Beginning a few weeks ago, I started to see tweets and comments about MTV’s new show “I Used to Be Fat.” A few people said they liked the show, others hated it. When asked my opinion, I kind of just shrugged because I’d never seen the show (I never give opinions on things without educating myself first). Then, I set my DVR to record four episodes and slowly plowed through them.
Kara’s email to me perfectly summed up the quandary that a lot of people have about the show. She wrote, “Recently I’ve caught a few episodes of "I Used to Be Fat" on MTV, and wondered what your thoughts were, particularly as someone who has one foot in the healthy living world and then one foot in the Operation Beautiful and tween/teen body image world. I have mixed thoughts — on one hand, I think it’s really inspiring to see these young kids work really hard and feel great about themselves after they’ve changed their bodies and their lives. On the other hand — it’s MTV — and I feel like there’s definitely an undertone of "I can’t be beautiful unless I’m thin/skinny" (both from the teens themselves and then obviously the whole network itself).”
The premises of the show is very “The Biggest Loser.” An overweight and sad teen (they are almost always dealing with emotional issues, too) is given the summer to lose a ridiculous amount of weight (usually 100 pounds) with the help of a personal trainer. However, it’s not a competition – there are no prizes. It’s just about the teen changing their life. The show also deals with issues like emotional eating, parental responsibly, and other mental hang-ups that usually accompany teenagehood.
After watching several episodes, I can say that I do like the show… in general. Sometimes, the show does put promote questionable messages, but we’ll talk about that after I list the things that I liked.
One thing I really like about I Used to Be Fat is the theme of self-motivation and taking personal responsibility. From my experiences talking to people of all shapes and sizes, self-motivation is usually the biggest issue. Everyone struggles with staying motivated, and I love that the show focuses on empowering the teens to be healthy and gain self-confidence.
I also love the focus on mental health. In particular, the episode about Dom (with the food-obsessed Italian family) draws a clear connection between him getting healthy and moving into adulthood and away from the smothering grip of his mother, who berates him and emotionally hijacks him at every turn. The trainers talk a lot about building confidence in your own abilities and talking out issues with your friends or family. I love that the show makes healthy living about more than just the number on the scale.
However…. the episode about Dom was the only one that I saw that talking about developing truly healthy eating habits, like cooking most of your own food. The other episodes focused on getting rid of unprocessed foods (through the obligatory “let’s-go-through-your-pantry-and-toss-out-the-junk”) but also had undertones of “eat as little as possible,” which of course I don’t like. Anytime you pressure someone to lose an immense amount of weight in a short period of time, you’re going to promote unhealthy eating habits and dangerous exercise habits as a by-product.
I Use to Be Fat doesn’t clearly show the audience what the teen is eating and explain why. Although everyone’s caloric needs are different, I think it would be cool to do a 5-minute segment during each show were the trainer really breaks it down for the teen and audience about how to eat healthily. Seeing sample eating plans or post-workout snack ideas would provide the audience with concrete and HEALTHY tips they could apply to their own life. I worry that teens might see too many negative eating examples (one girl on the show ate half a piece of baked fish at a restaurant and freaked out).
My biggest issue with the show is that it promotes workouts that are dangerous and unsafe. Two of the teens I watched puked or nearly puked after their first workout. I know it’s more dramatic to push the teen to the point of crying or puking during the first workout, but its also unnecessary and totally unhealthy.
These poor kids are already in bad shape, and I feel like MTV is just exploiting them or trying to ‘break them’ until they cry for the cameras. Again – I feel like MTV is promoting an extreme style of living and not a lifestyle that can be maintained in the long run. And I would love to see sample workouts or discussions about hydration or proper fueling so teens who are interested in getting in shape can apply the advice to their own life. “Work out ‘til you puke” is bad advice!
And I’ll agree with the reader named Kara who suggested the format of the show promotes the thought process of “Once I’m skinny, I’ll be happy.” Obesity is obviously a very emotionally trying issue for individuals, but I would LOVE to see more teens on the show who just want to lose weight for health reasons, not because they want a boyfriend / want to break free of their parents / want to be popular. Of course, emotional motivations for wanting to lose weight can be healthy reasons. But when they are compressed and simplified for a show, it comes off as “50 pounds from now, I’ll finally be happy.” I do want to point out they had one girl on the show who was homecoming queen and loved high school, which was a nice balance from the previous contestants.
All in all, I feel like I Used to Be Fat is one of the better weight-loss shows because it’s not a competition and focuses on real emotions. I just wish it would show a more balanced approach to healthy living (but, of course, this might make for less interesting television).
Have you seen I Used to Be Fat? What’s your opinion on the show? How do you feel about weight-loss programs like The Biggest Loser? (I stopped watching TBL after one contestant claimed it encouraged her to develop anorexic behavior.)