Our 600 Pound Lives

A thing that’s been happening lately is that people ask me my opinion of things. And, I mean, I started a one-woman podcast. Of course I am egomaniacal enough to very much enjoy telling people what I think about stuff. Even when I’m entirely unqualified! Which is often!

But there are some topics that I’ve avoided really talking about no matter how many times I’m asked or how qualified I am. One of those is My 600-lb Life. 

I’m not going to tell you what that is or where to find it. I like to consider it the Voldemort of TV shows. Never speak its name. Except, you know, right now in this essay.

If you don’t know about My 600-lb Life, please enjoy blissful ignorance and never ever google it. Trust me on this. Most of us do know about it. Most fat people have been asked by an acquaintance or family member or stranger on the internet if they know about it. 

I wish I didn’t. 

I have been dodging this topic for four years. The truth is that even thinking about writing this makes me feel very tired. It’s a big, complicated issue. But mostly I’ve not wanted to even think about trying to tell an audience of people who are not and will never be 600 pounds how much this show hurts. 

But today I’ll try.

So let’s start with the overview. I hate this fucking show. It is entrenched in and actually makes a product of weight stigma. It creates entertainment around it. This show profits off of its audience’s fear of fatness and disability. And that’s not even touching what it does to the actual fat people it profiles.

But, speaking of those people, one of my biggest reservations about discussing this show in depth has always been the agency of the fat people on it. My assumption has always been that the people who appear on the show have applied to participate because they have become overwhelmed by their circumstances and are looking for help. It has never and will never be for me to decide what people do with their own lives and bodies. If people are seeking this out, this is not for me to criticize. 

But something happened a couple weeks ago. I got an email from a casting office.

Date: Thursday, March 5, 2020

To: ash@thefatlip.com

Subject: My 600-lb Life Opportunity

Hi Ash!

My name is Gabe, I’m a casting assistant working with TLC on their compelling docu-series My 600-lb Life. Each episode follows the lives of real people as they embark on a road to better health and make the courageous decision to change their world forever.

We are looking for individuals over 18 years old, between 500-800 pounds, who live in the continental US and are ready to commit to a year-long program to improve their health. If approved by the show’s physician, selected individuals will also receive Gastric Bypass Surgery. 

I know it would be a big change for you. If you are interested in learning more, I would be excited to hop on the phone to discuss this opportunity in more detail! 

I’m looking forward to hearing back soon! 

All the best,

Gabe

Ain’t that some shit? 

Clearly Gabe here didn’t do even the most basic research. I have been vocally fat positive on the internet for over 15 years and have made with my own two fat hands a fat liberation podcast that has been running two episodes a month for nearly 4 years. I regularly post photos of my 600 pound body in varying degrees of undress on the internet. I am not the one, Gabe. 

I responded to this email as politely and diplomatically as I could possibly manage:

“Not no but fuck no.” 

I’d like to say that I’m shocked that they are sending out cold casting emails to people who appear to be in their target weight range, but of course they are. Of course they think that this is acceptable behavior. 

It isn’t. 

But it gets worse. 

I posted about the email and my response on Instagram and over the next few days I heard from at least 8 other fat people who had received nearly identical messages. Not all from Gabe, though. An Instagram friend with inside knowledge said that casting for these shows is done by independent contractors that are paid by referral. There appear to be a handful of contractors working on this casting right now. A listing even appeared on Backstage

One fat person who received the above message was clearly more even-tempered than I am and responded with questions about where the casting person found her. 

Apparently at least one of these casting assistants (and I suspect all of them based on the people who seem to have been targeted) went right through the infinifat hashtags and hit up anyone who appeared to be in the right weight range. 

When I heard this I was both absolutely indignant and utterly devastated. 

Y’all, it is HARD to feel safe allowing yourself to be seen in this world when you live in a very marginalized body. Those hashtags and our once-a-month day of visibility are the one place we fucking have, even in the fat community. Many of us still have a tenuous grasp of body acceptance and of the way our bodies look and move. Many of us would not be able to post those photos without seeing their peers doing the same.

And no one is under any illusions that we are protected from trolls and fatphobes and predators of all stripes because of an Instagram hashtag. But those of us who identify as infinifat use those hashtags to find other people who look like us and who might understand what it’s like to live in our bodies. The hashtags are about connection. 

So finding out that this show is using those hashtags to size us up–to take a guess that we fit their weight parameters–feels really gross. And worse, knowing that they’ve taken this information and have wagered that our body confidence would be easy enough to dismantle in front of a TV audience feels incredibly predatory. 

And that is all before anyone even signs up!

Gabe here is saying that participants must commit to a year long program, which to me indicates that they will be followed and filmed the whole time. And the content they film is incredibly invasive.

But part of what has always felt hardest about the prospect of writing about this show has been the weight loss surgery element. So much of this show is about weight loss surgery. The whole thing really feels like a commercial for the main surgeon’s services. 

To be clear, it is not for me to tell anyone whether or not to have weight loss surgery. I can personally vouch for how unbearable the constant pressure to do this feels. Doctors insist that it is a necessity. Family and acquaintances suggest it in passing as if I, a 600 pound person in this world, have somehow never heard of it. The pressure on all fat people to be smaller is immense, and that pressure is exponential for infinifat people. How could I ever blame anyone for making that agonizing decision? 

