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30 October 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 2:50pm

BBC Two’s Who Are You Calling Fat?: a cheap stunt-show

“Experiments” like this can’t hope to unpick the complex effect of such things as our genes and our toxic food culture on our bodies.

By Rachel Cooke

Victoria is a “body acceptance coach” with a taste for extreme lipstick and a strong line in sunglasses. She’s also one of the participants of Who Are You Calling Fat? (29 October, 9pm), which BBC Two describes as a “unique experiment” in which nine overweight people are gathered together in a house somewhere in the English countryside the better to explore “attitudes” to obesity. Their attitudes differ wildly: Victoria, to put it mildly, takes an extreme position. The science on obesity is, in her view, entirely bogus. Try to suggest to her, say, that there is a causal link between excess weight and type 2 diabetes, and she will stick out her bottom lip and shake her head furiously. She may even leave the room. Is it possible to have positive feelings about one’s body and to want to lose weight for health reasons? No. As one of her T-shirts has it: RIOTS NOT DIETS.

Still, I wanted to like Victoria, with her scarlet bikini and her grand talk of “intuitive eating”. (I think I might be an intuitive eater; right now, for instance, I’m intuiting that I badly need an orange Club and a cup of tea.) But she made this very difficult. Every reality show needs a bit of a bully, and she took on the role with aplomb. Of her fellow housemates, she could tolerate only Courtney, a carer who is reclaiming the word “fat” via Instagram, and Miranda, a writer who runs Club Indulge, which hosts sexy nights out for the overweight. Everyone else was just so much chopped liver. (Crikey, I’ve just remembered how much I love chopped liver… I think I’m intuiting that I would like some for my dinner.)

Jack, a lorry driver who’d sent his type 2 diabetes into remission by losing weight, soon had Victoria rolling her eyes; his antics in the gym, where he lifted dumbbells the size of KFC buckets (no, I’ve listened to my body and I don’t want fried chicken right now), were to her just a craven “performance” enacted to make himself seem “good”. Babs, a civil servant whose disordered eating was making her deeply unhappy as well as overweight, was just another victim, according to Victoria, of internalised fatphobia. As for Del, a sales manager who was delighted to have lost ten stone following bariatric surgery, he was beyond the pale. The b-word never crosses Victoria’s shiny mauve lips. She prefers the term “stomach amputation”.

Cheap stunt-shows like this can’t hope to unpick the complex effect of such things as our genes and our toxic food culture on our bodies, which is perhaps why Who Are You Calling Fat? barely tried to do so. Still, it had its moments. The amateur shrink in me was fascinated by the schism between those in the body-positive camp and everyone else. After a while, their evangelism came to seem to me (as it did to their housemates) as a defence mechanism: when Victoria lay on her bed sullenly eating Pringles, the act struck me as mechanical, not intuitive. And then there was Babs’ sad revelation that, following her late-night food binges she folds the wrappers of her crisps and chocolate bars again and again until they are about the size of a Murray Mint, after which she encases them in Sellotape. It was hard not to see this as metaphor: some part of Babs, who does not like to look at herself in a full length mirror, longs for invisibility.

Courtney, one of the more overweight people in the house, also interested me. She had a sweet, gentle personality and – in the early morning – a lovely, girlish face to match it. Each day, however, she covered her skin with so much make-up it was as if she was wearing a mask. Though they had broadly similar views, Courtney was unlike Victoria in that she was happy to listen to Del talking about his surgery, and to Colin, a visitor who had lost his leg to gangrene, a complication of diabetes. But would she ever think about trying to lose weight herself? Having considered the question, she gave her reply: only if she found that she couldn’t walk. Victoria had been talking a lot about self-love and self-care, usually to Courtney, whom she saw as an ally. But in this answer I could feel neither of these things, only a quietly resigned acceptance. 

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Who Are You Calling Fat?
BBC Two

This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone