Since BBC3 moved online a few months ago, it has put out some excellent documentaries. But last week’s ‘Obesity: The Post-Mortem’ proved that gratuitous fat shaming continues after death.
In the UK, we are bombarded by reminders of an ‘obesity epidemic’. With predictions that 75% of the population will be overweight by 2035, fat people are marginalised and stereotyped as lazy and stupid. And fat shaming on TV has long been part of this culture. Shows such as You Are What You Eat claim to use benevolent fat shaming, in the name of ‘awareness’.
Obesity: The Post-Mortem was no different. Marketed as ‘educational’, it aimed to show viewers the impact excess fat has inside the body. Supposedly, we know what fat looks like on the outside, but not the inside.
To achieve this, the presenters conducted a post-mortem on the body of a 17 stone woman, all filmed. Here is the first problem: the woman donated her body to science, but it was not clear if she or her family had consented to a televised dissection. And the filming and editing of the procedure left little dignity. Camera shots lingered gratuitously on unsightly, yet totally normal, parts of her body. Her identity was protected, but only by unceremoniously dumping a sheet over her face. Fat people aren’t treated with respect, even in death, it seems.
Anonymity, combined with the exposure of thick, yellow fat, meant that the process was dehumanising at best. It’s hard to see what alternative the producers had, however, because it’s unlikely anyone would volunteer to have their post-mortem televised and not be anonymous. If the producers couldn’t find a way to avoid dehumanising somebody, perhaps they ought to have rethought the format of the show.
The science also sent us mixed messages. On the one hand, the presenters acknowledged that people are individual, and being overweight has differing effects on the body. In interviews with self-identified fat people, we heard about some of the medical reasons for gaining weight, such as thyroid disorders.
On the other, we were repeatedly told about the dangers and diseases associated with being overweight. This is despite the fact that thin people can and do develop these diseases, and some fat people live long and healthy lives. Excess fat was only ever presented as a negative. In the interviews, we only heard from people who felt ashamed of their bodies. We did not hear any people who were proud of their achievements or appearance. We only heard how being overweight makes dating difficult. We did not hear that fat people often have loving partners who adore their bodies.
The one redeeming aspect of the show was the recognition that fat does play a vital role. We all need some fat to survive. It protects the organs and provides important energy stores. Fat, we were told, is not a problem, just excess fat. But we were not told what this actually means. The show made no effort to help people distinguish between ‘normal’ (whatever that means) and ‘abnormal’.
It also did not offer any healthy eating or fitness advice. BBC3’s audience is overwhelmingly young, and this risks sending a message to vulnerable young people that their body is wrong. BEAT estimates that more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by eating disorders. The show did nothing to encourage a healthy relationship with food, and for that alone it was irresponsible.
The show made no secret of its views: overweight people are unattractive, and it is a bad thing to be. It contributed to stigmatisation of fat people, and the perception that they are ugly. In an environment where fat shaming is all too common, and eating disorders sadly affect so many people, BBC3 should be ashamed.