Fat: What No One Is Telling You

Going for nuances in a great big subject

Originally published in Current, March 26, 2007
By Mike Janssen

Anyone who has counted calories and sweated buckets on the treadmill without losing a pound might find comfort in Fat: What No One Is Telling You, a documentary airing on PBS stations April 11 [2007].

The 90-minute program from Twin Cities Public Television, second of four outreach-oriented health shows on PBS this year and next, opts not to dole out the familiar advice to eat less and exercise more. Instead, Fat uses interviews with medical experts and profiles of overweight individuals to deliver a more nuanced message: that people get fat and stay that way due to a complex mix of genetic, social, psychological and environmental causes that are not yet fully understood.

“We should call it ‘obesities’ and not ‘obesity,’” says Naomi Boak, e.p. of Fat, “because it’s probably not the same problem for every person.”

Boak turned to the subject of obesity shortly after finishing The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer’s in 2004. Alzheimer’s disease had touched Boak’s life — her mother-in-law suffered from it — and so has obesity.

At 5-foot-3, Boak weighs 200 pounds, down 35 pounds from her peak. Like some of Fat’s subjects, she has struggled to shed pounds despite dieting and daily exercise, and has grappled with the feelings of self-loathing that plague many overweight people.

“It’s not like fat people really want to be fat people,” she says. “And it’s not like a lot of them don’t have really good calorie-counters in their heads. It’s that in this environment, it’s a very, very difficult problem.”

With two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, the problem is getting increased attention from doctors, scientists, drug companies and public health officials. As Fat makes clear, weight gain is hard to avoid in a time when fattening foods are readily available and TV and video games seduce adults and children into couch-potatohood. A doctor interviewed in Fat calls obesity “an unintended side effect of modern society.”

Yet fat people remain the frequent butt of jokes, even though many Americans now shun the similarly disparaging humor based on race, gender and sexual orientation. For jokers, “it’s the last safe area,” says Daniel Pinkwater, an author, NPR commentator and proud fat guy who shares his views in the doc.

Fat features another figure familiar to public radio listeners: Samr “Rocky” Tayeh. A teenager in the Radio Rookies initiative at New York’s WNYC, Tayeh produced a popular documentary for the station and All Things Considered about how he dealt with obesity. Fat chronicles his decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery.

“Everyone’s gonna love me,” Tayeh says in a tearful voiceover as he looks ahead to his thinner life. “No one’s going to laugh at me anymore. Everyone’s going to see me for me.”

Fat will be followed on air by Take One Step for Your Family’s Health, a half-hour panel discussion featuring experts from the doc. The Take One Step format is shared with the three other health specials, including WGBH’s The Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease in America, which aired last month, and programs next year about cancer and depression.

PBS and producing stations built an extensive outreach effort into the campaign, supported by $600,000 from CPB. The project gave $7,500 grants to 15 stations for outreach efforts around The Hidden Epidemic and Fat.

In Mt. Pleasant, Mich., for example, WCMU is helping local elementary school teachers add physical activity to lesson plans. KNME in Albuquerque, N.M., is encouraging Native Americans to exercise. TPT is extending outreach efforts in partnership with YMCAs and America on the Move, a national nonprofit initiative.

Outreach efforts were more difficult to develop for Fat than for The Forgetting, says Boak. The Alzheimer’s Association had already established classes and support groups throughout the country, but experts are still learning how best to address obesity, she says.

The documentary attracted some pre-broadcast attention because it was funded in part by GlaxoSmithKline, seller of an over-the-counter weight-loss capsule. Jeff Chester, public TV watchdog and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, criticized the funding arrangement in a letter to PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler.

“PBS program executives need to ‘cut the fat’ out of their sloppy review of what’s appropriate for underwriting,” Chester wrote in February. “Programs on PBS should be free of connections to sponsors who have a vested interest in an issue.”

Getler said in his online column that he sympathized with PBS’s need for funding but that “this kind of possible conflict can undermine credibility and, without knowing the financial details, doesn’t seem worth it.”

Boak responds by pointing out that Fat was produced behind a “big editorial firewall” and that GlaxoSmithKline did not seek to influence editorial decisions. She says she rejected a suggestion from TPT colleagues that the doc find funding from food companies who would be named in the documentary.

“I said, ‘We can’t do that because we will be saying not-nice things about them. I just don’t want to go there,’” Boak says.  

Web page posted March 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current LLC


Twin Cities Public Television's The Forgetting, about Alzheimer's disease in 2004, became a model for future health projects.


The 2007 program was part of a PBS series Take One Step

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