Like a lot of people, I was pretty skeptical from the get-go when I heard about ABC Family’s new show “Huge.” I’m getting pretty good on the fat acceptance front – at least for other people – and I could certainly see an argument that words like “huge” oughtn’t to have an immediately negative connotation, depending on context. But when that context is gigantic corporatocracies who undoubtedly include a few diet-company subsidiaries in their portfolio, my skeptic flag goes up immediately. Chalk it up to experience, cynicism, what have you, but it’s tough for me to take network television seriously on issues of size, particularly when it is dealing with those issues alongside the likes of “The Biggest Loser” and “More to Love.”
But when I heard that the show was actually written by a “My So-Called Life” creator and her daughter, both of who say they have personal experience with issues of size, I decided I’d give it a shot. And now that we’re seven episodes in, I feel pretty safe recommending it. And this is not just a soft sell, on a feminist front. This is a show aimed at teenagers that is dealing not just with fat acceptance, but also with issues like asexuality (!), gender identity, and even, though it wasn’t as successful a gesture, appropriation of First Nations culture and identity. It even has a Black Best Friend character who is neither “sassy” nor “urban” in the sense that most white-oriented television shows like to pigeonhole them. It’s easily the most intelligent thing aimed at teenagers on television today, and more than that, it’s certainly the most intelligent thing that isn’t aimed at them at a “Gossip Girl”/Heathers level of aspirational reality and “self-awareness.” (Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, “Glee.”) The show is infused with what feels like an increasingly rare sense of genuine sincerity that doesn’t even have the slightest whiff of condescension about it, and you ought to be watching it.
(So ought, it goes without saying, teenagers in your immediate sphere of influence.)
The setting, for those of you who haven’t been watching the promos, is a “fat camp.” The main character is Will (Nikki Blonsky, of Hairspray), a born-a-decade-too-late riot grrrrl who has blue streaks in her hair and a general sense of disgust for the “body fascism” she feels the camp imposes. She is in constant horn-lock with the camp’s chief, Dr. Rand (Gina Torres) Will’s cabinmates include Chloe (Ashley Holliday), a late-blooming pretty girl who is trying to shake off a nerd image, Becca (Raven Goodwin, who film buffs might remember as the adopted daughter in Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing (worth Netflixing if you’ve never seen it)), a shy and dreamy journal-keeper whose oddity is endearing without losing its edge, and Amber (Hayley Hasselhoff, yes, of those Hasselhoffs), described immediately as the “prettiest girl in fat camp,” largely, it seems, because she is less fat than everyone else. There are also boys at this camp – as of this writing they remain a somewhat indistinguishable mass, other than Chloe’s brother Alistair (Harvey Guillen), who asks that people call him “A”, and is, I think, the first truly genderqueer person I’ve seen on television since “My So-Called Life”‘s Ricky Vasquez (Wilson Cruz).
I can’t speak to the realism of the camp; I hadn’t even realized things like this existed until I moved to the United States. But as to the cadences of teenagers and their general preoccupations, much like “My So-Called Life,” it is spot-on. And it is a wonderfully subtle show at times. Take the way it deals with the inevitable protagonist romantic character arc, for example: rather than have Will act out her crush on Ian (Ari Stidham) via girlish confession scenes to best friends, the show has it playing out in the context of a musical collaboration. And though the show has rarely had Will set her feelings out directly – it lets Blonsky write them out on her face, in a way that is far more convincing than any Blair Waldorf insta-gif tantrums and pouts. Similarly, when camp counselor Poppy (Zoe Jarman) raised her asexual feelings in a recent episode, the scene had an admirable matter-of-fact quality – and in fact felt quite organically raised from Poppy’s cheerfully aloof demeanour.
But of course the series’ biggest selling point is that despite the bluntness implied by the title, it’s a show that sometimes only feels like a show about fat people in passing. Oh, sure, there are weigh-ins, and furtive black markets in junk food, but there are also all the other things I’ve listed above going on, without the need to underline, at every possible narrative juncture, that these things are Happening to Fat People.
Which is funny, I admit, in some way, as a thing to praise about the show. If you had asked me before I watched it what potential I thought it had, I would probably have said that I thought it filled a void that seems to exist in this culture, which is to say that there’s little space in which actually, really, truly, one-hundred-percent-for-sure Fat People can articulate how they feel about their bodies. I do feel, on the one hand, that the culture doesn’t lack for narratives about body image, but speaking only for myself, they always felt to me like they were targeted at thin people. Put differently, while I’m not trying to downplay the fact that all people – and particularly all women – have body image issues, there is clearly a substantive difference between the experiences of (a) being a thin person who has body dysmorphia, and feels herself to be fat, but is not perceived as fat by the world in general; and (b) being a fat person who feels terribly about her body in a society that sanctions and reinforces that self-hatred. We live in a sizist culture, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that in a sizist culture, it strikes me as appropriate to be concerned that narratives relating to category (a) above do not serve the population who could relate to narratives falling in category (b) as well as they could. We tell stories as universal touchstones, it’s true, and we design them to transcend boundaries of experience. But when the stories in your culture tend to cluster around one pole, when they are all about thin women, for example, who are suffering from eating disorders, I think the boundary of experience does eventually become something that needs addressing. You can’t have a universal that only certain classes of people are allowed to articulate.
Thus the big value of “Huge” is that, even as a so-called “fat acceptance show,” the basis of the acceptance it advocates is the ability to transcend fat as self-definition. You can be overweight and love music; you can be overweight and love sports; you can be overweight and nonetheless be attractive to a thin person. It’s not that you’re not-overweight, it’s not that your fat is irrelevant to your daily life. It’s that it’s not your life, altogether. That’s a lesson I feel like I’m still struggling to learn. But if I had had “Huge” in my life, it might have been a different story.