My Big Fat Fabulous Life and Fat Shaming Culture

So yesterday I watched a couple of episodes of TLC’s new show My Big Fat Fabulous Life, which debuted last week. The show centers around Whitney Thore who, at 5’2″ and 380 pounds, reached internet notoriety after her “Fat Girl Dancing” video went viral on YouTube, in which she gets diggity down to a Jason Derulo song.

The show seems, at least thus far, to be trying to focus its gaze on Whitney’s venture into teaching dance classes, losing weight, and loving herself unabashedly along the way. Definitely three things I can get on board with, especially since as far as I’m concerned, girl can really dance! She’s also pretty funny, has a vibrant personality, and I do think that she makes for good TV.

Of course, as with most shows on TLC, I find myself a little bit torn about how I should “feel” about it. On the one hand, I appreciate the show’s attempts to portray an obese woman (relatively) honestly on her quest to live her life doing what she loves (dance) and get healthier without a specific focus on weight loss (though that is something that Whitney says she does want to achieve.) I also appreciate that she offers a frank portrayal of the difficulties she has being obese (chub rub, she has to have her mom help shave the back of her legs for her, etc) while not being apologetic about it.

But on the other hand, there’s also something, I don’t know, not quiiiiite right in the way that the show shapes its message. Whitney has Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, something that I admittedly know very little about. I understand that it can cause sudden weight gain and make it very difficult to lose weight, in addition to a myriad of other symptoms, and I don’t doubt that it has had a very serious impact on Whitney’s life. However, at least within the first few episodes, I feel like the PCOS thing is continuously shoved in viewers’ faces. Like, “Just so you remember, Whitney has PCOS! Her weight isn’t her fault! Don’t forget!”

There’s also the fact that the show does seem to focus on some of the more ridiculous (for lack of a better word) occurrences in Whitney’s life. I guess this is an argument that you could make about any kind of reality TV, to be fair, since these things tend to make for better TV. But when the show is spending so much time focusing on things like Whitney’s pants splitting at the grocery store, taking her measurements but the tape measure is too small to fit around her, trying on heels at the mall and almost toppling over… it still feels a lot like making fun.

Overall, I do think the show has a lot of good going for it. I try to take all reality TV with a big grain of salt, but for the most part, I do like this one. It helps, of course, that Whitney’s got a really likable persona — she really is pretty fabulous! And even with the skewed lens that TLC might be filming the show through, I can still appreciate its messages about self-acceptance, body love, and encouragement to those beginning their health journeys.

For me, the real heart of the show is in its portrayal of how Whitney has been treated due to her size. The show really shines light on the culture of fat shaming that we live in (something you can also pick up on in about 0.043 seconds of reading the comments on her YouTube dance video). In Episode 2, Whitney is walking out of a store with her friend, when a guy in a car stopped at a light calls her “Shamu.” In the same episode, she and her friends read hateful comments about her from folks on the internet, which say things like, “You should lose weight and then dance, not the other way around!” To which Whitney responds, “How am I supposed to lose weight if I can’t exercise?!”

And there’s the rub. America wants it both ways: we’re to lose weight, be healthy, and stop being the lazy fat asses we obbbbviously are, but ehhhh, nobody really wants to see it. We need to make like Monica on Friends and somehow magically lose all our weight in secret. (As a sidenote: I’ve been rewatching Friends since it’s been put on Netflix, and while I’m still in love with like 99% of the show, including the total lack of internet and shocking number of denim overalls worn, I gotta admit I don’t really love the Monica-was-fat jokes anymore. Go figure.)

Anyway… I recognize that I am super lucky to never have experienced outright hatred or animosity because of my size. Granted, given the fact that I put my entire life out here on the interwebs, I have experienced my fair share of anonymous comments and concern-trolling, but I’ve never been laughed at to my face. I’ve never had to deal with people gaping in awe at my girth. I’ve never felt outright discriminated against because of my weight. I’ve never incited commentary from random strangers out in public.

