Overweight and reality TV, winning combination
Ruby Gettinger stars in "Ruby," a half-hour series that chronicles the life and weight-loss efforts of the 300-plus-pound woman.
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With the advent of digital, television sets have gotten bigger. The people on TV are more likely to be larger, too.
Although there's a long history of overweight comics on TV, this month there's a new emphasis on overweight people on both reality shows and in a scripted series.
Why now? It's probably no coincidence that NBC's weight loss competition series "The Biggest Loser" is coming off a season of improved ratings, ranking 39th most popular show in prime time, up from No. 60 in 2007-08.
"Dance Your Ass Off" (10 p.m. tomorrow), a reality competition that merges dance with weight loss, debuted late last month on Oxygen, a NBC-Universal-owned property, generating the little cable network's best-ever series premiere ratings as it drew 1.3 million viewers.
Style is airing the second season of "Ruby" (8 tonight), a half-hour docu-series that chronicles the life and weight-loss efforts of 300-plus-pound Ruby Gettinger.
Tonight at 9 Lifetime premieres the scripted series "Drop Dead Diva," a light-hearted comedy-drama about a skinny model who dies and finds her soul implanted in the body of an overweight lawyer.
Later this month, Fox debuts "More to Love" (9 p.m. July 28), a dating show that features a "husky hunk" choosing among "a group of real women determined to prove that love comes in all shapes and sizes," per a network release.
"I think it's fantastic," said Peggy Howell, public relations director for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. "I'm really glad to see the average person represented on television, because the statistics say there are more of us who are fat and obese than there are of people of average size or thin."
Ms. Howell, who was recently contacted by producers of a proposed reality show in the "Real Housewives of ..." vein that will chronicle "the lives of fat girls," said her group's primary criticism of these programs is that they too often focus on weight loss rather than simple acceptance.
"Our organization does not promote weight loss, so consequently shows like 'The Biggest Loser' we don't pay all that much attention to. Science shows that 95 percent of the time people who diet ... never meet their goal or maintain it."
Roger Klein, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor who teaches media psychology, also cited a statistic that the majority of those who lose weight eventually gain it back.
"The big unanswerable question is where will these people [who lose weight] be in three years or five years," said Mr. Klein. "What percentage of these people will return to where they were? That in itself is a problem and that could be a form of exploitation. People enjoy looking at individuals who have noticeable problems and may live vicariously through them. But there can also be something positive, the notion that if so-and-so can do it, so can I."
He said some research shows overweight people are more likely to get into exercise if they watch a video of an overweight instructor rather than someone who is fit.
"It's less threatening to them," Mr. Klein said. "One could make the point that there's some benefit to looking at people who are more like you see yourself."
Before the first season of her show, Ms. Gettinger, who first became overweight at age 9 and once weighed 700 pounds, said she wanted to be on television to dispel misconceptions viewers might have about overweight people.
"I'm hoping that people will see we're not bad people, that we are human beings just like anyone else and not to be so mean to us and accept us," she said. "Don't look at this person going, 'All they do is overeat.' It's bigger than that. It's an addiction. It's a disease, and I want to bring that to the world."
Mr. Klein said often people have an unconscious bias against overweight people and studies have found those who are overweight earn less in the workplace. Making overweight people more visible on TV could disabuse some viewers of their biases.
"I'm hoping that people are going to be accepting of these shows because it represents reality more than the so-called 'reality shows' that are on today," Ms. Howell said. "We know the people on 'The Bachelor' or 'The Bachelorette' are looking to further their career in some way. They're all model types; they're not real people. Even though I enjoy watching those shows, I don't see it as a good cross-section of reality."
SallyAnn Salsano, executive producer of both "Dance Your..." and "More to Love," describes herself as "not a thin girl." When first approached about "More to Love" by executive producer Mike Fleiss ("The Bachelor"), her reaction was, "We finally have a dating show for us."
"This is not a show about making fun of people who are overweight," she said. "It's a genuine emotional story. We're not treating them differently than on any other dating show. It's not like we're having an eating contest to get a date. There's no bikini model segment. It's about people finding love."
Not everyone sees the show's premise in the same laudable terms. TV critic Rich Heldenfels, of the Akron Beacon-Journal, wrote on his blog at Ohio.com earlier this month, scolding Fox for its choice of a suitor.
"He's a curvy Prince Charming. And that ticks me off," Mr. Heldenfels wrote. "It undercuts the idea that plus-sized women deserve love by suggesting that the only man who will love them is big himself.
" ... Fox, and producer Mike Fleiss, must have thought that the audience would not believe a regular-looking, or even a movie-star-handsome, man would fall for one of the women on this show. And that means they're just as prejudiced as many of the viewers they claim to inspire."
First Published July 12, 2009 12:00 am