article

07.27.09

Really Big Love

More to Love, a plus-size version of The Bachelor, premieres Tuesday night on Fox. But what does showing curvy women in the pursuit of love add to the American obesity debate?

Fat people have sex. Fat people go on dates and kiss and get married or not. Fat people wear fancy dresses and good makeup. Fat people take their shirts off at the beach.

More to Love, the new dating reality show from Fox premiering Tuesday night, ostensibly brings this reality home for America by presenting bachelor Luke Conley with his choice of “voluptuous, curvy women.”

It’s a one-two punch of acceptance followed by a knockout blow of shame.

Unfortunately, the show falls very short of the mark for this fat woman—if I didn’t have my own life (I’m married, happy) as a contrary example, I’d be pretty depressed by my odds for ever finding love at the end of the premiere. And I’d also be tempted to make up a drinking game around how often the contestants and suitor on the show say “voluptuous, curvy women.” It would be an easy way to get sloshed.

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I’m a fat activist; I want to say that right up front. So when I say fat, I mean it as a descriptive term, not an insult. I work toward a concept known as Fat Acceptance—the idea that, really and truly, your body is OK just the way it is. And your health? Not only can you be fat and fit, it isn’t anyone else’s damn business. I even co-authored a book, Lessons From the Fat-o-sphere, on the subject and keep a popular “fat blog” called The Rotund. So the existence of a plus-size dating show on mainstream television made me sit up, and then it made me cringe.

It’s become a typical scene in reality TV: Twenty anxious women, exiting a series of limousines, present themselves to a bachelor who is ready to settle down. However, this is a big man, a fat man. And the women are also fat—or at least all more than 160 pounds. They step out of their limo and present themselves to Luke—a 330-pound California blond with his own business—with varying degrees of self-confidence and a lot of awkward lines that sound like they came from an Internet flirting primer.

For the record, ladies, “Oh, you’re so big and strong” does not make a good first impression. Apparently, “Hi, I’m a rocket scientist” doesn’t work so well, either.

And as one listens to the histories these women have to share, it’s pretty clear: Some of these women probably did get their flirting tips from an Internet dating site. One woman, 30, has never gone on a date. Others, including Luke, talk about the fat hate (of course, they’d never use the term) they’ve experienced.

Does every fat woman have a story about the date invite that was actually a humiliating joke? What about the one where the fat girl strikes up a conversation with the cute guy at the bar…and he asks for her thin friend’s phone number? I try to remember that meeting a good partner is a challenge for everyone, but it’s hard in the face of these stories not to feel like the show’s producers are conflating “fat women” with “pathetic, sad women” and leaving it at that.

Still, as I started watching the first episode, I could certainly identify with these women’s dating struggles, even as I sat comfortably on the couch next to my husband. The show's creators have tapped into something with this. But then they fall back on stereotypes, yet again.

It’s hard in the face of these stories not to feel like the show’s producers are conflating “fat women” with “pathetic, sad women.”

The women on the show look amazing; great fashion, great hair and makeup. They are all individually gorgeous, even if they don’t look a thing like the mainstream beauty ideal. It feels really great to watch them strut and shine. But…they are all strutting around huge plates of food.

Ask a random person on the street. They’ll tell you that fat people just eat too much—those fatties, with their lack of self-control. So when the camera lingers on Luke taking a bite of a cheeseburger, films him at a backyard BBQ flipping more burgers, I have opinions.

The show is already perpetuating fat stereotypes with its endless closeups on food. It’s already playing into the whole idea that fat people are a joke, a spectacle. Luke likes to eat, he says. Not a crime, by any means, but why, I shake my fist at the sky, why did they have to go there?

There are hulking platters of food and drink at the cocktail party where Luke meets the contestants, along with pseudo-salacious conversation about meat on a stick. A woman asks Luke what his favorite meal is and he says, “Anything thick and juicy.” This sounds to me like the answer of a man who watches BBW porn. Not a crime, but it feels demeaning. Especially for a man who claims he doesn’t have a “type.”

The women all talk to each other, to the camera, and to Luke. They cry during the interviews, a lot—the editing really plays up the desperation in the room.

More to Love is supposed to be positive. The marketing and commercials are full of “you go, girl” lingo, lots and lots of “real women have curves” platitudes (as if thin women somehow aren’t real). But this forced positivity feels awkward, another symptom of the tension this show embodies—and the tension found in most media portraying the fat set.

Is showing plus-size women in prime-time enough to promote understanding? Or do producers have a responsibility to follow through with the idea and create something that doesn’t fall back on cheap clichés?

As an activist, I believe that it’s revolutionary to see fat women (and an equally fat guy) on television. Period. It’s even more unbelievable that the focus of this show isn’t dieting and weight loss. Whether it’s Dance Your Ass Off or Drop Dead Diva, the new Lifetime show about a model in the body of a definitely not-a-model lawyer ( which is actually pretty great), the focus is on their efforts to lose weight.

More to Love, at least so far, doesn’t show big women in the pursuit of being small—a definite step forward.

But the show also falls into the same old fatty-hating, fatty-baiting traps that belittle the Fat Acceptance movement. The women joke about Spanx, a girdle-like product that’s supposed to smooth you out and make you look slimmer. One girl, who jumped into the pool in a bid for attention, worries that she looks like a whale.

It’s a one-two punch of acceptance followed by a knockout blow of shame.

Luke manipulates a woman into kissing him by playing on her fear of being cut the first night, playing on her body insecurities. She kisses him again.

More to Love is a confounding welter of self-confidence and self-loathing. I like these women, the interesting ones, and while Luke is a bit too much of a frat boy for my tastes, I applaud his lack of shame—he likes big women and he’s unapologetic about it. That shouldn’t deserve the acclaim it gets him, and it shouldn’t deserve the points it scores him with these women, who seem convinced this is their only chance to find love.

Ultimately, I think that’s what made me the most upset about More to Love—the show’s depressing portrait of these young women, already afraid they will die alone and unloved, unworthy of companionship. I’m not mad at them, though I want to send each and every one of them a copy of my book, a useful guide to getting over self-loathing. I am mad at every man and every woman who has taught them this kind of fear. I am mad at every jerk who wants these women to loathe themselves.

But there is a glimmer of hope. More to Love shows us beautiful fat women, refusing to apologize for who they are. That alone is positive. And I’m trying to hold on to that.

Marianne Kirby writes the popular fat acceptance blog The Rotund and is the co-author of Lessons From the Fat-o-sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body . She writes, makes art, and lives fat and happy in Orlando, Fla.