‘My 600-Lb Life’: Dead Weight TLC Should Shed?

Circa 2012, TLC began airing My 600-Lb Life, a show chronicling the journeys of morbidly obese individuals around the U.S. For five seasons, viewers have watched these people struggle to qualify for gastric bypass surgery, undergo the operation, and fight to maintain healthy post-operative lifestyles. Although many gastric bypass candidates achieve success, the show’s intro tells us their chances of keeping up that success long-term is less than 5%. Nearly every person featured on the show is over 600 pounds. Thus, most gastric bypass surgeons have rejected them, saying they are too obese for help. Most My 600-Lb Life participants call Dr. Younan Nowzardan, the surgeon featured on the show, their “last hope.” Indeed, the show often paints Nowzardan as a miracle worker.

Despite the many success stories chronicled over the last five seasons, My 600-Lb Life has endured its share of criticism. The blog “East Coast Stories” calls it “television and medicine at its worst.” The documentary is compared to a freak show and maligned as false inspiration. “We were supposed to be inspired when [a participant] got down to 500 pounds,” a blogger said–but that person had originally weighed 750. The unnamed blogger argues the people featured on My 600-Lb Life are “people in deep psychological pain who are getting the wrong kind of help.” They are being touted as cheap inspiration and horrid freaks when they deserve so much better.

Watching several episodes of this documentary will show any viewer such criticism is warranted for a number of reasons. The portrayal of participants as perpetual victims, Dr. Nowzardan’s overall attitude, and many other problems indicate this show is dead weight TLC should shed.

I Am Obese, and I Am a Victim

Every episode of My 600-Lb Life begins with an introduction. On a black screen, a name, age, and weight are presented to us–e.g., Erica Wall, 41 years old, 661 pounds. From there, the episode’s focal point begins narrating his or her story, often with a statement of how horrible his or her life is. “I hate this life that I have. I feel useless and disgusting. Never did I dream I would end up like this.” These and other statements are the beginnings of shocking and disheartening stories. Contributors are seen struggling to do everyday things such as getting out of bed, dressing, and grooming themselves. Many contributors must be bathed or wiped to keep clean, and all contributors are shown eating enormous amounts of food at every turn. One of the show’s first contributors, Melissa, revealed she ate breakfast at around 8:00 a.m. and then continued eating full meals or large snacks on the hour until lunchtime, when the process would begin again. No contributor is shown enjoying anything but eating. Their voiceovers reveal they love their families but can’t and don’t do meaningful things with them because of obesity. Obesity is each contributor’s defining trait, and in the first twenty to thirty minutes of an episode, their statements and interactions are intensely negative.

The majority of My 600-Lb Life contributors have been legitimately victimized. Many female contributors were molested or gang raped, and turned to food to drown the ensuing pain. A couple male contributors have been molested as well. Many contributors are the children of divorce, and nearly all have suffered some form of physical, mental, or emotional abuse. One man, Chuck, became obese after his wife was murdered, and contributor Erica’s obesity significantly worsened after her mother’s death. It is entirely appropriate for the show to explore this victimization and point to it as a reason for obesity. The problem comes in when legitimate victimization is mixed with learned helplessness, to which willing enablers usually contribute. None of the show’s contributors have gotten significant psychological help before being chosen for the show, nor do they have adequate support systems in their friends or families. Rather, they have enablers who excuse their behavior with statements like, “I don’t know what to do. If I don’t give him/her the food, he/she gets mad. I don’t want to fight. I’ll do anything to make him/her happy.” While these are understandable attitudes, they keep the contributors trapped in victim mode. These attitudes also make the enablers complicit in physical and mental problems, because they would rather make themselves feel better than provide legitimate help.

Stop Whining and Slim Down

Some people enable My 600-Lb Life contributors, and some take the opposite route. A recent episode featured Erica Wall, a 661-pound woman who has been overweight her whole life. Her weight problems snowballed into morbid obesity after a gang rape, the death of her mother, and the onset of depression. Unlike most participants’ families, the remaining Wall family did not enable Erica. Instead, they went too far in the opposite direction. Erica’s siblings Randy and Molly refuse to drive her from Lompoc, CA to Houston, TX to keep appointments with Dr. Nowzardan. They refuse to stay with her, help her keep on track, or help her move to Houston. Randy’s excuse for not doing any of this is, it would require him to sell his boat. When Erica asks if he would rather have the boat or bury her within a year, he accuses her of guilt-tripping him and maintains refusal to help her.

