Fat people are highly represented on reality television. Informed by dominant "obesity" discourses, these representations have framed fat people as inhabiting abject and unruly bodies (LeBesco, 2004) that require expert intervention and enforcement of disciplinary practices (Ouellette and Hay, 2008a). However, recent productions focused on fatness offer new ways of looking at and understanding fat bodies (Kyrölä, 2014; Zimdars, 2019). This project examines contemporary representations of fatness on reality television within competing discourses of the "obesity" epidemic and body positivity. It begins by outlining the construction of the "obesity epidemic", as well as tensions between fat studies, body positivity, and debates on weight-loss. This serves as an entry point into three sites of analysis within which these tensions are identified: My 600lb Life (TLC, 2012-present), My Big Fat Fabulous Life (TLC, 2015-present), and Hot and Heavy (TLC, 2020). Informed by Foucault's theoretical frameworks of governance (1988) and the abnormal (1999), I draw from queer theories to situate my affective readings (Koivunen, 2000) of these programs. In doing so, I identify how these new representations constitute as 'sticky' objects (Ahmed, 2010; Kavka, 2014). These affective readings contribute to the identification of new fat subjectivities (Mobley, 2014) that reaffirm, rub up against, and resist fat stigma. My goal is to contribute to literature in fat studies and intersectional feminist media studies by performing negotiated readings (Hall, 1973) of these texts that map the introduction of more complex understandings of fatness that diverge from traditional approaches rooted in "obesity" discourse. Drawing from feminist concepts such as abjection (Hennefeld and Sammond, 2019) and social capital (Bourdieu, 1986), some of the themes discussed in the study include: how weight-loss surgery and structural determinants of health destabilize dominant understandings of "obesity"; alternative readings of "trauma porn" (Telusma, 2019); negotiations of "good fatty" archetypes (Bias, 2014); intersections of race (Crenshaw, 1989), class (Wood and Skeggs, 2011), disability (Withers, 2012), and fatness (Friedman et al, 2020); desirability and the politics of mixed-weight couples; power in fetishization; competing discourses between media texts and viewers; and the usefulness of tropes such as the misfit (Garland-Thomson, 2017), freak (Dovey, 2000), and the grotesque (Bakhtin, 1994). Using this range of concepts and approaches, this research considers how the format of reality television can be used for fat liberationist aims, particularly the advancement of fat sensibilities that challenge fat stigma and offer new ways of looking at and understanding fat bodies in both the present and the future.
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Thesis advisor: Druick, Zoe
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