I have a confession to make. It’s shameful and I hesitate to put it out there on the internet where it will be saved in perpetuity, but it must be done. I fucking love TLC’s “90 Day Fiancé.” In general, I am not a fan of “guilty pleasures,” because life is short and you should like what you like and accept pleasure with open arms wherever you can find it, goddamn it! But this is a little different because I know, deep down, in my heart of hearts, that “90 Day Fiancé” is absolute trash.
I hope that one day someone will write a book analyzing the power dynamics of these relationships where one individual is allowed to hold visas, greencards, and citizenship over the heads of often poor people of color from countries, the lie of the American Dream that often slaps these people right in the face when they see that they left their family, friends, and culture behind to live in a dumpy apartment with Ikea furniture and a dumpy man who still lives with his mother, and everything that is wrong with the relationship between Angela and Michael.
I could wax poetic about the things I find interesting about the show, but the truth is, I just enjoy it. I know it’s terrible. I know it’s manufactured. And I know I should be ashamed. But I can’t help myself. TLC has this down to a formula at this point, and I AM ENTERTAINED. My husband grumbled about me watching “90 Day Fiancé” so often, but then he sat down and watched it, and HE IS ALSO ENTERTAINED. I am in Facebook groups dedicated to talking about this show. I listen to podcasts. I follow meme accounts. I love it. Entertainment is as much science as art, and TLC has it nailed down. They understand the appeal of their own shows to such a degree that there is even a spinoff show called “90 Day Fiancé: Pillow Talk” where previous cast members sit in bed in their pajamas and make jokes and judgements as they watch the most recent episode like it’s “Mystery Science Theater K-1 Visa.” It’s brilliant.
Having the intimate knowledge of TLC’s mastery of trash TV, I was alarmed and interested when I saw a new show they’re peddling called “Hot and Heavy.” And I watched the trailer and… oh dear.
TLC’s Troubled Relationship with Weight
There has been a lot written about shows like “My 600-lb Life” and even “Family by the Ton.” I have seen a handful of episodes of each show and they are painful to watch. Like A&E’s “Hoarders” (and TLC’s hoarding counterpart, “Hoarding: Buried Alive”), these shows attempt to “humanize” people with problems and experiences the general population does not understand while offering them up as freaks for our entertainment. Unfortunately, a huge part of the entertainment is in gawking at the subject of the episode. In hoarding shows, you’ll see close-ups of mold, decrepit houses, feces, roaches crawling on countertops. And on the weight-related shows, the decrepit house is replaced by a fat body. You’ll see close-ups of ill-cared-for body parts, the subject getting out of the shower attempting to cover themselves with a towel that’s too small or washing with a wet rag, footage of food being shoveled into the subject’s mouth. The formula is to present their wretchedness in all its grotesque detail, and then lift them up. On hoarding shows, redemption is a perky personal organizer, a no-bullshit extreme cleaning specialist, and a big dumpster. On “My 600-lb Life,” it’s being weighed and scolded by Dr. No for letting yourself get to such a sorry state, surgery, more weighing and scolding, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be approved for skin-removal surgery.
TLC has tried to provide a more positive weight-centered show: “My Big Fat Fabulous Life” starring Whitney Way-Thore. And, no disrespect to Whitney, but it’s kind of a boring show? There’s no high-stakes drama. Whitney is a Good Fatty. She is always filmed in athletic wear. Early episodes focused on her attempts to lose weight; there was even a plot line where her father bribed her with a trip to Hawaii to get her to run a marathon and the fucked up message went entirely uncommented on. She dances and exercises on camera. She tries, and the show very much wants you to know that she’s trying very hard.
But ultimately, TLC knows that people don’t tune in to see fat people treated respectfully. They want to see them humiliated, torn down, redeemed through weight loss or otherwise forced to be thinner. Someone like Whitney Way-Thore is not going to allow TLC to offer up her fat, fabulous body as a grotesque curiosity. Enter “Hot and Heavy.”
What is “Hot and Heavy” About?
TLC’s “Hot and Heavy” is about three straight, mostly white, cisgender people in romantic relationships. In each relationship, one person is thin or at least average-sized. That person is the “hot” one referenced in the title (despite the fact that all of the dudes seem to be utterly average-looking and one is so indistinct I could not tell you what he looked like if you paid me to do it). The other person in the relationship is fat. And there we have “heavy.” That is literally it.