What I will say, though, is that I have huge objections to the way this dangerous, life-altering surgery is sold, especially to very fat people. 

First, long-term studies about the actual effectiveness of weight loss surgeries are incredibly limited. And there are virtually zero long-term studies that examine whether these surgeries are really even necessary for most fat people. I’ve never seen a single expansive, comprehensive study on the health and wellness and behaviors of fat people over 500 pounds. There just isn’t enough long-term data on whether these surgeries are effective, whether they are safe, or whether they actually lengthen lives.

What anecdotal evidence (because that’s all we really have) suggests is that while some patients achieve desired outcomes from these surgeries, some definitely do not. Doctors are quick to assert that those who have been unsuccessful or who experience major complications are themselves at fault, either for not maintaining their strict (read: nutrient-deficient, read: starvation) diets or for any number of other sins. But it’s also possible (and probable) that we DON’T KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT HUMAN DIGESTION TO START RIPPING ORGANS APART AND PUTTING THEM BACK TOGETHER. Just as we don’t know enough about metabolism and gut flora and any number of other bodily mysteries to find a causative link between weight and overall health and vitality.  

But these are things that doctors never, ever mention to fat people. 

The real truth is that bariatric surgery is one of the most lucrative surgical specialties. Doctors who perform these procedures are making a lot of money off of them. Of course they’re not advertising how uncertain anyone is about results.

But on My 600-lb Life nearly every fat person profiled is told that they absolutely must have weight loss surgery. They are told that they are dying and that this is the only way to save their life. 

As I said, I contend that there is no way that they or anyone can make this assertion in good faith. But just for argument’s sake, let’s suspend disbelief for a minute. Let’s say that the doctors and show producers feel fervently that they are offering these people an actual lifeline.

How benevolent of them to give this gift, right?! What a bunch of heroes! 

But the reality–and truly the cruelty–of this whole production is that it is designed to be a spectacle. 

The producers and doctors tell you, the 600 pound person being recruited by Gabe the casting assistant, that if you don’t commit yourself to this “journey” and ultimately undergo this surgery, that you will die. Unequivocally. This is your only option to stay alive. 

But you are in luck! This show can save you! Only one tiny catch, though. Very minor. In order for the show to provide this life-saving (they INSIST it is life-saving) service, you must reveal your most vulnerable moments–your greatest emotional and physical struggles–to a national audience. 

Every fear and insecurity must be recorded. Every swollen limb gets a close-up. Have to step sideways through a doorway? Get that on camera. And boy are they ever going to need to film you eating. 

The producers of this show will take great care to show the parts of you that the audience will find most horrifying. They want you to seem grotesque. Monstrous. It is very important that your very existence seems as shocking and tragic as possible and that your body seems hideously inhuman. 

But you must subject yourself to this–to being made a gruesome spectacle and cautionary tale–to live

These compassionate heroes will save your life for the low, low price of your actual human dignity. 

I don’t think I need to say how all-kinds-of-fucked-up that is. 

And people choose this. Everyone on this show at some point weighed the pressure of systemic fatphobia against the promise of their absolute humiliation and chose this. 

And it is partly the fat community’s fault. 

To be really fucking real, the fat pos community largely offers no support to people at the highest end of the fat spectrum. Those of us past 500 pounds or so feel in our bones that we are too fat for fat Instagram. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a beautiful fat collab project and screamed helplessly at my phone that yet again no infinifat people have been invited to participate. When was the last time you saw an infinifat person on a panel at one of the body love cons–even the online-only ones that require no extra thought for accommodations? 

We infinifat people feel a palpable discomfort from most smaller fat people. You don’t know how we fit into your core principles. You don’t know how to accommodate us in your spaces. And you definitely don’t know how to talk about and feel the trauma of your lived experiences of anti-fatness while knowing that ours are probably worse. And you don’t ask.

Above all, we feel your deep-seated fear that we might be your future. 

And it’s okay to feel that and sit with it. That’s your work to do. But then we need you to come out the other side and support us. 

Think about everything that fat people on the internet have helped you with. Think about how much you’ve learned about weight stigma and medical fatphobia and systemic anti-fatness. You learned and grew with the support of a fat internet family. 

The fattest among us need to hear these messages, too–more than anyone, really–and right now all they’re getting from this community is uncomfortable silence. 

I firmly believe that if we did a better job of reaching out to our fattest peers and offering our support–including to those that are housebound or bedbound–that maybe some would decide not to turn to a reality show that wants to profit from their suffering. 

And that’s really what My 600-lb Life is about. It intentionally cashes in on our cultural fear and revulsion of fatness, and it does so by manipulating vulnerable very fat people into baring their most personal struggles for an audience that pities them. 

I’m begging you not to watch this show. 

And I’m begging you to support and center the needs and voices of our fattest peers so if Gabe the casting assistant shows up in their DMs they know that they have another choice.


This essay will also be available in audio format beginning on 3/24/2020 via TheFatLip.com and as an episode of The Fat Lip Podcast. Listen on Spotify or via your preferred podcast app.

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