That said, I absolutely still feel the effects of our fat-shaming culture. We live in a world where people actually think it’s not okay to love yourself if your pants are over a certain size. Where people feel free to comment on your body and your choices because “it’s not healthy” and they’re “concerned.” Where if you are overweight and aren’t actively trying to change that fact, to lose weight, to slim down, you’re lazy and a “bad role model.”

We live in a culture where one of the worst things you could possibly be is fat. Far worse than being stupid or unsuccessful or mean or selfish is being fat.

Which is why, despite the fact that it may still be working out its kinks, watching My Big Fat Fabulous Life made me pretty happy. It’s chock-full of positive messages, even if there are times when Whitney herself is clearly not as totally body-confident as she would probably want us to believe. For example, she almost turns down being in a plus-size fashion show in episode 3 because she’s worried that there won’t be any clothing that fits.

Regardless, it is a show that challenges common misconceptions about weight + health, and the idea that you can’t love your body if it’s not the perfect size-whatever. And that’s something I know I can get behind, since even as I am working on my own personal fitness and trying to lose a few pounds, I’ve long-acknowledged that it’s unlikely I’ll ever be conventionally thin. Even at my lowest adult weight, I was still donning a size 12, and even with me trying not to make my weight the main focus of things this time (trying being the operative word, haha), I still need all the help I can get in shifting my mentality.

Oh, and as one last aside, episode 3 makes a big deal out of Whitney making herself a banana and mayonnaise sandwich for breakfast — apparently this is a thing in the South?? Would love to hear if any of you guys have eaten this concoction before… I mean, peanut butter and banana sammies, sure, but banana + mayo?!

37 Comments

  1. Peanut butter and banana? Yes. Mayo? Not so much. Though cheddar, mayo and lettuce is good.

    Whitney is lovely and her smile is contagious — I wonder how much TLC has been limiting/scripting her. I’m pretty skeptical of reality TV and various marketing devices they use. I’d like to see some behind the scenes stuff. For example, I knew some people on a reality show once — Buckwild, West Virginia is not like that at all. So who knows?

    • Yeah, that’s always something I wonder about when watching reality TV, too. All that stuff that came out about Laguna Beach and The Hills being super scripted a billion years ago makes me skeptical for sure, but at the very least I don’t doubt that the show is at the very least inspired by Whitney’s real-life struggles. Maybe further watching will reveal whether it’s super fakey or more legit?

      • I can definitely see the real life struggles playing a part. I’ll give it a watch. 🙂

      • Gretchensays:

        When I turn her show on and see her smile I smile. She is such a delite. I think she is. The real deal. Great show.

        • Donna Gibbssays:

          Whitney your charismatic, I know you say your mother has all the southern charm and she has that for sure, what a great lady, you also are very charming and delightful, to watch your show makes me smile, even through the struggles I am cheering for you.

    • mmmsays:

      It’s pretty much scripted and fake. (inside source)

  2. Firstly, a banana and mayonnaise sandwich?! Yuck!
    Secondly, what a great, well-rounded post. I don’t watch a lot of TV at all. I couldn’t even tell you if we get that channel over here in the UK but unfortunately, from the reality shows I have seen it appears common to include all of the drama, all of the events which might happen over several years in somebody’s lifetime into a condensed view of a few weeks or days, really skewing the whole situation. I think it’s really hard to understand just how realistically a person is represented through TV.

  3. Caitlynsays:

    “Conventionally thin” might be my new favorite phrase. What a lovely way to express it!

    Your comment about Friends made me think about how I’ve been re-watching Gilmore Girls… and I’m just a bit shocked. I always thought of them as so progressive! and yet there are homophobic jokes, a couple comments about animal cruelty that aren’t remotely funny… and a lot of strangely misogynist things going on in the background (OMG Sookie and Jackson – UGH, to think I used to think they were sweet when I was younger, now I want to punch Jackson in the face and tell him if he doesn’t want to be in the delivery room he shouldn’t have kids. UGH!!). So yeah. Totally get the whole, fat jokes aren’t so funny anymore thing.

    Will have to check out this show – Whitney sounds very likable!