Joy and Chris seem happy but, uh-oh! Is Joy too fat to keep up with Chris’ active lifestyle? And, oh no, one of his friends thinks he can do better than a fat chick! Kristy and Rusty want to have kids, but she’s just too fat! Will she have gastric bypass surgery to make her dream come true?! (And will she go to Dr. No?!) People fucking moo at Adrianna in public and her boyfriend Ricardo comforts her and threatens to beat up a guy who bullied her in high school. What a saint!
The show is tailor-made for the “fat admirer” crowd. Fat ladies in bikinis splashing a tidal wave of water out of a hot tub because they are just so heavy?! Check. Fat ladies in lingerie? Check. They even have them shoved rather uncomfortably into a love seat for their interview segments, instead of, I don’t know, providing a reasonably-sized seating situation. Pretty sure Pedro and Chantel got a whole entire couch in their interview segments in “The Family Chantel.” I’m surprised one of them didn’t get stuck in a doorway in the preview. These shots underscore how comedic and bizarre it is for these women to be loved or found attractive by the men they are with. Look what happens when fatty tries to be attractive and sit in a hot tub with her friends! Isn’t it so funny?!
The Issue with “Mixed-Weight Relationships”
So, first of all, let’s get this out of the way: “mixed weight relationship” is a massively stupid term. It implies that it is the disruption of some sort of norm — that thin people should be in relationships with other thin people, and fat people should only inflict themselves on each other. This doesn’t reflect reality at all. I mean, look around you. There are people who are varying degrees of thin and fat all around us, dating, boning, getting married, shopping for Christmas shit at Pier 1, buying cookies and Clorox at the grocery store.
This terms is almost exclusively applied to heterosexual relationships where the male is thin and the woman is fat. I have literally never ever in my whole life heard anyone refer to a thin woman with a fat man as a “mixed-weight relationship.” Why is that? Because fat women are considered an entirely different species of Woman in pop culture. Our defining characteristic is that we are not desirable to men. We are, to paraphrase Lindy West, “the ghost of adulteries future.” And a thin or average-sized man lowering himself to date us is such an aberration that it deserves its own name. “Mixed-weight relationship.” It’s basically a somewhat-nicer sounding way of saying, “How could anyone ever love a fat woman?”
(And it goes without saying that queer relationships between people with different-size bodies aren’t usually part of the equation here because they are already enough of an aberration on their own for the pearl-clutching public.)
The Boring Reality of “Mixed-Weight Relationships”
So, I am in what TLC might call a “mixed-weight relationship.” I’m fat, and my husband is a totally average-sized guy. In fact, we may have been prime candidates for the show, because he’s in a very manly and does manly things like fixing cars in his spare time and I am terrifically fat. (However, I am not really willing to appear on TV or anywhere else in a bikini and make water displacement jokes with my body or have my husband say, “I love every inch of her… AND THERE ARE A LOT OF INCHES TO LOVE,” hurr hurr, please kill me.) Sometimes people are interested in the inner-workings of this kind of relationship. I’ve thought about writing about it, many times. But you know what? I can’t. Because it’s… not all that interesting.
We are very boring. We watch TV (including “90 Day Fiancé.”) We go to dinner. We go to the movies. Sometimes we play nerdy board games with friends. We go to brunch. There is literally nothing about us that is not painfully average. We love each other, we support each other, we go to work and pay our bills and obsess over our dog.
How does weight play into our marriage? Well, I have a harder time finding competent medical care than him, so sometimes he will come with me to appointments and advocate for me. When we fly, we pay extra for first class so there is more room for my hips/butt because airplanes suck. When we go out to eat, we ask for a table instead of a booth. We have had maybe a few people make an annoying joke or say the words “chubby chaser” to us or in our presence and then we said “HOW ABOUT YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP!” and that was the end of it. Sometimes people have a half-second of, “Oh, okay, that’s an unexpected surprise!” with a tire-screeching noise when they know my husband and then meet me, but it is over quickly, and you probably wouldn’t notice it if you were not me and wee bit hypersensitive to those moments. There are of course small moments where it comes into play, but you have those moments in nearly any relationship: you’re two unique people and your experiences in the world may be quite different and you have to learn how to navigate it together. But it’s mostly just not really an issue or a conflict. And the small handful of issues there have been over 11+ years of being in a relationship with each other are simply the result of fatphobia and people thinking that loving a fat person is some deviant act when it’s totally fucking normal to the point of being boring.
