Thursday 18 January 2018

Last night’s TV: Embarrassing Fat Bodies

Is the programme a health show or a public display of humiliation asks Diarmuid Doyle?

Before the opening credits rolled on Embarrassing Fat Bodies, a helpful announcer warned that the programme would contain "full frontal nudity and graphic scenes of surgery".

Anybody expecting a porn version of Grey’s Anatomy would have been sorely disappointed, however. Instead, we were treated to a kind of public humiliation masquerading as a health show.

The series is the latest in the Embarrassing… franchise, in which British people with unusual health issues or ailments are tuned into prime time television entertainment. Other titles over the years have included Embarrassing Illnesses, Embarrassing Teenage Bodies and Embarrassing Bodies: Kids.

Its presenters, who include the Irish doctor Pixie McKenna, portray it as the kind of valuable public health programme which saves lives. Every now and again, some helpful – if completely obvious – advice like “Don’t skip breakfast” is thrown into the mix, but overall, it’s very hard to see how such extreme examples of obesity would have any effect on the behaviour of the general public.

It’s much more likely that people watching would give silent thanks that they will never look anything like the oversized creatures they’re watching on screen, and have another sip of wine to celebrate.

Embarrassing Bodies makes much more sense as kind of 21st century version of those old funfairs in which members of the public were invited to laugh and point at bearded ladies, Siamese twins or the world’s smallest man.

Great care has obviously gone into to tracking down the most spectacular examples available of British obesity and persuading them that their problems could be over if they let it all hang out in front of the Embarassing Bodies doctors…and a few million television viewers.

The individuals might well get something from the experience, but they are paying a huge price in terms of loss of privacy and dignity. “We’ll see later if Tony ever gets to see his penis again”, an ever so slightly sarcastic voiceover announced after one of the programme’s patients had discussed the rolls of fat which poured from his stomach over his midriff.

A woman called Yolanda discussed “my hernias” as though they were pet kittens. Her daughter, who looked no more than 10 or 11, talked sadly about how she could only go shopping at night with her Mum so that fewer people would see them together and maybe comment on Yolanda’s weight.

Melissa, once Britain’s fattest teenager, has since lost 23 stone with the use of a gastric band, but the weight loss has had a devastating effect on her body. As she said and we saw, it looks like that of a ninety-year old. “My granny’s got better boobs than me”, she claimed.

It’s hard to see what Tony and Yolanda and Melissa and the others featured in the series will achieve from their participation other than a few minutes of a peculiar kind of fame, and nuggets of advice they must have heard a thousand times before.

When the cameras have gone, and the excitement has worn off, how will they fare then, with the same body issues, problems and insecurities which allowed them to get that obese and that desperate in the first place? Where will Channel 4 be then? Off on a search for exhibits for its latest freak show, one suspects.

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