HUGE: A Weapon in Kidsí Fight Against Fat?
By Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
Having attended two so-called “fat camps” as an overweight teen, and as a registered dietitian who has devoted her professional life to helping people—especially overweight children and their families—live more healthful lives, I eagerly anticipated the premiere of Huge on ABC Family TV. This original dramatic series chronicles the trials and tribulations of overweight teens at an overnight weight-loss camp. Would Huge accurately depict (but not exploit) the struggles of overweight teens? And would it motivate and guide them towards improving their food and fitness behaviors in a healthful way and feel better about themselves in the thin-obsessed world in which we live?
Who's at Camp Victory?
Nikki Blonsky, the Golden Globe-nominated star of the acclaimed movie Hairspray, plays the part of Will. Feisty, quick-witted, and sarcastic. She doesn’t want to be at Camp Victory and doesn’t understand why her parents can’t accept that she’s happy with the way she looks (watching Will, you wonder if she truly does accept herself or if she’s in denial and just tells her parents that to get them off her back). In episode 1, Will is mortified at the thought of posing in front of her peers for the mandatory “BEFORE” bathing suit photo. Confronted by Dr. Rand, the camp director, Will says she lost her bathing suit, but then bites the bullet and proudly peels off her clothes, layer by layer, generating cheers and applause (not to mention a few disapproving stares) from campers and staff.
Amber, the blond bombshell played by Hayley Hasselhoff, soon becomes Will’s nemesis. Will (not to mention many of the other girls) are clearly jealous of the beautiful Amber (in episode one, some of the girls say she’s the thinnest one there and question why he’s even there). Dr. Rand is told by one of the girls that Will is selling smuggled food to some other campers. Dr. Rand once again confronts Will to warn her about the consequences for anyone caught selling food. Will thinks Amber told on her (when in fact it was her best friend Becca, who didn't want the food around). To retaliate, Will shrinks Amber’s shorts in the laundry; when she wears the shorts, she’s embarrassed when they rip in public. When Amber’s best friend Caitlin is sent home after Amber tells Dr. Rand she was throwing up (after eating the contraband food Will sold her), Amber angrily asks Will “What did you think would happen?” Will then ran away, but was lured back to camp by Dr. Rand.
Camp Victory's Message
Huge successfully highlights some of the feelings, attitudes, and experiences many overweight teens face. The characters are compelling, and the actors’ performances convincing. Instead of focusing too much on how overweight the kids are and how important it is for them to lose weight, Huge highlights the characters taking risks and moving outside their comfort zone to try new things, like playing basketball, learning to speak up, or pursuing relationships. I’m also delighted to find that the website for the show encourages viewers to ask diet, nutrition, and health questions that are answered by a panel of experts affiliated with America on the Move.
One missed opportunity was when Kaitlin was sent home for vomiting; discussing the causes and harms associated with that behavior, and explaining why she was sent home (to seek additional professional help) could have been helpful to viewers. Also, the hardcore, Jillian Michaels-type female trainer on the show seems to be there for entertainment purposes only (personally, I never came across anyone like that during my “fat camp” days).
According to Abby Ellin, author of Teenage Waistland (a book that chronicles her 6 years at "fat camp") “overweight kids will likely appreciate seeing themselves reflected in these kids (who are not a size 2) on tv.” But because the kids on Huge are trying to lose weight, Ellin, the Editor-At-Large for Fitsmi.com (a Web site devoted to overweight teens and their moms), feels they’re not learning to accept themselves as they are; therefore, the message becomes you have to lose weight in order to accept yourself.
A Real Life Experience
Though I managed to lose and keep off some weight during my time at “fat camp,” it wasn’t until after I was on my own during college that I began to feel good about the skin I was in, practice healthy food and fitness habits, and lose and keep off more than 30 pounds. I look back upon the weeks I spent at “fat camp” not with remorse or regret, but with memories of feeling uninhibited and understood by others. I also know and have since shared with others that achieving my “dream weight” is not what has made me happy; what has is nourishing my body with healthful foods, engaging in enjoyable physical activity, and learning to love and accept my body, imperfect as it may be. To this day, that “BEFORE” picture taken at “fat camp” stays in my wallet.
(See the author in 1986 and Elisa now. You're a good sport, Elisa Zied!)
Have you been to Fat Camp? Would you like to go? How do you like Huge?
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and author of "Nutrition At Your Fingertips," "Feed Your Family Right!," and "So What Can I Eat?!." She is also a national media past spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. For more information, go to www.elisazied.com, and www.nutritionatyourfingertips.com. Follow Elisa on Twitter and Facebook.