Notes on “Heavy.”

by Michelle

I don’t normally write about TV shows. In fact, I purposely avoid watching TV shows about nutrition, fitness, and weight loss because they annoy me, and my yelling at the television then annoys my husband.

But when I saw the advertisements for A&E’s new show Heavy (in between advertisements for Hoarders and Intervention, in case you were wondering about the tenor of the show), I really wanted to watch it. And, this time, to avoid yelling at the television, I decided to yell at the internet instead.

Episode one, “Tom and Jodi,” opens with this quote:

“Nearly 100 million Americans suffer from debilitating obesity.”

And here’s our first fact-check, before the show even properly begins. While 1/3rd of Americans are “obese” by the BMI (BMI of 30 or greater), only 5.7% are considered “extremely obese” (BMI of 40 or greater. I’m one of them. Hi!) The people featured on Heavy are in this weight category — it’s the highest one. Tom weighs 638 pounds and has a BMI of around 94. Jodi weighs 367 pounds.

If your BMI is 30, do you consider yourself debilitated by your obesity?

At a BMI of well over 40, I may sometimes move and bend a bit differently than thinner people, but I don’t really feel debilitated.

The most limiting thing about being “extremely obese,” for me, is being afraid to exercise in public because I am likely to be harassed (and have been. Thanks, random lady joggers and dudes in cars! You have successfully encouraged me to exercise and get healthy!)

That, and certain seatbelts. But at least the seatbelts don’t call me names.

The people on the show are not only fatter than 94% of the population, they exhibit very obvious signs of compulsive or binge eating. (Which the show repeatedly refers to in terms of “addiction,” something I have a problem with.) Whether or not they meet the clinical criteria for an eating disorder, these are disordered eating patterns. Most fat people do not binge eat, and many binge eaters are not obese. Conflating compulsive overeating with fatness is not just inaccurate, it can be dangerous.

Fat people going to doctors for non-eating-related complaints may be told to stop binge eating, even if they don’t binge eat. (I have been.) And thinner people who do experience binge eating — which is a type of eating that is not exactly optional, voluntary, pleasant, and definitely not the result of gluttony, greed, or general immorality — may go undiagnosed and untreated.

None of this is to minimize OR marginalize what Jodi and Tom experience. My intent is only to put into perspective a serious condition that the show’s creators obviously have tried to render commonplace — perhaps epidemic? — by suggesting that fully one-third of the US population lives and suffers like this.

If anything, this attempt to make the exceptional seem typical diminishes the seriousness of what these people experience. An audience of (potentially) 100 million “obese” individuals is likely to try and relate their experience as relatively unimpaired fat people to those on the show. And since many of those fat people will not have experienced compulsive or binge eating, or the immobility and physical challenges of being extremely large, they may be unable to empathize with these issues, and the fact that recovery is more than a matter of “willpower.” And, let’s be frank — like Hoarders and Intervention, this is likely to become a point-and-pity affair, not something that the majority of the audience can truly relate to.

Jodi and Tom are clearly in pain, and their weight definitely appears to contribute to that pain, both emotionally and physically. Their eating habits likely to contribute to their weight — but “contribute” is not the same thing as “cause.” Furthermore, the drive to eat compulsively is not under one’s control, and may even be the result of an underlying physiological imbalance, not just a psychological one.

Much of the emotional suffering described on the show is not even directly caused by the physical reality of extreme obesity. Rather, the pain described is often the pain of discrimination, social ostracization, and prejudice. Jodi describes giving up her career as a singer in a rock band because of the discomfort of standing on stage, knowing that people in the audience were judging her. Tom hasn’t been to the doctor in fifteen years — anyone want to take a wild guess as to why?

The physical pain is another matter. Some of it, maybe a lot of it, is caused directly by weight, but there are other issues at play as well. Tom exhibits signs that look (to me) like exercise-induced asthma, a condition that weight can exacerbate but does not cause, and that discourages people from moving because, untreated, it can be life-threatening. He also has high blood pressure — again, a condition that can be exacerbated by weight, but is not caused by weight alone. Jodi has had a mini-stroke, and the same can be said for weight’s role in that condition.

So what other issues might be at play? Lack of fitness, as a result of finding movement uncomfortable or inaccessible (for either physical or social reasons), independently contributes to physical suffering and immobility. Emotional stress, such as that caused by living in a world that does not physically accommodate you or socially accept you, can also independently contribute to physical health problems like those described.

These are complex issues for which weight is only one factor.

Next time, maybe I’ll yell at the blog about the month-long weight loss program presented on Heavy.