‘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.”
“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
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