In the United States of America, home of the best-fed people on earth, it's finally come to this: We have developed an insatiable appetite not only for mammoth cupcakes but for fatness itself. Turn on the TV and it's everywhere. On NBC's pioneering The Biggest Loser, where the morbidly obese try to sweat their way into smaller jeans. On VH1's Celebrity Fit Club, with its flotilla of jump-roping chubsters. On Oxygen's Dance Your Ass Off, in which the shaking of Brobdingnagian booties rivals the cataclysmic movement of tectonic plates. And, most recently and tantalizingly, on Fox's More to Love, in which a bevy of lard-assed ladies compete for the meaty paw of a sweet, man-boobed, 300-pound-plus subcontractor from California.
There is, yes, so much to love—and so much to feel conflicted about. It used to be that fattertainment—media content that invites gratuitous gawking at bulging bellies, thunder thighs, and cellulite—was the domain of an odd subset of fetishists. But now we're all fascinated by fatties. We find ourselves blubbernecking at them in the checkout line, where celebrity weeklies are stuffed with pictures of famous people impersonating beached whales. There, the National Enquirer treats us to a glimpse of a pallid-flanked Rosie O'Donnell boarding a boat in Miami Beach. The photo caption: HERE'S "THE VIEW" NO ONE WANTS TO SEE.
The teaser is disingenuous, though. Millions want to see it. So do you.
"The best thing TV could do is have a show that addresses obesity—how we got this way and how we can prevent it," says Ric Ferraro, a psychology professor at the University of North Dakota who's an expert on eating disorders. "But people aren't going to watch that." Instead, he says, "we've got a flurry of shows that degrade the participants."
It's that "degrade" part that's problematic. Because if the latest portrait of Jake Gyllenhaal's bounce-a-nickel-on-me six-pack only gives you cause to worry about your unsightly bulges, fattertainment tends to have the opposite effect. It's . . . uplifting. If celebrities make you feel like a loser, TV fatties make you feel like a celebrity. "As a pretty fat guy, there's nothing better than watching really super-fat people jostle, giggle, dance, eat, complain, and sweat while I sit at home, covered in Cheetos dust, silently judging them," says comedian Pete Holmes. "It makes me feel better about being fat."
Face it: These shows traffic in human suffering—which means watching them is either exploitative or cathartic, depending on how tightly those Dockers hug your tummy.
Helen Phillips, 49, of Sterling Heights, Michigan, once weighed 257 pounds. "For years I was sitting on the couch, eating pizza, watching The Biggest Loser, crying my eyes out watching these people, because I felt their pain," she says. "It's an emotional thing—it really is." Watching the show didn't prompt her to lose weight. But it did inspire her to audition to be on it: Phillips won the seventh season by shedding more than 50 percent of her body weight.
Recession notwithstanding, fattertainment generates a steady revenue stream for American media outlets—it's become a bedrock broadcast trope for both fat-again Oprah (remember that time she appeared on her show lugging a little red wagon containing 67 pounds of animal fat?) and local news shows, which can count on a ratings surge whenever a suburban ranch home is demolished so a reclusive 1,000-pounder can be extracted and airlifted to a bariatric-surgery facility.
On More to Love, the participants aren't even trying to lose weight. "Let's be honest," says comedian Joe Piccirillo. "No one wants to watch fat people fall in love. They want to watch fat people get hit in the groin with footballs. It's the way God wants it." You'll find the proof on YouTube, where one of the two parts of a series of videos titled "Fat People Hurt in Funny Accidents" surpassed 3 million views this past summer. For decades, of course, pratfalling tubbies from Oliver Hardy to Chris Farley have seen their popularity rise as they've squeezed sweaty haplessness into their shtick.
The humiliated fatty—that used to be a niche, a specialty profession like contortionist or congressman. But with nearly 4 million Americans tipping the scales at 300 pounds or more, it's ballooned into a growth industry. All the rest of us can do is watch. And watch. And watch again. If we Americans hate ourselves for being fat, maybe we long to see someone humiliated for our collective sins.
Just not us personally. Pass the remote—and that pint of Triple Caramel Chunk.