Terence Blacker: Overweight, overexposed and over here

TV makes overeating and then starving oneself into inspirational drama

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There is, as usual, a belt-busting amount of fat-related news this week. Which? magazine accused the Government of failing to defuse the UK's famous ticking obesity time bomb. The title of Slimming Couple of the Year was awarded to Simon and Tracy Bartlett who shed 15 stone in 18 months. And at the annual conference of the American Heart Association, the result of a major survey was announced. Sitting in front of a TV for several hours every day is, stunned delegates were told, likely to make you fat.

Surely, we can go further than that? The TV programmes watched by those gently swelling viewers are likely to have one subject: obesity and its various sideshows, gaining weight, losing weight, the life and travails of the over-large. As a culture, we are suffering from an eating disorder. People have become weirdly and unhealthily fixated upon a subject which – surely we can agree on this? – is supremely dull. Forget sex, or those annoying fake quizzes for smug stand-ups, it is fat shows which now rule the airwaves.

Over the past couple of years, there has been no escape from obesity in the TV schedules. Skimming the high-calorie surface of shows on offer, one can find Supersize vs Superskinny, The Biggest Loser, Too Fat For Fifteen, My 600lb Life, I Used To Be Fat, Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition, Heavy, and, of course, F*** Off, I'm Fat.

It is time to extend that last message to the whole subject of obesity. There may be an undeniable fascination in watching, say, a documentary about a 70-stone man who lives in Ipswich, but it is of a demeaning, freak-show kind. As for the idea, much loved by TV executives, that fat shows somehow empower the overweight, it is self-evidently absurd. The two countries where fatness is a subject of most fascination, Britain and the US, also happen to have the greatest crisis of obesity.

TV turns fatties into heroes. It makes over-eating, and then starving oneself, into a great, inspirational drama when it is invariably banal. A few people have, for medical or physical reasons, real problems with their weight – and should go nowhere near TV cameras. For the rest, the truly vast majority, there is a direct connection between their size and the way they have chosen to live.

Which? is right to take the Government to task for its characteristic feebleness in dealing with companies who have avoided publishing dietary information on food, but television and sections of the press must take their share of responsibility too. By turning fatness into entertainment, they are also normalising it. It is time for less gawking at the overweight, for tackling the problem of obesity seriously, and at government level – and for encouraging those with a weight problem to lose their pounds in private.


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