Huge: When a Fat-Positive TV Series Transcends Its Source Material

Lynne Murray says:

I heard a lot about the TV series, Huge, before I found out it was based on a book by the same name. I watched the  clip of the scene that opens the series where the incandescently subversive Nikki Blonsky turns a fat camp weigh-in into a rebellious (and hot) striptease act.

I had watched all the episodes and the audio commentary before I learned the series was based on a book by Sasha Paley.

The book (unlike the TV series) should come with a trigger warning for recovering dieters. Reading it could easily bring up some unwanted flashbacks to Diet-Think. Each chapter begins with a list of what was eaten (usually not much) and how much was exercised. One camper tells another to be sure to record what she just ate, saying, “If you bite it, you write it.” The level of body snark is off the charts, with constant jealousy of thinner campers and descriptions of disgust at larger ones.

Slightly easier to endure is the rebellious Wilhelmina, who declares that if forced to go to fat camp, she will try to gain weight simply to embarrass her parents, but it’s hard to sympathize with her cruel treatment of … pretty much everybody. All the other characters live in a toxic atmosphere of anxiety around food, body size, and social isolation relieved by unsuccessful attempts to get with the cool kids or avoid the fatter kids.

Rebecca, an insightful Amazon commenter puts it well:

I ordered Huge after falling in love with the utterly endearing ABC Family series of the same name. Screen adaptations rarely live up to their original source material, so I was expecting big things (no pun intended) from Paley’s novel. But if you’re like me and are interested in seeing how the book compares to the television show, you’re going to be disappointed.

Beyond the title, the name of the main character, and the fact that it’s set at a fat camp, the book bears few similarities to its TV counterpart. The show is everything the book is not–complex, charming, layered, sweet, funny, sad. The characters, so real and so vulnerable on screen, are nothing more than cardboard stereotypes on the page. None of the show’s most interesting personalities (Alistair, Becca) are present in the book. There is no camper-counselor flirtation that parallels the George-Amber storyline, nor is there any mention of the fractured relationship between the camp director (here a bubbly redhead called “Melanie”) and her father. Pretty much all of the elements that make the TV series sparkle are noticeably absent, leaving us with a straightforward “summer camp” story, and not a particularly interesting one at that.

The TV series Huge is funny without turning the characters into fat jokes and heartfelt without forcing stereotypes on the characters. It tells a screen story that centers around and humanizes fat people, something that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before in television or movies. The actors  are all amazing. The audio commentary provides some insight into the casting process; I was so touched by the statement in passing that the cinematography highlighted the actors’ beauty and that is a rarity for fat actors. The insight, brilliant execution and loving attention to detail illuminate the project as a labor of love, as well as a family affair–the primary authors Winnie Holzman and Savannah Dooley are a mother and daughter and Paul Dooley, the actor playing the camp director’s father is Holzman’s husband and Dooley’s father.

Holzman, Tony award winning author of the book for the Broadway musical, Wicked, and creator of the ABC TV series  My So-Called Life and her daughter talk about casting in this interview:

In L.A., with everyone trying to be as skinny as possible, how was the casting process for this show?

Winnie Holzman: For eight to 10 weeks I was saying in casting, “That person is not fat enough.”

Savannah Dooley: Casting this show was a big challenge. It was a terrifying process. I was horrified. I am a critical person. I obviously have strong feelings about how fatness is portrayed in the media. So when I hear about a show like this, in my mind I’m already thinking, how skinny are these “fat kids” going to be? We can’t half-ass this. We have to have someone who is big enough. We have to have people who look like real people.


Winnie Holzman: Yes, exactly, full-assed (laughs). We did end up finding them in L.A.

Savannah Dooley: It means so much more being able to give actors this [chance] because of the limitations Hollywood is already going to be putting on them.

Winnie Holzman: We felt it. We felt right away this feeling of gratitude that we could be a part of something that would give opportunity to kids.

Savannah Dooley: Something that has frustrated us, for my whole time growing up, was the token fat character that was always a joke.

Winnie Holzman: That is a big, inspirational part of our show. We are busting through that. That is a lot of what the show is about. It is about these people who are outsiders who are finally finding a place for themselves in the world. They are feeling themselves for the first time as themselves and not just as the fat person.

Watching Huge has the profound effect of normalizing the actors’ fat bodies. I once spent a week at a NAAFA convention and, with a similar total immersion effect, the media conditioning of decades faded away. I could see my fellow fat people (and myself) as simply human without the wrongness that we have learned to attach to large bodies. That experience alone is worth more than its weight in gold and I would urge anyone who hasn’t seen the series to watch it if only for the “size acceptance in a box” factor.

Ironically, the fat camp setting of the book may be the only place where viewers will accept a story with so many fat actors, because the teenage campers are seen as trying to overcome fatness. (When I searched online for information on the fat camp phenomenon, Wikipedia was one of very few sites I could find that was not an actual ad for or article endorsing fat camps.)

The question of why the ABC Family television network wanted Huge is answered by looking at the website which, as of 2010, offered answers to nutritional and exercise questions for those “wondering if a bagel or muffin is healthier” etc. My best guess is that ABC wanted a slightly edgier take on teen body image issues and ideally hoped for a bite of The Biggest Loser payday. Unfortunately, ratings were not spectacular enough to get the show extended past its first ten episodes.

Fortunately the DVD edition makes Huge accessible long term. The series broke new ground. I hope others will learn from its excellence just how to dramatize fat characters with depth and insight.