Molly is no better. She attempts to enact “tough love,” such as removing junk food from Erica’s house. Along with that though, she adds disparaging comments like, “I don’t know if she can change; she never has before” or, “You’re not there yet.” When Erica legitimately feels depressed or tries to explain her struggle, Molly is completely unsympathetic, blaming Erica entirely for the other woman’s obesity. “I’ll be supportive,” Molly says halfheartedly, adding a sarcastic, “Rah, rah.” That’s the last supportive thing viewers hear her say. She commonly tells Erica, “Get your a– in the wheelchair.” Even after Erica loses considerable weight, Molly slaps her behind during a family outing and says, “Move along,” not allowing Erica to enjoy said outing.

Although some participants do not have adequate support systems, viewers would expect Dr. Younan Nowzardan to support them. In actuality, he is not supportive or empathetic. On discussion boards, viewers have described him as “holier-than-thou” and an “a–.” Even when contributors lose the weight he asks of them, Nowzardan commonly disparages them for eating too much or the wrong types of food. One woman, Tara, stormed out of his office saying, “I’m done; I quit” following a dressing-down from Nowzardan, although by then she had been losing weight consistently for almost two years. Despite the great progress of another contributor, Zsalynn, Nowzardan continually predicted she would revert to her old ways. If Zsalynn gained so much as a pound or two due to legitimate stress, Nowzardan scolded her and told her she was making excuses. Zsalynn maintained success despite Dr. Nowzardan’s grim predictions, possibly because she chose to seek help from another physician.

If Dr. Nowzardan’s hard-nosed approach to obesity were his only problem, he might not be criticized as heavily among viewers. Many of his patients have been enabled their entire lives and need serious wake-up calls to make lasting change. Reporter Cindy Perman of CNBC writes that many doctors, like Nowzardan, come off as insensitive jerks because they are “in the bad news business” and constantly expected to make life or death decisions, often for patients who don’t obey their recommendations in the first place. With this insight, viewers can hardly blame Dr. Nowzardan for being what Perman calls “condescending and difficult.” However, Nowzardan seems to believe obesity exists in a vacuum. He never shows any empathy or sympathy for his patients, although many of them have extremely stressful lives. He once scolded contributor Dottie for not sticking exactly to her diet plan, although she was traveling constantly in an attempt to care for a son with severe cerebral palsy. In another instance, participant Chad was unable to keep losing weight because he was sick and had no access to needed medications. “You can’t just do whatever you want,” Nowzardan told him, adding that he thought this was an excuse. He never offered Chad help in receiving medications, suggested different ones, or offered any non-medication-based treatment.

Additionally, Nowzardan never recommends his patients receive much-needed psychological help until at least three-fourths through an episode. For some patients, he does not recommend this type of help at all; they find it on their own. Either Nowzardan does not read patients’ medical histories, or he has no concept that obesity happens for a reason. He also fails to build rapport with his patients. We never see him talking to patients about anything except their weight, or asking how life is going outside of their eating habits. This doctor can go an entire episode without cracking a smile or telling a patient anything encouraging. Most of his patients call him Dr. Now for short, and it fits; he seems to want them to lose drastic amounts of weight now, no matter what else is going on in their lives. As a result, patients receive physical treatment, but little emotional support.

Just Put a Band-Aid On It

My 600-Lb Life focuses on people who need gastric bypass surgery, so naturally, the operation itself is a big part of each episode. Unfortunately, gastric bypass is often the most help any patient gets. As noted, most contributors receive referrals to psychologists well into their journeys. By then though, they have fought obesity-related demons without help most of their lives, and struggle to accept what therapists tell them. Additionally, viewers usually see participants attend just one appointment. This sends the message that a few sessions with a therapist will make a lifelong problem go away.

Dr. Nowzardan sometimes refers his patients to nutritionists, particularly patients who are struggling to stay on their diet plans or have made no efforts to do so. As with therapy however, viewers don’t see contributors receiving much nutritional help. In the show’s most recent episode, Dr. Nowzardan referred a nutritionist named Susan to patient Erica. Susan came into Erica’s house, removed her junk food stash, and gave her one extremely brief piece of advice: “Protein is good.” Other than praising Erica for having Greek yogurt in her fridge, that was it. Susan simply left with no further nutritional advice or tips to help Erica beat food cravings. In an earlier episode, Dr. Nowzardan sent a nutritionist named Kim to patient Penny Seager. Granted, Penny was unwilling to dialogue with Kim or make dietary changes. However, Kim did not explain why the changes were necessary or give Penny avenues to make them workable. For instance, she could have suggested healthy alternatives to Penny’s fatty favorite foods, or explained why Penny had not yet lost enough weight to warrant her insistence that, “I’ve done good.” Kim did neither; she simply had Penny’s husband clear out the junk food, sat with Penny for a few minutes, and gave up when Penny would not dialogue. Despite Penny’s constant whining and bad attitude, this reinforced the message that she was easy to give up on.

