Television: Documentary II - Eh oh: being a real-life Teletubby isn't much fun
Sunday 11 October 1998
The timing was perfect: just as Oprah's weigh plummeted enough for a Vogue cover; as a porn mag for flab-fetishists, Belly, was launched, and Clive James and David Bailey salivated over supermodels; as health farms for fat kids were mooted, ITV has pulled out a lean series on fat. The six-part swim through the subcutaneous issues - which concludes tomorrow - has made for melancholic viewing: acres of (usually female) flesh, tut- tutting doctors, quick-fix con-men, and always the looming twin-towers of evil: the food industries and the glamour mags.
The American material was part-grotesquerie, part Gilbert Grape-like satire: the cultish professor Cowan, working out of the "Wellness Centre" in Memphis, called his patients his "angels" (his "cure" was to cut out their stomachs). Cowan - using a fundamentalist slimming parlance echoed in each episode - was called "Dr God". He spoke of himself as a "leper doctor", touching the untouchables.
Meanwhile camera angles made the already large limbs of his patients look enormous, like Popeye's forearms after a gulp of spinach: "I just got bigger and bigger, and kinda couldn't get around no more" said one American Augustus Gloop.
Christie Martin of Arkansas, 24 and with two failed marriages already, was 5'6" and weighed in at 36 stone. She wanted to have Dr Cowan's operation, and the camera crew certainly knew how to milk all the emotions. As she bid goodbye to her daughter before the op, a mike must have been placed in her throat pipe, so loud was her laboured breathing. There was a swell of choral music, and with her anaesthetised body a blurry backdrop, the crew focussed on a concertina-ed lantern, rising and falling, filling her with oxygen.
To this cosmopolitan voyeurism Antony Thomas, writer and director, would add his own bitter-lemon twist of morality. Nine million people in Britain, and 91 million in America, are obese, and the numbers are doubling every seven years. Of the top 35 companies listed on the London stock exchange, apparently 12 are in the food business. In America, the food industry spend US$36 billion on advertising. Meanwhile fat in foods has been concentrated, hydrogenated, turned into trans-fatty acids, providing that added sensory "hit" to our survival systems.
Cut to the culprit, through the guidance of a Yale professor: "In the States, 300,000 people die each year through obesity-related diseases. But where tobacco is seen as evil, we somehow pretend Ronald McDonald is cute." Ronald arrived in China in 1992 ("over one billion served!" goes the boast), and Thomas showed the Beijing kids with the fast-food trademark: the podgy, stretched flesh and an expression of agonised bemusement when they step on the scales. Meanwhile, life is now so sedentary that Leicester even has a vetinary out-patients for bloated pets.
The slimming solution is, of course, part of the problem. "Thinness," said Dr Steiner-Adaire of Harvard, "has replaced virginity as the picture of the good woman in our culture." $30 bn is spent in the States on slimming, prompted by programmes like Baywatch and fear of the dreaded pear-shape (Baywatch, coincidentally, boasts - like Ronald - that it has been sampled by over one billion people). With definitions of natural beauty forever narrowing, tomorrow's concluding episode, a reprise of the series, is a noble plea against fat-free eugenics.
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