Tag Archives: fat camp

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.

Fat-Friendly Books for Children and Young Adults

Lynne Murray says:

The topic of fat friendly books for children came up about halfway through a recent (August 12th) call-in conversation with several Pearlsong Press authors. A reader, Ivan from New York, brought up the question, it’s at 33:18 on the mp3 recording at this link.

We all thought it was a great idea, although some of us knew more about the subject than others. My own conclusion was “someone (not me) should do this!” Children’s books require a particularly strong connection with one’s inner child. I think of Patricia Elmore, who has written several mysteries for children, when she spoke to our Mystery Writers of America chapter on this topic. She said that one of her books had a scene where a boy ate too much Halloween candy and threw up. Her editor wanted the episode removed, but she insisted on leaving it in and many young readers have since told her, “My favorite part was where he barfed.” Pat said that many of the things she loves in books are things grownups don’t get, but kids will love.

Fat friendly books for kids face special obstacles. Charlie Lovett,, who is both a teacher and a father, pointed out that children’s book buying is controlled by parents who usually drive the kids to the store and pay for the books. Young adults have their own money and more freedom to buy what they want when they want.

I started my search with a book that was fondly mentioned as a fat positive book for kids. National Public Radio commentator Daniel Pinkwater‘s Fat Camp Commandos.

In this book, the kids are forced to go to a fat camp and they break out of their summer diet prison and refuse to play the shaming game.

That was where I started the search and it ended pretty quickly, one book later with the sequel Fat Camp Commandos Go West. That was all I could initially find.

The fat camp subject brought home how, from a parent’s point of view, a child who is fat can be viewed as a problem to be solved. Also the most common method of dealing with a child is being teased or harassed is to urge weight loss. A fat child who tries to be okay with being fat, may be coerced by their parents into going to fat camp (as in the Pinkwater books) in a desperate attempt to protect their child by “fixing” the kid’s “weight problem.”

Unfortunately, providing another yo-yo diet experience, and in some cases even a chance for kids to learn bulimia and anorexia from fellow campers, solves no problems. No wonder people feel such affection for Pinkwater’s rebellious campers.

This Big Fat Blog post and the comments that follow provide an insight I hadn’t known–that fat camps can provide a kind of a refuge to escape from hazing and harassment and allow some space for recreation and hanging out with fat other kids.

But I digress.

Considering Charlie Lovett’s comment that parents are in charge of children’s book purchases, and that fat is such a source of pain for parents and children alike, it shouldn’t be surprising to find so little fat positive literature.

Teenaged readers have a little more control over their own reading material, and many if not most are looking for ways to cope with the deluge of media aimed at promoting only a certain kind of body as the ticket to social success.

A fat positive book for teens that came up in our Pearlsong Conversation was Cherie Bennett’s Life in the Fat Lane. Aimed at “grades 8 and up” it addresses teenaged readers.

As described on Bennett’s website:

Lara Ardeche has it all. Homecoming queen as a junior, great looks, and awesome boyfriend, and you can’t even hate her because she’s so…nice. Then, she starts gaining weight. A lot of weight. Uncontrollably. And soon, [she] is living life in the fat lane.

Bennett’s heroine finds her way to accepting a new identity, not as “Miss Perfect” but as herself without any magical weight loss.

Also fondly remembered was Susan Stinson‘s Fat Girl Dances with Rocks a 1994 book with a teenaged heroine.

The Booklist review stretches to describe Stinson’s poetical creation:

Fat 17-year-old Char gropes her way to happiness and self-identity via diets, pop rock, complicated dance moves, and pot while deciding whether she’s animal, vegetable, or mineral. Her long-standing best friend, Felice Ventura, a former fat girl herself, now studies Vogue and Cosmo with an attention she gives no academic subject, save geology. Char looks up to Felice, who has a flair for cosmetics, hairdos, and shoplifting, but is confused when her friend kisses her on the lips, then abruptly leaves town until fall. As Char spends her seventeenth summer working in a nursing home, her perceptions broaden to take in beauty’s myriad forms and manifestations–the meditative stride of an elderly inpatient, the convolutions of a wrinkled hand, folds of swollen flesh, an eagerly awaited letter. When she visits Felice in the desert, the inevitable coupling finally takes place. Shortly after, the earth really does move, but it’s the result of secret underground bomb tests rather than a pledge of undying love. A bittersweet story of teen love. Whitney Scott

Neither of these books aimed at teens gathered any, “If you liked this fat-friendly book, you’ll love this other book” recommendations that I could find, yet word of mouth is still the most reliable way to find these books.

Fortunately, one children’s book reviewer, Rebecca Rabinowitz,
posted a review on The Rotund blog on May 27, 2008 about fatphobia in children’s books, which led to a wonderful two-part guest post on the Shapely Prose blog about fat positive books she has found–starting on September 3 and concluding September 4, 2008.

The way that Rabinowitz breaks down the categories of what she calls fat politics-friendly books: (1) picture books; and (2) middle grade and young adult books, gives you a sense of the scarcity of such positive books:

I wish the list were longer, but these are, sadly, all the fatpol-friendly children’s books I have found so far. (I’m only one person, of course, so there may well be more out there that I don’t know about. Please holler if you know any!) Because fatpol-friendly children’s books are so rare, I’m taking off my regular book-reviewer hat and including some books that are artistically/literarily weaker than I would normally recommend. (Though you’ll probably be able to tell which ones I consider highest quality.)

Parameters: I focused on main characters rather than secondary characters. The characters’ levels of fatness range from slightly fat to very fat — although the status quo narrative definition of “very fat” is problematic, as has been discussed here before. Because defining levels of fatness is so problematic, I decided not to distinguish between levels of fatness in my capsule reviews. I’m frustrated and apologetic not to have found many “supersize” characters, nor many queer characters or characters of color. Although I’m not including any books that are too heinously offensive along general progressive lines, some of these books do include some sexism and racism at times, because they exist in the World, and it’s hard for things that exist in the World to avoid sexism and racism completely. Please note: while some of these books warrant an unreserved fatpol-friendly rating, many require caveats. The list was tragically short without the mixed-message books, and I wanted y’all to be able to make your own choices. Please don’t take an inclusion on this list to mean that a book is 100% fatpol-friendly and doesn’t warrant a critical eye.

The comments are also useful because readers suggest some of their own favorites.

Finding body positive books for children and young adults seems to be very much like panning for gold. The nuggets are far and few between, but worth the search when you find them.