    • I am SO WITH YOU on the Jackson not in the delivery room thing. Made me so ragey!

    • Mattsays:

      The homophobic jokes in GG are much more frequent than I had expected. Also, the whole Gilmore clan drinks and drives like nobody’s business.

  4. Victoria Ssays:

    Spot on commentary, I love your writing style 🙂
    I’ve been a silent reader for 3ish years, and I always enjoy your point of view, and the lovely way you articulate it. I don’t have TLC but the show does seem interesting. Definitely will take it with a grain of salt as TLC is the network that gave us Honey Boo Boo and My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding haha.
    Banana and mayo sounds gross, but I think mayo is spread liberally on everything in the South 😉

  5. Erinsays:

    I’m new to your blog, but must admit after the first few posts, I started at the beginning and worked my way up to the present! Your story is so similar to mine its eerie! (10 years dieting, lost 30 pounds three different times, gained it all back, got sick of myself, lost it again, aaaaaaand repeat!) As far as nanner and mayo sandwiches, slice the nanner in half and then half so you have long slices, slap some mayo on some wonderbread and it is AH-mazing!!

  6. I LOVE that you wrote about Whitney!! I’ve been following her on facebook since her fat girl dancing vid came out, and she’s so cheeky! When someone trolls her on the facebook page, she publishes it and calls them out publicly. It’s great. She’s my biggest inspiration (no pun intended) for body acceptance.

  7. Rebeccasays:

    Hi! I was wondering if you have seen the new Lifetime show: Big Women, Big Love and if you have, if you had any thoughts on it. Albeit a trashy lifetime show, it’s a show about larger women trying to date/find love and it has an interesting group that includes some girls struggling to find self-acceptance and another girl in the middle of a weight loss “journey” who looks down on the other girls for accepting themselves when they are fat. If you watch it (or plan to now 🙂 I’d be really interested to hear your take.

    • I actually did catch an episode of it yesterday, coincidentally! I’m not super familiar with the premise as a whole, but I definitely saw the one girl who you’re talking about who totally fat-shames the other girls on the show because she’s already lost 110 pounds. I’m definitely interested, so maybe I’ll be able to catch a few more episodes and organize my thoughts!

  8. I’ve seen the commercials, but haven’t watched the show, itself. One of my biggest concerns is that it would glorify an unhealthy way of life (though sounds like my initial opinions from commercials were completely wrong!). My sister used to be really into fat is fabulous campaigns, which I could never take part in, because I see bigger people, and think of my grandmother, who died from complications related to her weight. It’s all about balance. I think it’s great that she’s super active and she tells people to mind their own business about her. If only people actually would be kind instead of “Helpful.”

    • I think that’s been a common conception of the show, given it’s title. I’ve seen some comments online saying similar things, that we shouldn’t be glorifying obesity and all that, but I honestly don’t think it does. We’ll have to see how the show continues to go (i.e. if Whitney actually continues staying active and does achieve some of her stated health goals) but so far, I’m pretty optimistic!

  9. Cindy D.says:

    Yup! Banana-mayonnaise sandwiches are TOTALLY a thing in the South. On white Sunbeam bread is how my best friend’s mama made them. And no, I have never, ever eaten one. Ew.

    • My parents and grandparents LOVE banana sandwiches. And a banana sandwich is bananas and mayo. Yep, we’re Southern.

  10. amanda junesays:

    I’ve been watching My Big Fat Fabulous Life (much to my reality-TV-hating husband’s chagrin) too and I agree with you — mostly like it (and Whitney), but I have the exact same vibe about the…overemphasis? of PCOS (it “makes me” fat). I get that it affects different people differently, but from my experience, you can’t outright blame the disease for making and keeping you obese. In fact, what doctors told me was that exercise is one of the best things you can use to treat PCOS and its symptoms.

    I’m from the mid-south and have never heard of banana and mayo sandwiches…yikes. But I used to eat peanut butter and cheese so who am I to judge.

