Chainsaws, shame and lifelong damage: inside TV’s horrific relationship with plus-size people

For a long time, fat people like me have been the butt of a television obsession. The search for the next “turn of the wheel” in the world of fatness is at the forefront of many a TV commissioner’s hit list, hence shows such as How to Lose a Stone in 21 Days, The Biggest Loser and Channel 4’s latest makeover series, The Unique Boutique. This is a fashion fix format aimed at helping people with disabilities and plus-size people to find clothes.

As someone who comes up with TV shows for a living, I’m in the room when these sorts of ideas are concocted and it is rarely pretty. I say this despite being someone whose doctor and dad describes them as “morbidly obese”. We’re talking about an industry with a deeply chequered past when it comes to fat people on screen. It either ignores them entirely in hits such as Love Island, where a man boob or some beautiful billowing back fat won’t make it through customs, let alone poolside at the villa. Or it puts them in factual entertainment shows like The Biggest Loser, which encourage restrictive, unrealistic fad diets for sport.

I have witnessed first-hand the discrimination and lazy stereotyping levelled at people who are big both in front of and behind the camera. It’s a form of discrimination that is perhaps not surprising, given that I meet few people who look like me, or are bigger, in the TV industry – and certainly no one of that size in senior commissioning roles.

When tasked with working up “surprising”, “noisy” or “disruptive” weight-loss ideas for shows about plus-size people, I am sadly just as much at fault as any other TV producer. I have betrayed my big-boned brethren, made outrageous suggestions to play along or show willing. I have nodded along reluctantly to senior colleagues as they explained to me the problem with fat people in great detail, and why it would help them if men dressed in blood-spattered horror garb, wearing clown masks and clutching chainsaws, chased chubsters out of bed at 3am.

My self-worth has sunk fielding questions on just how fat a person we might be able to throw out of a plane, followed by palpable disappointment from a commissioning editor when they discovered that 15 stone wasn’t even as fat as me – that they need to be much fatter for it to be funny.

I have witnessed the weekly Wednesday weigh-in in the production office of one female-centric daytime series, and the dismay of some of the team if they failed to hit their target. Clearly, they valued loose waist bands for some inexplicable reason.

When, on occasion, the fat-phobia has become too much to bear, my attempts to challenge those opinions are met with disinterest or disbelief. I suggested to a former producer of The Biggest Loser that shaming, crash dieting and over-exercising were damaging to large people, given that a study of the US version of the show revealed that the majority of former contestants put the weight back on, and the extreme dieting resulted in permanent damage to their metabolism. After my exasperated rant, I was met with an uncomfortable glare – after all, it was only a gameshow.

The complex causes of obesity, from trauma to poverty, genetics to plain old behavioural habits, are all far too serious and nuanced to unpack in a tight 47-minute programme at 8pm. Especially when the conclusion always seems to be that it’s all their own fault, really. Out of fear of being noticed as not fitting into the TV norm – and of needing to grasp any and every TV idea opportunity – I have held my tongue, however uncomfortably, when the elephant in the room has been me. But from now on, and I say this knowing that I gingerly nip the hand that feeds me, I will no longer be a part of it.

That is not to say I will turn my back on creating transformational TV: I believe that the medium can be a force for good. But I have had too many ideas about behaviour change and self-confidence bastardised into generic dieting shows, belittling people for the sake of entertainment. I want to work on the kind of shows that attempt to unite us and make us all feel seen, heard and valued.

In the real world, certainly, the world beyond telly, London, and the various media bubbles we all occupy, fat people live side by side with their thin friends and families. Our confidence issues, fears and struggles are problems and experiences shared by everyone. A truly great television format is one that can reflect the universality of these issues and reflect that in its cast.

Naked Attraction, a show that often gets stick for being at the extreme end of “social experiments”, (a term that really must be consigned to the “TV commissioner gubbins” bin) has proved to be consistently one of the most inclusive, diverse and body-positive shows on TV; so it can be done and still be considered must-see water-cooler telly. I believe it succeeds because it chooses to embrace the universality of how we all feel about our bodies, much like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye continue to do.

Thankfully, this seems to be something The Unique Boutique realises. It claims to want to help people who struggle to find clothes that fit by introducing them to body-positive tailors and designers looking to fill the gaps the fashion industry fails to provide for. The press release hits the right notes of “diverse”, “joyous” and a goal to “make people feel fabulous, whatever their shape, size or needs”. Channel 4’s disability consultant will even help to oversee the editorial. On the surface, it appears to be a step in the right direction.

But for me, the problem remains. Othering large – and indeed disabled people, as the show does – is at the root of TV’s less than stellar relationship with groups of people who are underrepresented in the industry. It’s something I have experienced, which has left me with the fear that some of the people making these shows may lack the understanding or empathy to truly reflect the experiences these casts embody.

Instead of consigning us to a side show, plus-sized people need to be brought into the main event. We need to be treated like the ordinary human beings we are, rather than a shameful cautionary tale or opportunity for a salacious and revealing “before and after”. As one of TV’s biggest fans, I hope the industry can move beyond its narrow view of big bodies and embrace us for all we can offer.