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I like reality television. Yes, people judge me for this but I don’t care. It’s human nature to be attracted to spectacle and since real life is often scarier than any television program, I figure there’s no harm in getting temporary respites through carefully produced and edited reality tv shows. One of my favorites is TLC’s My 600-lb Life.
Individuals weighing 600 plus pounds come to Houston, TX to enter a weight loss program that promises surgery with Dr. Younan Nowzaradan. Dr. Nowzaradan is one of the few physicians in the country willing to perform weight loss surgery on patients that size.
This is somewhat revolutionary because it is not safe for patients who are over 600 pounds to be put under anesthesia. Roshanda, 29, weighed only a few pounds from 800, and had heart and lung issues that make even basic surgeries extraordinarily risky.
Mercedes, 37, was one of seven children; four of whom were girls. After years of violence, her mother and father divorced. Her father started touching her during visitation when she was only 11 years old. This spiraled into his forcefully engaging in sex with all of his daughters. Of course, he didn’t do this to his sons.
Mercedes has two children, and due to her weight, is bed-bound. This leaves 11 year old daughter Kimoriah in the position of de facto mother to her younger brother. After driving from Cincinnati to Houston, Mercedes weighed-in at 773 pounds.
Regular watchers of this program will notice a common thread among the female patients. Many experienced early molestation, sexual abuse and rape. For some of these women, it began when they were small children. For others, there were repeated rapes in early adulthood perpetrated by intimate partners and acquaintances.
Mercedes was set up with psychotherapist Lola Clay to deal with her trauma, which she had dealt with through food. By the end of the episode, when she should have had surgery, Mercedes failed to meet all but one of the weight loss metrics in order to qualify. She simply could not overcome her addiction, despite Dr. Nowzaradan telling her again how close she was to death.
The victimization of these women went unavenged, even when they told their guardian(s) what was happening. Many of the women were forced to continue to deal with their victimizer and some, like Mercedes, managed to forgive their molesters, usually on the violator’s deathbed.
The reality of the contestants’ trauma are revealed during early season cutaway. These segments are barely a three minute blip between clips of contestants eating 8,000-calorie breakfasts.
We live in the days of “body positivity.” Society more willingly embraces fuller-figured bodies and the women who inhabit them. But when I juxtapose that with the pattern of abuse on My 600-lb Life, I find it difficult to be celebratory.
It’s not just the patients, the contestants, who appear on My 600-lb Life, but their caretakers, specifically the women who are caring for the men. Often, you see a woman who fell in love with some intangible quality, like his personality, because he was already quite large when they met. She is overworked, because she has to work outside of the home, take care of children, and take care of a mostly immobile husband/boyfriend.
When the camera cuts away to interview a care-taking women, it becomes clear that as she has looked after her super morbidly obese partner, she has noticeably gained anywhere from 30 to 75 pounds herself. She will speak about loving him, but also being afraid for him. Her exhaustion comes through in her voice. If you’re a master at subtext, you know that she wants out. Few women, if any, want to be with a man who can’t work, can’t engage in sexual intercourse, drive, or help around the house. These women are annoyed and full of regret but feel too guilty to walk away.
Gideon Yeakley, a 35 year-old man from Oklahoma is one such example. His wife Kayleigh met him as a large, but somewhat smaller, man. She notes that at that time, he carried himself in a way that wasn’t indicative of a man his size.
Gideon weighed 625 pounds. Though he was able to shower on his own, his wife Kayleigh is forced to take care of him and her son. “He doesn’t do anything but play on his phone and eat. It’s very frustrating to me because I do not feel we are equal partners in the household.” She said she felt like a single parent with two children. She said this in a voiceover against a background of her striking up a lawnmower.
“I just want to shake him and scream at him ‘Why are you doing this? Why can’t you change? Don’t you want better for yourself? Don’t you want better for me and Jonathan?” The tears stream down her face. “I don’t think Gideon realizes how close I am to being done.”
After eventually having his weight loss surgery, instead of getting a job as he promised his wife, he started to lie around and sleep. This was another source of disappointment for her.
The husbands and boyfriends on My 600 lb Life are often entitled and spoiled; abusive even. Michael Dominguez, 32 years-old weighing in at 632 lbs, had trouble controlling his explosive temper with his wife and main caretaker, Roni.
“I have to make sure Michael gets what he wants to eat, when he wants to eat it, or else he’ll get very angry,” Roni said, comparing his temper to that of an angry drunk.
“When Roni don’t make what I want, I do have a little fits I throw,” Michael confessed. “Sometimes, she makes healthier food and I will lash out on her. I just don’t want it.” Michael lets the audience know that if he doesn’t get what he likes, “there will be trouble.”
After patients go through surgeries and move on, the show will often touch back with former contestants for an update episode. Michael appeared on an update episode after he was kicked out of the weight loss program for accosting his wife with a door. She lost half of her finger. He was angry because she decided that she would undergo a weight loss journey as well, as she had visibly gained weight since being married to him. Apparently, he was allowed to try to change his life but she wasn’t.
This seems to be a common theme in women’s lives. Be it parents, spouses, or demanding colleagues, women are expected to shoulder a burden they shouldn’t have to, and through conditioning, made to feel guilty about opting out. These are burdens that are hardly ever reciprocated.
Seeing these scenarios repeated over and over again make me wonder if we’ll ever do better by our girls. We need to teach them that it’s okay to be self-full enough to leave situations that do us more harm than good, no matter how long we’ve been there. Our girls need to know that someone else’s concept or expectations are that person's expectations alone. It’s okay to not be Superwoman, and if you started out as Superwoman, you can change your mind and reverse course.
Not every woman who was sexually assaulted, molested, or raped will get up to 600 pounds or more. But it’s worth realizing how many of the damaging behaviors women engage in are linked to trauma. Instead of pink pussy hats and “free-bleeding,” I’d like to see contemporary feminism offer a more proactive approach to fully protecting girls from the type of male-pattern violence that seems to take their lives, one way or another.
As much as I like the show, I wonder if it’s feeding and fueling the already poor conditioning that women and men experience where women are the mules for the whims of men and men feel entitled to it all.