  11. Ha, We’re in the process of rewatching the Friends series on Netflix (despite actually owning the series on DVD. How’s that for lazy?) and I’m shocked by how many homophobic jokes are on that show! But that’s totally a different conversation for a different date.

    I’ve been watching Whitney and I absolutely adore her. I want to be her friend. I want to know this girl. I want her to light to be around me on a daily basis. She’s wonderful. But I too am on the fence with the show in general. My hubby walked into the room while I was catching up with it last night and said, “Is every show on TLC about fat people, little people or people with lots of wives?”

    He had a point. TLC definitely has a “winning formula” and I am an avid watcher of My 600 Pound Life and the like. So is Whitney getting her own TV show because her life perspective on being overweight is radically different from what they’ve done before or is the channel just going with another “sure-fire” success?

    So yes, I take these shows with a grain of salt, too. I think they’re way too in your face with the PCOS reminders (though I too know extremely little of this condition), and I have my doubts about scripting: She just so happens to be approached for a fashion show right as she adopts a “say yes” philosophy? But that’s not a direct reflection on Whitney so much as it is about “reality” TV in general.

    In short, I agree whole-heartedly with your opinion of the show. I like it, but I’m torn about it’s intentions and presentation. But I will definitely keep watching because no matter what, we need to see more amazing, vibrant women like Whitney on TV!

    • “Is every show on TLC about fat people, little people or people with lots of wives?”

      HAHAHA! Add in “tons of kids” and I think your hubby pretty much nailed it. Too funny!

  12. Holly Bsays:

    I agree with you on the PCOS! Like literally every time they come in from a commercial break they seem to mention it. My cousin has it and it is totally no fun, but I mean we don”t have to be reminded every five minutes.

  13. Summersays:

    Professional Southerner here — if you asked for a “banana sandwich” to someone in Alabama, it would absolutely be banana and mayo. Same goes for a tomato sandwich, on white bread as someone else commented above. And while I wouldn’t say we spread it on everything (I myself hate mayo), it is a crucial ingredient for the best BBQ sauce you’ve ever tasted.

  14. Diannesays:

    I have lost 40lbs following a program I saw at http://www.3weekdiet-plan.com which focuses on the two things we know are good for us: a healthy BALANCED diet combined with a cardio regime. It really is that simple.

  15. I’m from the South and I have never heard of Banana Sandwiches in my life. Guess we learn something every day. 😛

  16. Anniesays:

    I grew yo eating a salad version. Bed of lettuce, banana halved lengthwise, little mayo and a little peanut butter in top. Super good.

  17. Shelleysays:

    Agree with you on many points. My MD and I suspect I may have PCOS but I haven’t had an ultrasound to definitively prove it. I have several other common symptoms though. I have weight issues, yes. But I’m about 15 lbs overweight, not 200. And maybe the weight gain affects women differently. It does concern me that Whitney (or TLC) makes it seem as though her PCOS is the primary reason she has problems. I’m trying not to judge too harshly, but the message worries me.

    And unfortunately, yes – mayo and bananas. My 85 year old grandma loves them. I actually hate both so you couldn’t pay me to eat one. But they are a thing, in north Georgia at least!

  18. I have also been watching the show and I too am on the fence.

    Pros:
    – I love her personality and her (mostly) positive outlook on life…she’s someone I feel I could hangout with and have a fantastic time no matter what we were doing
    – I do like that someone is doing a weigh-centric TV show that has a focus on PCOS as a lot of women struggle with it and until you do, you never hear anything about it
    – I adore her friends and family (her mom…I die, seriously. what a fierce little southern woman)
    – I love that she is doing what she wants to do and dancing and trying to say yes more…makes her such a strong role model for women that can relate.

    Cons:
    – I do think they use PCOS as an excuse and not as a hurdle…it sucks and it’s hard but shed the light so others can see and then do what you can to overcome, don’t use it as the only reason why you are the way you are…we all have our stories and rarely is it because of the reasons most people think
    – I feel the use of “fat and fabulous” and all these cutesy things she says seem a bit forced, so it’s hard for me to tell if she really is ok with some of the things she says she is ok with
    – It’s another reality show and you can never actually tell what is real and what is scripted…I felt her pain when the person in the car called her names, as I dealt with that my entire childhood…but was that coincidence or scripted?

