I just finished watching the first two episodes of season two of TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life. This is a show about Whitney Thore, an highly charismatic woman living her life in a large body. I avoided the first season as I didn’t expect much from the promo clips I saw, fearing it was exploitative of large-bodied people.
But after hearing her take on Nicole Arbour for her fat-shaming video “Dear Fat People,” I figured it was time to delve a little more deeply into Whitney and her show. While I appreciate that she is a voice for large individuals, what she said about Arbour’s video didn’t sit right with me. Whitney stated that nobody knows why someone is fat, that it could be because of a medical condition, or binge eating to manage depression, or maybe just lost 100 pounds. But to say that, to give reasons for being large, is to imply that being large is a problem. The point is that body shaming and fat shaming is the problem, period. The message she intends to send of fat acceptance is poorly handled. My fear is that was happening in her show as well.
Damn it. I was right. I do not recommend this show. Whitney, for all her pomp and southern charm, is being given her time in the media limelight at the worst possible time. She is on the very beginning of her journey of self-awareness about food, body image, and health (the big thing this season is that she found out she is pre-diabetic). I don’t want to label or diagnose her as I’m not her therapist and what we are shown is an edited-for-TV caricature of the woman to be sure, but there is so much disordered behavior going on with food, emotional regulation, and relationships. All are pieces we are told she is working on. As an eating disorders therapist, and recovered patient, I can discern her rational thoughts from irrational ones about food and body image. But what about all her followers, and haters alike, who hear her say some pretty outlandish things?
Example 1: She states she was able to snap her fingers and get over her body image concerns. No. Nobody does that. This is false hope, and leads others who can’t do that to feel like losers themselves for not being able to just will their body shame away.
Example 2: She found out she lost 3 pounds in three month at a doctor’s visit, and latched onto that as a major source of success. If someone is not concerned about a number on a scale, they don’t share weight loss gleefully and flaunt it like a trophy. That’s the old thinking she says she has gotten over. Clearly she hasn’t. By sharing this, her followers and haters will use this as source material for praising or shaming her, just as they will for all others who live in larger bodies.
Example 3: She decides unilaterally and in a knee-jerk reaction due to her pre-diabetic diagnosis that she must cut out all carbohydrates and sugars. She then starts shaming her friends for having “unhealthy” coffee drinks. Now everyone should eat and drink according to her standards. She is now projecting her own shame.
Example 4: She goes out to dinner with friends and family to a nice Italian restaurant while she eats a super low-carb meal while everyone else eats normal Italian pasta dishes. She is showing off the martyr inside while stating it’s about her showing food doesn’t have power over her. No, if food had no emotional impact on her life she would be able to eat everything in moderation – the hallmark of recovery from this kind of disordered behavior and thinking about food.
Sorry, I’m not hating on Whitney. I think she’s going to do great with her life, but she’s got a long way to go. When I was a journalist I wrote a weekly column called “Transformations” documenting my attempts to “get healthy,” which at the time meant making peace with my body and losing weight, with the help of celebrity trainers and dietitians in Nashville. It was read by tens of thousands of folks each week. What I learned is they celebrated my weight loss, as we are all trained to do, and ignored anything else I learned along the way and shared with my readers. When the weight loss stopped, the column was cancelled. My fear for this show is a similar fate.
What I would have loved to see is a documentary about her journey, a retrospective over several years in her life, where a serious conversation is had about food, body image, eating disorders, and the backlash of society against someone who is simply trying to live a big, full life in a larger body. That would be worth watching. This show as it stands is likely to give all the right information in all the wrong ways as she stumbles through these stages of change, acceptance, and recovery to truly live a full, balanced, and healthy life. I just don’t think she’ll be around long enough for us to see the real change. Or worse, she’ll be around for a long time and mislead an awful lot of people by no fault of her own.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C - Founder, Executive Director, Psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 443-602-6515 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.