My weird fascination with ‘My 600-lb Life’

I’m pretty sure I’ve watched every episode. Maybe one or two have slipped by me, but I don’t think so. It’s a bit of an obsession. I DVR the episodes and then break them up so I can watch them over two or three days. It’s something I look forward to. I know, I know. I have a problem.

I’m the only person I know who watches it. A friend of mine tried to watch it after I told her she should give it a try, and she told me she could only take about 10 minutes. I’ve heard people describe it as gross and weird. It’s not a normal show. But the participants don’t have a normal problem. 600 pounds. Not normal.

Americans are used to being singled out as the fattest of nations, and we seem to love criticizing ourselves for it. Think of all the images we’ve been shown of fat bodies walking around with soda and fast food in their hand with faces marked out being discussed by people shaking their heads over bad behavior. Who are we kidding? Those chubby bodies are fetishized, even by (and maybe especially by) people who hate fat. I’m sure some of the show’s audience fetishizes fat. I wouldn’t say I do, but I can’t look away. It fascinates me. 600 pounds. How? Why? How? The things that happen to bodies when mere fat becomes something…something that ceases to look human.

The people the show focuses on can be hard to look at especially when they’re shown getting in and out of the shower. And they’re always shown in embarrassing postures. Many of them have severe health conditions including lymphedema of various sizes and in some odd places. The definition of lymphedema is a swelling of extremities, but these cannot be considered run of the mill swellings. They’re often so large that when they do get removed they weigh 20 pounds at least and sometimes much more. They grow on legs, stomachs, and asses. They make a body look severely misshapen, and they don’t look like much fun to carry around either. When people start to lose weight, the lymphedema stays the same. It just seems to get heavier which is a cruel trick of the process.

With two or three exceptions, each episode is the same. A very big person, a 600 pound person, talks about the horror of being this big while we see him or her struggle to move about or even to get out of bed. Some are so immobilized by weight, they haven’t stood up by themselves for a few years.

Next, the person describes his or her childhood which either becomes a story of how they always struggled with weight or conversely how they started life as normal until some kind of trauma caused weight gain, and then more and more until they barely looked human.

You might think that once you hit 300 pounds at the age of 16 or 17, that would be when you decided to make a change, or someone else would intercede and force a change on you. But that’s not how it works. Even for those of us who never came near such an extreme level of obesity, we know that changing course is not something that happens rapidly. It may be something that happens over the course of a year or ten years. And that’s if we’re lucky.

The people on the show are not lucky. Often they’ve been abused. Most of the time they’ve been abused sexually. Family, friend of the family, babysitter, the list is endless. Some have been abused by multiple people.

They’ve been raised by parents who are drunks or drug addicts. They’ve seen and experienced harrowing things, and now they’re encased in an armor built of fat.

Less commonly, they point to a broken home, a divorce, a feeling of abandonment by one parent to explain their food addiction. Sometimes I believe them, especially when their parents and siblings also have a big weight problem, just not as big as theirs.

I’m not saying these people are lying, but if the rest of their family is more of an average size, and they didn’t gain weight until adolescence or after, I wonder if a divorce could really be the reason for gaining 450 pounds. That’s a lot of excess eating. That’s thousands and thousands of extra calories, at least 10,000 calories a day, most days. That’s not easy.

I suppose it can happen. I also suppose that you might not always want to tell a television audience everything that happened to you.

The point is, for one reason or another, they’ve achieved what only a small and unhappy minority of people have achieved: a body weighing 600 pounds or more.

The other thing they talk about is the humiliation of being pointed at by people and often lectured. I was surprised at how many of them have episodes at grocery stores where people actually take food out of their cart telling them they don’t need it. But people are cruel. Again, fat people know they’re fat. They don’t need anyone else to tell them.

The rest of each episode consists of a journey to Houston to seek out Dr. Nowzaradan, the only doctor they believe who can possibly help them, only to be told that they have to lose so much weight in a month or two before they will be approved for weight loss surgery. Surprisingly, some of them can do it. I say surprisingly, because he always gives them a daily calorie limit of about 1,200. For someone who has been eating at least 10,000 calories every day, that kind of cut has to seem impossible. It’s impossible for me, so how do they do it?

Sometimes they can only do it, because he puts them in the hospital, and they have no choice but to eat what they’re given. Although, there have been a few crafty people who have arranged for food to be snuck in. They always forget that pesky scale is going to rat them out. But addicts are only thinking of their addiction, not the consequences.

In the last couple of years, I’m happy to see that he makes sure each surgical hopeful can actually stick to the diet that will now be theirs forever for a while before he performs the surgery. In years past, there had been a couple of people who could only lose weight in the hospital under observation, and he still performed the gastric bypass only to have them return home and make no progress or even continue to gain weight. #LessonsLearned

Eventually they almost all get the chance to have the surgery, and they take it. They’re desperate for it. This is the part of the show that I have the most trouble with. I have issues with the surgery itself. These people are all extreme cases. But in the end, the surgery is taking a healthy organ, the stomach, and destroying it. Even if a person suffers no surgical complications, they all have complications from the fact that now their bodies don’t work the way they were designed. The list is long and includes terms like “dumping,” which refers to what happens when someone eats more than their new stomach can handle. Vomiting and diarrhea are now things to be expected even in the best case scenario.

This is not something they talk about much on the show. There are some allusions to it, but if you Google the operation and its ill effects, the list is seemingly endless and definitely harrowing.

Again, these people on the show are dire cases to start. They’re having all kinds of medical problems, so perhaps all things considered it’s worth it. The success many have over the course of a year make me think so. But it’s disheartening to see so many people believe that all they need to “fix” themselves is the surgery. Far from it. The discipline needed to lose the weight even with the help of the gastric bypass is still mind boggling. Anyone who believes that making a drastic life change is easy even with surgical intervention is fooling themselves.

But on the other hand, these people are over 600 pounds. It’s not just a title for a show on TLC, but a fact of life for a small minority of people, but 600 pounds? I have a tendency to watch anything relating to weight loss, but this is not weight loss on a normal scale. This is not someone who has 20, 50, or even 100 pounds to lose. These people are trying to lose hundreds, yes hundreds of pounds. It’s not easy to get to that point. They’re not food addicts in the same way many people are. Food is pretty much all they do. It’s their whole life.

I hate to say it, but maybe a part of my fascination is schadenfreude. Maybe.

Yet, in spite of all my reservations, I am still fascinated with the show. I don’t like the little lectures Dr. Now, as they call him, gives from time to time and the angry outbursts of different people. (I’m not a fan of confrontation, even on a reality show, which begs the question as to why I watch them.) But so many of them do seem to turn their lives around to some extent during the course of the year each episode covers. And for all his lectures, this is one doctor that sees them as human when so many don’t. He wants them to recover, and he does a lot to help them. I love that now he focuses a lot on therapy. Even when they backslide, he usually believes they can still get better.

Perhaps it’s the optimism. The idea all of us are capable of incredible and possible change that lead to happier outcomes may not be credible, but it’s bewitching. If you’re frustrated with your position in life or who you are, a show like this seems an illustration of the possibility of real and lasting change. That makes the follow-up shows they do with some of the people a year or two later really important. All of them to a person continue to struggle. Some less than others, but there are no fast and easy answers in reality.

Again, 600 pounds. The how and why are never fully answered. But it keeps me coming back.

Photo credit: By Mesin at German Wikipedia – selbst erstellt (Firmenlogo entfernt), Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32124085

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