MTV’s addition to the growing catalogue of weight loss programs hits close to home. “I Used To Be Fat” features teenagers that weigh over 200 pounds. Each episode focuses on a student during the summer months between high school graduation and freshman year at college. In 90 days, with the help of a personal trainer, the teenagers make drastic physical and emotional transformations, but I don’t think the show tells the entire story.
I used to be fat. At 250 pounds, the four years of high school were incredibly uncomfortable for me. Like the teenagers on the MTV show, I didn’t date, didn’t go to prom, and didn’t participate in the fullness of the high school experience. I decided to lose weight in college, after one day at work at Scottsdale’s Fashion Square mall, a customer asked me how it felt to be so fat at such a young age. The experience was humiliating, and it reminded me that a heavy person’s body is public property.
I have been a person of average size for the last ten years. Maintaining my weight requires a great deal of discipline and lots of mental reconditioning.
MTV’s program, like many others — “The Biggest Loser,” “Losing It with Jillian,” “Shedding for the Wedding,” to name a few — focuses mostly on the body: we witness strict diets, rigorous workout routines, and constant trips to the scale. I applaud the shows for the kind of attention they bring to size issues, and for highlighting the benefits of healthy habits, but I would ask them to tell the mental part of the story, too.
Losing weight is not only a challenge on the body; it is also a challenge on the mind. For 21 years, I was heavy, and my weight was definitely part of my identity. After weight loss, though, I went into a form of depression: who was I as a thin person? And while there were people who encouraged my weight loss, there were just as many others who discouraged, challenged, and ridiculed my efforts. Most cruel of all, a heavy person never completely stops seeing the self as anything but a heavy person. My experience leaves me wondering how the teenagers on MTV’s “I Used To Be Fat” feel about their new identities after 90 days of drastic resizing.
A&E’s show “Heavy” is closest to getting it right. Over six months the show tracks adults who are dangerously obese. The usual scenes are there — the diets, the trainers, the workouts — but the show includes visits to therapists who help the subjects unearth the roots of their weight problems. Sometimes the show also exposes the struggle after weight loss: how the family and home environments can be detrimental to the goals of the weight loser. The new weight loss programs show us that losing weight requires a great deal of strength. MTV’s teenage-focused addition could follow A&E’s example, and create a more responsible program that would address the strength required for both the teenaged body and the mind.