Dr. Nowzardan is famous for telling his patients gastric bypass surgery is not a magic pill, and dressing them down when they act otherwise. Yet judging by his actions and those of others, gastric bypass is in fact a magic pill. If people don’t magically become skinny within weeks or months of an operation, well, they must be doing something wrong. They must be rejecting the help they are offered. This mindset could not be further from the truth. Although the documentary does not have time to show contributors receiving help from every possible professional, it is clear they are not getting enough assistance. Surgery may have removed contributors’ fat, but the rest of their problems receive flimsy Band-Aids.

Oh My God, Look What She’s Eating!

Finally, My 600-Lb Life is problematic because it’s voyeuristic. A major part of the show involves watching contributors eat enormous amounts of unhealthy food and demand said food from friends and family members. In the episode featuring him, contributor Sean ate an entire pizza by himself and then requested some of his mother’s pizza. Contributor Chuck’s then-wife Nissa claimed, “He eats enough to feed twenty people.” Recently, viewers saw Erica belly up to her kitchen counter and stick a fork into an entire pie, most of which it can be assumed she ate. These scenes add a sense of morbid curiosity to the show. Viewers wonder, “How much can one person eat? What is this person going to eat next? Will next week’s contributor be even heavier than last week’s?” One wonders how much each contributor’s struggle is real, and how much has been scripted for shock value.

It’s not just the food that makes this show voyeuristic, however. As the anonymous blogger on “East Coast Stories” puts it, My 600-Lb Life “gives viewers something to look at” and allegedly, makes our lives seem less boring. Those who regularly watch the show often do it with a “moth to the flame” mentality. They know what they’re seeing is terrible, but keep watching because the content is horrifyingly interesting, or so they can say, “Thank God that’s not me.” For some viewers, slight envy may be involved. They may think, “I wish I could eat a whole pizza by myself and not seem to care” or “I wish my family waited on me hand and foot like that.” Others may watch because they’re legitimately interested in weight loss journeys or have been through obesity themselves. However, the camera’s constant focus on how horrible the contributors’ lives are takes away from the show’s psychological or inspirational value.

My 600-Lb Life is not the only voyeuristic program TLC has produced. In recent years, the channel has become infamous for shows that encourage viewers to favorably compare their lives with someone else’s. The big problem with this show’s voyeurism is that it dehumanizes its contributors. Obesity is a real problem millions of Americans face, even though most do not reach the 600-pound mark. Many obese Americans truly want to change, and pursue that change with everything they have. Most receive help from local surgeons, or turn to weight loss methods other than surgery, and have good relationships with their doctors. Many have support systems. In consistently presenting worst-case scenarios, My 600-Lb Life sends the message that contributors are not really people. Instead, they are blobs who happen to have names. They cannot change, and if they do, it will be because someone else, like Dr. Nowzardan, did the hard work for them. In presenting worst-case scenarios, the show also communicates being obese–or even overweight–is a fate worse than death. In fact, many contributors say, “I’d rather be dead than live like this.” The overarching message is, “Stay thin, or this will happen to you. You will lose everything, including your humanity.” Although no cases have been reported, the show could be a serious trigger for Americans already battling eating disorders.

The Basic Skinny

My 600-Lb Life is going strong with no end in sight. Before its season four renewal last year, the show reached its highest rating ever. It’s clear millions of Americans are hooked on this show, for a variety of reasons. One would hope they tune in to see the ultimate success most contributors attain after long and arduous struggles. However, the question remains whether wading through fifty-five minutes of victimization, voyeurism, and sanctimoniousness is worth five minutes of hope. If My 600-Lb Life continues on its current path, the answer may be a regretful, “no.”

Works Cited:

“My 600-Lb Life: Television and Medicine at its Worst.” East Coast Stories. http://eastcoaststories.com/?p=6573

Perman, Cindy. “Why Your Doctor is Such an Insensitive Jerk.” http://www.cnbc.com/id/48845789

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
I'm a content writer and novelist who loves books, writing, theater, and my cat. I have published two novels and traveled to London and Paris.

Want to write about TV or other art forms?

Create writer account

26 Comments

  1. Buffy
    0

    I like this show. We go on occasional binge-watchings of it before it all gets too sad and we have to try something else. It’s good anthropological material, and occasionally uplifting. My favorite so far is Olivia. I don’t know what it was about her, but she had me rooting for her from the start. I’m glad she found the success she did.

  2. miller
    1

    Many people on the show seem to have really deep-seated anger related to traumatic childhoods.

  3. Mertie
    1

    I’m always glad to see the success stories, but I wish the show would do a better job in showing the totality of the experience, that it’s not just a simple surgery and you’re on your way to better health. You have to also address the issues that got you to this point in the first place.