    Overall, I will keep watching because this show is providing something that Biggest Loser and My 600-lb Life and all these other shows are not providing. She is fabulous, and I would totally hang with her, but I hope she is able to stay true to herself and not true to what others want from her.

    Oh, and the banana/mayo sammies…gross. I grew up in the south and never did I do that. But I also hate mayo, so maybe that’s one of the million reasons living in the south never worked for me.

  19. Melissasays:

    I had the same reaction to the show. Love the confidence. Love her being brave. I couldn’t do it.

  20. Stephen G.says:

    You said that society wants overweight people to lose the weight, but don’t want to watch them doing it. Huh? The Biggest Loser is always one of the highest rated shows on TV, so what’s your basis for making such a comment?

  21. In addition, he shared the usual planter’s dilemma in being continually in debt to
    his London agents.

  22. Staciesays:

    I came across your blog because I had a similar concern with this show. I caught a minute of it where she is talking about PCOS so I decided to watch an episode to see… for the record, I have PCOS. I am also a competitive bodybuilder (in the figure division not women’s bodybuilding) so does it make weight loss hard? yes. impossible? absolutely not. I had to watch to see if they were going to use this as an excuse and honestly, it’s so disheartening because they do. PCOS is not a ‘fat sentence” and yes she states that 2/3 of women with PCOS are obese but not all. If I didn’t eat well and didn’t train I’m sure I would be larger, but I choose not to and honestly, my symptoms are pretty minimal because of my nutrition/training schedule. So I agree- it’s an excuse.

  23. It’s really a cool and helpful piece of info. I am happy that you shared this useful information with
    us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Tax law about businesses in the USA is ever changing.
    A lot of people have small business ideas that they often fail to put into practice either
    because they lack the money to make an investment or because the fear to lose everything.
    Selling the same things, to the same market, in the same way.

  25. the only thing that is fabulous is the fact she has not had a stroke or heart attack or one of the many other things that haunt people that are over weight i do not think some one should get a show about being fabulous unless it is about them losing that weight because there is nothing fabulous about being that big and this show seems like it is being encouraged and it should not be encouraged people try to say there is nothing wrong with being fat well there is some thing wrong with it not because some people think so or because i say so it is because mother nature says so if it was alright to be very over weight then people that are would not have 50 times the health problems every thing from heart attacks strokes blood clots joint problems etc the list goes on if your shin bones start to bow away from your body then they are telling you you to heavy if being fat was just cosmetic there would no health issues to worry about it is wrong and the fact that some shallow unimaginative idiots want to make a show about a heavy person to me it would be like a slap in the face and very disrespectful society has become ignorant about what is acceptable the only people can give medical excuses all they want there is nothing that will make it impossible to lose weight some things might make it harder but it can be done if that person wants it bad enough one thing would to be to stop it before it gets to this point yes there are medical issues that makes people gain weight but not that much there is always some thing that person is doing to them selves that accelerates it to that point i have never seen one medical problem that causes some one to be that big by its self other that eating too much of the wrong stuff which i think is very sickening sad that there are kids in the u.s.a that are starving and going with out food when you can get a cheese burger for 99 cents heavy weight is one of the top 5 killers of Americans yet they get a show what about the starving kids TLC how come they do not get a show like i said a slap in the face cable companies need to stop with the fake reality crap i would like to know since all these cable channels are so in to reality how come the kids that are starving in the u.s.a do not get a show you give shows to every thing else about fake struggles of life why not kids who do not get to eat every day the reason i call tlc show fake struggles is because i believe it is all fake because any one with a affliction would not want it plastered on tv for the world to see and make fun of

  26. I see your blog needs some fresh posts. Writing manually takes a
    lot of time, but there is tool for this boring task, search
    for; unlimited content Wrastain’s tools

Leave a comment

Please be polite. We appreciate that. Your email address will not be published and required fields are marked