empathy. Overwhelmed by the spectacle of morbidly obese fleshliness on screen, I was reminded of popular freak shows during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when fat men and especially women were ogled as monstrous beasts. My 600-Pound Life is a modern-day version of the freak show, which similarly permits uninhibited gawking at large human bodies framed as “other,” that is, as simultaneously compelling and disgusting. Watching episode after episode, I found myself asking: How on earth does a person become so fat that they cannot rise from a bed, wash themselves, or even walk? And how can they afford the gastric bypass surgery and other medical interventions so meticulously portrayed in the show?
Clearly, the large and apparently poor people had submitted to television surveillance in exchange for “free” medical treatments. They had also relinquished control over how their stories would be told, resulting in the production of a standard narrative structure in most cases: at first the fat person overindulges without concern, eventually becomes alarmed by ill health, and then decides to seek help. The heroic helper role is played by doctors and other medical experts, figures who often clash with the obese patient’s family members. These relatives—husbands and wives, mothers and fathers—are usually “enablers,” undermining the post-operative patient by sneaking food into the hospital and delivering fried giblets to their bedside at home. Viewers are thus asked to identify with the medical experts and position themselves against the patient and his/her family, taking the moral high road while judging their own lives superior in practically every way to that of the 600+-pound subject.
Yet the characters in My 600-Pound Life make decisions—some including me would call them mistakes—in relation to food along the same lines as many of us, albeit in an extreme form. For instance, they 1) underestimate how much food they actually consume on a daily basis; 2) overestimate how much food is required to sustain the human body; 3) imagine that weight loss will be relatively easy, especially after bariatric surgery; 4) presume that dietary changes will be temporary rather than permanent; 5) think that they have already “worked really hard” and “tried everything” to lose weight; 6) focus almost exclusively on the quantity rather than quality of the food that they are eating. During one episode, a 700-pound 22-year-old woman proudly tells her elderly male doctor that she has been eating only one rather than two hamburgers per meal. His despair is palpable. All the same, how many readers have made some or all of these same assumptions? I am guilty of 1 and 2 in particular. [Aside: Weight loss is currently on my mind. I have shed 35 pounds since giving birth 12 days ago, but plan to lose 15 more, taking me to a number that will be less than that of my pre-pregnancy state].
No doubt my recent experience of hospitalization influenced my interpretation of the television show in question. After my water broke, I spent three days in the hospital, strapped to fetal monitors while having my blood pressure measured every few hours, enduring various induction methods and constant scrunity before finally undergoing a caesarean section. Although the pregnancy itself was incredibly easy, in the end my cervix let me down, refusing to budge an inch, despite the moderate contractions of my uterus. During my lengthy attempt at delivery, I was transformed into ungainly flesh, my near naked body subject to the eyes of pretty much everyone; in the end I passively accepted tranquilization while my baby was rudely yanked from my abdomen. All of these experiences made me able to identify (at least a little bit more) with the debilitated and highly medicalized characters profiled in My 600-Pound Life. These loose connections between pregnancy and obesity shed light on the infantilization of the bariatric surgery candidates. The camera often portrays these figures as gigantic babies, helplessly sprawled out on beds while utterly dependent on the care of others.
My art-historical mind immediately recalled a sculpture (which I do not like) by Ron Mueck. His disturbingly large baby is overwhelming, not unlike the unreasonably demanding characters on My 600-Pound Life who are bathed, fed, soothed, and transported by family members. In a way, massive mounds of fat are not the only thing that makes these figures seem monstrous. They are also positioned in between the categories of child and adult, defying both of them. Like Little People, the obese individual must reject childish behaviour, namely a lack of self-control and evident narcissism, to demonstrate adult qualities, including the ability to say no to junk food, drive a car, hold a job, and—most of all—parent their own children in order to demonstrate their recovery and ultimate “cure.”
Unfortunately My 600-Pound Life focuses primarily on food rather than the bigger picture, especially family dynamics. The caretakers of the obese person are involved in what pop psychologists would call a co-dependent relationship. I would normally eschew this concept, as it overlooks the interdependence of all identity, but in this case it rings true. According to one online source: “Codependent relationships are close relationships where much of the love and intimacy in the relationship is experienced in the context of one person’s distress and the other’s rescuing or enabling. The helper shows love primarily through the provision of assistance and the other feels loved primarily when they receive assistance.” The helper finds meaning in his or her life within this dynamic, often without realizing it. If you were to ask them to list their life priorities (something that does occur on the television program), they will refer to the loved object first and foremost, saying something like “helping x get better.” The co-dependent helper will prioritize the ambitions of the loved one over their own life goals, perhaps in order to avoid pursuing and potentially failing to achieve those goals. This “unhealthy” kind of relationship is featured in an extreme form in My 600-Pound Life, but it can help us to think about our own lives in general, as well as within the realm of health-seeking behaviour. Is there someone in your life who unconsciously enables your bad habits and discourages your development of a new understanding of food and/or exercise? Or am I completely full of shit as well as breast milk these days?