For Better Or Worse: The Immense Potential of “Huge”
Image Credit: The cast of Huge, via ABCFamily.
Please note: This (obligatory) post on Huge contains spoilers for the show’s first episode. It also uses the word “fat” (rather than “plus-sized” or other more polite terms). The use of “fat” is not flippant; nor is it used– as Kate Harding puts it — with “the intention to wound.” Rather, it’s intended as a small step toward undermining the power (for pain) that the term holds. If you’re cool with both those caveats, feel free to proceed.
The greatest thing about Huge is also the scariest. And that is the show’s immense* potential.
Huge is the newest teen drama offered up by ABCFamily, which — in light of the rest of their line-up) is a bit unsettling. But in spite of my distrust for its network, Huge recently caught my attention, in part because the show stars Nikki Blonsky, whose past work has addressed body image issues with impressive critical complexity. (Did I just refer to a Lifetime movie as critically complex? Hmm. The phrase “even a blind squirrel…” comes to mind.) Blonsky’s presence — particularly in the context of a nearly all-fat cast — was definitely contributing to my hope for the show. And like pretty much every other body image activist on the Web (apparently), I was personally moved by the striking representation of fat bodies on a teen drama. Visibility isn’t everything; it isn’t an end in itself, certainly. But it’s something. And an entire cast of fat young folk? — excited me.
Hell, even Roseanne and Dan Conner’s tv progeny were remarkably small-bodied.
Add to this that the first trailer I saw for Huge included a sexy, confident strip-tease from Blonsky’s character (Will), and soundbytes sending up the thin-person-within myth — (“I feel like inside me there’s an even fatter girl just trying to get out”) — and you had yourself a seriously hopeful MMMax. In spite of myself, I was crossing my fingers for this show. Imagine if a program geared at teen girls actually critiqued the beauty myth, actually argued against diet culture, actually challenged the conflation of health and weight. Imagine.
And imagine if a show tried and failed — utterly — to do so. Or if it exploited those issues in a way that did more harm than good.
Over the past week, as the part of my brain partial to half-full has duked it out with the part partial to half-empty, that possibility has been my main concern. The flip side of the show’s potential (to be awesome) is its potential (to do damage). While awaiting the premiere, I’ve watched each new advertisement, followed each new facebook discussion, and wavered back and forth between hope and concern. The show’s ambiguity — exacerbated by its restriction to snippets and speculation — was unnerving. For every soundbyte of Blonsky-as-Will doing Naomi Wolf proud, there was an (airbrushed!) image of her looking ashamed and insecure. For every apparent social critique in the trailer, there was the nerve-wracking rumor that the show would address eating disorders. For every confident strip-tease, there was a Camp Victory: the weight-loss camp at which the show is set.
Some time around Thursday I talked myself into the wait-and-see mentality. I decided to hold out and determine what I thought once an episode had actually — I dinno — aired.
Unfortunately, that was two nights ago. And after watching the episode yesterday afternoon, I am still utterly torn, still equal parts hopeful and afraid. In keeping with its role as a series premiere, the episode sets up more than it delivers, which makes it difficult to determine how (or what) it will deliver in future weeks. My brain, as a result, remains divided. …Only this time the boxing match is between the part partial to doomsaying and the part with a thirst for positive social change.
The stakes in Huge are just that: massive**. We have what is perhaps the first show to feature a cast almost entirely made up of fat folk. A show that will talk not just about how the skinny girl feels she’s fat, but how the fat girl feels. And those of us who have been waiting for a show like this (for longer than we’ve realized it was missing) are banking on it, hard.
Hence the fear. Monday’s episode included — among other things — a group of campers fat-talking, a girl posting “thinspiration” photos above her bunk, Jillian Michaels’ long lost doppelganger, and a group reading of a fashion magazine. Each of these scenes has potential — for good and for harm. The “you’re not fat, I’m fat” exchange in the opening scene is as harmful as it is common, and — like the reading from the fashion magazine — provides a great foundation for a discussion of these behaviors, their risks, and the alternatives. Unaddressed, however, the show has the power to normalize them (further), to make everything from disparaging your body (1:54), to viewing your fat as the problem (14:18), to counting the number of times you chew each bite (11:40) seem perfectly ok.