I know this may come as a shock, but people who are fat are PEOPLE. We are whole, complex human beings. We are not a different species. Sometimes we meet people, and those people are attracted to us, and we may or may not be attracted back. We get into relationships, sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. We have heartbreaks and setbacks and failed relationships but we also have joyous, supportive, loving, tender relationships filled with so much laughter and love that we may even buy wooden cutouts of the words “LIVE. LAUGH. LOVE” from the Joanna Gaines collection to hang on our walls because that is how fucking cheesy our love is. Sometimes our partners may also be fat, or they may be thin, or somewhere in between, and sometimes that changes because the one certainty about long-term relationships and marriage is that your bodies will change in one way or another, at some point, if you’re lucky enough to grow old together.
Is Loving a Fat Person a Fetish?
This is something “Hot and Heavy” seems to be playing up, and 2 of the 3 dudes in the show sure seem to be in the “fat admirer/fetishist” club. And I think it’s a common curiosity, which is annoying. As the one dude in the trailer says, “Is it a sexual thing?”
Okay. Here’s the deal. There are some people for whom fatness is a fetish. I’m not a sex writer or educator but there are people out there who are if you want to learn more about that sort of thing. (Just don’t Google that at work, maybe.) But this is what’s important to know: Some people are fetishists, and they come in a variety of different shades, which you can learn about on the internet. Some people are attracted to fat bodies specifically, but are not fetishists, in the same way other people may be attracted to blondes without being a Blonde Fetishist. And some people do not follow a thin/fat binary with their attraction and can find themselves attracted to a fat person, even if they do not specifically set out to do so, because they don’t have strict rules about the body types of potential partners. I mean, it’s usually “a sex thing” to the extent that all romantic relationships are “a sex thing” because usually couples in romantic relationships have sex with each other, and sexual attraction and compatibility are important factors in most romantic relationships. BUT THIS IS NOT APPROPRIATE DINNER CONVERSATION, GUY IN THE TRAILER. Because what happens in other people’s bedrooms in none of your fucking business. Especially when you’re out in public in OVERALLS.
Basically, people jump to this conclusion that “guy with fat woman = FETISH/SEX THING” because they are incapable of viewing fat women as people. People who might be funny, loving, smart, supportive, super fun to be around, vibrant, adventurous, all that shit that makes people fall in love with other people. Because of shows LIKE THE ONES ON TLC, all many people know of fat people’s lives are tragedy and horror and gastric bypass surgery. So, when confronted with someone who does not consider their fat girlfriend or wife a monster or a tragedy and who outwardly does not seem to be any of those things, we reduce them to merely being taboo fuckholes. Because it seems like a more realistic scenario than, “She’s really cool and smart and we love each other.” So that’s how you end up with a guy asking if your girlfriend whom you intend to marry is a weird fetish of yours.
But I beg of you, folks: Stop asking this question. Please. Just stop. Go sit down and think about why you feel compelled to ask this question, what it says about how you feel about fat bodies and whether or not you consider fat people to be human and worthy of respect.
But Could This Show Humanize Fat People? Could It End Up Actually Being a Good Thing?
There are some people who are choosing to look on the bright side about “Hot and Heavy” and theorize that this could help “humanize” fat people. I feel like this is mostly thin people saying this BECAUSE WE ARE ALREADY FUCKING HUMAN, YOU PUCKERING ASSHOLE, go sit in the corner with Overalls Guy and think about what you’re saying for a minute or two. And it may also be people who are not familiar with how TLC does reality TV, and its history of presenting fat bodies as a grotesque tragedy.
Am I saying we should all boycott this show or that TLC should pull the plug? Not really. People will probably tune in because they come to TLC to gawp at other people in their pajamas and feel better than them for just a second, to yell at their TV when they make stupid decisions, and unwind with an hour or two of unfettered pettiness. With any luck, this will get the gals on this show a few million new Instagram followers and they can start trying to sell you Big Fig mattresses, Cameos, and making that bread. (To which I say, GODSPEED, girls!) And hopefully it’ll go the way of boring shit like “Welcome to Plathville” and end up in the dust bin of history.
In the meantime, I hope we can all get some good discussions out of it, and maybe learn a thing or two about what relationships are “supposed to” look like and how we, as a culture, treat fat people. We won’t, but I can certainly dream.