Super-Sized Couch Potato TV

by Hilary Crowe

Television has always been quick to jump on the cultural bandwagon, but it’s really thrown its unwieldy ass up and over the edge this time. Seeing piles of gold in tubs of lard, The Learning Channel (TLC) has packed its nightly primetime line-up with countless documentary programs titled The 750 Pound Man, The Half-Ton Man, The 627 Pound Woman, and even a series, Big Medicine.

Each show is different, but essentially the same: 800 pounds of flesh hauled from hospital to hospital by six emergency medical technicians (EMTs) using a whale sling from the local aquarium, the teary-eyed, comparatively slim at 350-pound spouses waddling in tow, lamenting the plight of their loved one, never mind their role, not far removed from Doc Kervorkian, in assisting death. At the end of the hour, the doctors who must deal with these vastly overweight patients offer hopeful diagnoses to sappy music, specially engineered by producers to make viewers, feel… well, I’m not quite sure what one is supposed to get out of these shows. I can’t imagine the lesson being anything more than “Poor, Jim – he ate himself to death. Moral of the story: eat right and exercise.” I don’t need hour after hour of sideshow-quality spectacles to tell me that, but apparently these shows pull in enough ratings for TLC to keep them solidly in the programming schedule.

What does all this say about Americans? About my generation? Unlike my parents, I have never been fortunate enough to live in a world without AIDS, and I am sad to say that my would-be children, or anyone born from here on out, might never know a world without rampant obesity. Like AIDS, many would like to claim that the fat epidemic is biological, that a “fat gene” exists. How else can one explain such rapid and sustained weight gain? How else can someone eat a whole side of beef without ever feeling full? (Prater Willy is a biological disorder where leptin is suppressed, never triggering the feeling of fullness).

But that "fat gene" isn’t present in all these cases, and if a “fat gene” does exist, it had to be present for decades previous to this cultural explosion. Why wasn't it expressed? Where was it in the '50s, '60s and '70s? Back when suburbia was young and full of promise, when Wonder Bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off were happily prepared by June Cleavers, when meatloaf was the family dinner du jour, and moms cooked more and families ate out less. Some would like to point the finger at women who escaped the boiler room of the kitchen and forged a path into boardrooms and history books. Others blame technology – video games and air conditioning – for keeping kids indoors and sedentary. (For a different view, please see, "The Joys of Air Conditioning.")

Truthfully, Americans’ waistlines have been steadily expanding along with their standard of living. Biology and psychology aside, Americans today enjoy a high standard of living and are inundated by ads in a variety of media like never before – more money, more food, more cars, and more channels on the boob tube, which means more eating and more sitting around. To quote a sage, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Ironically, with more than half the nation clinically obese, Americans themselves have become hulking mascots of the nation’s stereotypical, internationally despised excess and greed. Consumer culture is at its highest, and we are at our lowest, in years.

(Promotional photo of Big Medicine from TLC.)

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