    • Stephanie M.

      @Mertie: Agreed on so many levels. The journey from extreme obesity to health involves a lot of baby steps, and that’s one of my biggest beefs with the show (and why I quit watching). Many contributors don’t get the chance to take realistic baby steps. Of course, sometimes that’s because they’ve not done what they should, so within 6 months or so, they’re too far gone for baby steps.

  4. Stephanie M.

    @Buffy: Some people are definitely easier to root for than others. You can probably tell from the article who I’ve rooted for in the past. 🙂 The ones who don’t try and don’t seem to “get it” (i.e., Penny, Sean) are extremely annoying. They’re the ones who make the show seem voyeuristic and hopeless, IMHO.

  5. Roberge
    1

    What a horrible life for them.

  6. farr-farr
    1

    I watch this show a lot. In late September I started working to lose 100lbs (27 down!), and I discovered that I find this show to be motivational and/or inspiring. I also had a mother who was addicted to food and got up to 350lbs, so part of me sympathizes with the enablers. I think I’ve seen most of the episodes by this point.

  7. Correa
    1

    I know these are reality shows, edited to provide the most drama. But what strikes me in many of these episodes is the lack of psychological counseling.

    • Keenan
      0

      I’d think a major obstacle is patients who refuse/won’t acknowledge the psychological aspects of their problem.

      You can’t force psychological help on people. If they don’t realize that they need to alter their thought processes they’re not going to, and attempting to force that change is likely to only make them more stubborn.

    • dwane
      0

      I’ve seen most of it, I think, and quite a few of them do visit counsellors. Possibly more do but their counsellors don’t agree to be filmed.

    • mino
      0

      I agree. I haven’t seen the show address the psychological aspect of morbid obesity.

  8. Maximo
    0

    I find myself watching this in a slow-down-as-I-pass-a-car-wreck kind of way.

  9. N0W
    0

    Tremendous transformation in this show.

  10. Jonathan Judd

    Excellent article, the critique of the show is on point. Voyeurism is exactly what keeps us engaged in these spectacles of victim-hood.

  11. Spain
    0

    I hope u guys loose weight so u guys feel better I’m praying for yall

  12. Foss
    1

    So tragic. Some people should never have kids when they neglect them and fail to protect them from abuse.

  13. Kia
    1

    All the best to all of them – congratulations for how far they have come. I hope that with time and support, the enduring issues can be worked through.

  14. Lisa
    0

    Of course it’s voyeurism – it’s entertaining, sometimes shocking, sometimes horrifying. That’s reality TV. I agree that these individuals are complex and that super morbid obesity is caused by a variety of factors – including psychiatric – but it’s difficult to fit a year’s journey into a 55 minute episode. Perhaps it may be more informative to indicate that the nutritionist actually spent an hour with the patient rather than 45 seconds, or that they saw a therapist 10 times and not just once, but viewers aren’t watching for the educational benefit. I like the show, and disagree with your assessment that these individuals would fail if someone else didn’t do that work for them. I admire the resolve of some of these patients and appreciate that this is an extremely difficult undertaking, and cheer along with them when they start to get their lives back. The success stories make the show worth watching.

  15. Stephanie M.

    @Lisa: I think you misunderstood my assessment. My assessment is that the show itself presents the *idea* that these people can’t do the work required to beat morbid obesity. There’s no doubt in my mind they can, but My 600-Lb Life seems to give Nowzardan more credit than his patients, even and especially those who try hard. And yes, some patients have deep resolve, which makes some episodes less voyeuristic/more hopeful. However, especially in the most recent season, there was a lot of “medical/body horror,” patients who did not put forth effort, and in my opinion, too much condensing.

  16. Emily P.
    0

    Waiting for a The Artifice article on how easy it is to assume you know why people watch shows like these.

  17. rufff
    0

    You know what I dislike when those skinny girls that weigh like 60lbs and say they are fat. And if you tell them other wise they say that they are so fat just because they gained a pound. Girls like that are terrime

    • See
      1

      I believe that’s called anorexia. And that is just as bad.

  18. Garrison
    1

    There seems to be a common theme in that the people are using food to avoid dealing with emotions. When that’s taken away, they don’t have any coping mechanism.

  19. D.Ratcliff
    1

    Good on these people for being so successful with their weight loss. I need to lose around 14 pounds and to me that seems like a monumental task, don’t know how they get their heads around losing 500lbs or more, incredible.!

  20. Stephanie M.

    @ D. Ratcliff: I agree wholeheartedly. It is for that reason I chose to write the article, because I think the show could represent these people and their lives better than it does.

  21. RJRStClair

    I like watching the show and seeing the success stories, but I do agree that they often are left on their own without the help that they need beyond surgery.

Leave a Reply