Huge also runs the risk of reinforcing the “thin = healthy” culture I’ve been hoping — somewhat desperately — it will critique. The first episode showed the campers having their food confiscated, being informed that there are “no seconds” in the mess hall, and learning they will exercise “3 hours, minimum” each day. (Never mind, apparently, that some fat people exercise plenty, that not all fat people overeat — and many thin people do — and that sudden, intensive exercise is — gasp — unhealthy.)
To my surprise as much as anyone’s, it was the show’s portrayal of bulimia that kept me from losing hope entirely. Huge steered clear of some of the most common pitfalls of eating-disorder storylines: The episode portrayed a girl who was not stick-thin as bulimic, did not show one scene in which that girl binged or purged, and established the seriousness of the disease by sending the character home. This decision, which unfolded in parallel with the camp director’s decision to give Will a second chance post-rule-breaking, emphasized (in my opinion) that while Will had made a poor choice, Caitlin (the girl with bulimia) was beyond the realm of choice. She had a disorder, which the camp was not capable of addressing. Ironically, by ending the storyline in its first episode, Huge addressed eating disorders with more respect and responsibility than any show I’ve seen in a long time.
Eating disorders exist within a cultural context. (This is not to say that they are caused, solely, by social factors. But I do believe it’s naive to argue that the pathology would manifest the same way in a culture that did not have similar messages about beauty, weight, thinness, and fatness. In other words, while I don’t believe society gives us eating disorders, per se, I think society helps to explain why we have eating disorders, specifically.) And while I appreciated the responsible take Huge gave bulimia, I am hoping (against hope) that they will extend that responsibility to the cultural context that helps eating disorders exist. I hope that they will undercut their decision to cast an all-thin staff, including camp director Dr. Rand, whose Fat Duckling backstory reinforces the dangerous we-can-all-be-thin myth Will challenged in the show’s first scene. I hope that they will take a harder look at Amber’s “thinspiration” photos and the fact that those photos are considered acceptable in contexts like Camp Victory but a sign of deviance when promoted by pro-ana communities. I hope that they will address that restriction leads to bingeing, that the road to health is not paved with self-deprivation and does not (universally) lead to thin/ toned bodies. I hope that Amber’s desire for immediate, visible weight loss will be discussed. I hope there will be more Pixies references.
And I hope they will keep doing what they are doing well. Those soundbytes of Will’s that I so loved — (“everyone here wants us to hate our bodies; well, I refuse to”) — occur in complicated contexts, and I’ll admit an initial disappointment upon learning Will was not — unequivocally — a media-literate badass. But there’s a realism in Will-as-written that has its own appeal. Her ability to refuse the social pressures that would shame her (“for her own good,” of course), even as she’s uncomfortable with the resulting attention, underlines a sort of untold truth of body image activism: None of us have escaped the system unscathed. Those of us shouting the loudest about how we must dismantle the beauty myth tend to know all too well what it’s like to believe in it.
I suspect that one of the most challenging obstacles for the team behind Huge is treading that fine line between representing life as it is, currently, and endorsing that reality as an acceptable status quo. Part of me is relieved that Will struggles to maintain her confidence because that struggle better represents our actual experiences. But part of me wishes we had more models of people who called foul on the system and truly, consistently, believed that system was at fault. As glad as I am to see the complexity of Will’s character (and of Amber’s, and of the relationships that are occuring between established “cliques”), I hope that Will’s “fight the system” attitude will not be entirely written off as a defense mechanism. Yes, she’s vulnerable. But she is also right. Dr. Rand may be more or less a good egg. But I, like Will, hate what her camp stands for. I hate what it uncritically promotes.
And I hope like hell that Huge will challenge those messages.
*Sorry. Last one.
**Ok, that was the last one. Really.