Friday, June 01, 2007

Fat teens on Oprah

My sister taped me an Oprah show about 10 years ago that was about three 13-year-old girls whose home lives were making them fat. I know that millions, if not zillions, of stories like this have turned up on Oprah and other shows in the intervening years, but for some reason, this one completely fascinated me. I've watched it over and over again, and have speculated endlessly about these girls and what might have happened to them.

The girls (Amanda, Anna and Amanda) all appear on the show with their mothers. Each of them has lost about 40 pounds at a fat camp Oprah sent them to, and all of them, back home now, are steadily gaining it back. It's a toss-up as to which one of them I feel the most horrified for.

Amanda #1 has a mother who has struggled with weight her whole life to the point where Amanda's fat keeps her from loving her at all. It is awful. She doesn't want to touch her. She doesn't even want to have her around. Worst of all, she has this awful "recovery" openness with her problem - which she at least recognizes as a problem. At one point (on live, national television, thanks so much), she has one of these 'big revelations' and says something like "I want to love this child, but it's just so difficult." Oprah says something like "Oh my god, I almost have to leave the room" and I think she is about to pin this woman's ears to the wall for saying such a thing in front of her child, or at least to look sympathetically at Amanda and say "this must be so hard for you." Instead, she congratulates the mother on her bravery and her honesty, and I just want to vomit. I feel for the woman, I do. I think she needs help, and I think all the things she is saying need to be aired, but in private therapy, not on national television, while she shares a couch with her 'unlovable' child.

Amanda #1 is very adult about the whole thing, in the way that children are when they have to be. She says "I'm just glad she's finally admitting it," which just about frickin' breaks my heart. Later, the mother announces that she is in therapy, getting a 'license to parent,' and everyone applauds and laughs sympathetically, including Amanda #1, who up until that very moment has been looking tearfully, angrily off into the distance.

This girl, who weighs probably 220 pounds, I'm guessing, also has a loving aunt, a whippet-thin aerobics instructor, who goes on camera to say that "it's hard to think of Amanda as a pretty little girl anymore, and if I'm thinking that, what must other people be thinking?"

After the Oprah show, Amanda #1 goes to live with her grandparents. I wonder if she stays there until college, or if her mother gets a 'license to parent' and Amanda has to go back there to be practiced on. Throughout, she remains heartbreakingly open to anything from her mom that looks like love and puts herself steadily in the position of supporting her mother's struggles with the difficulty of parenting a fat daughter.

Pan across to the couches opposite Amanda #1 and her mother, and you'll see two extraordinary looking people. Anna is a beautiful fat girl - really, truly beautiful, in a striking, sharp-featured Nordic way. She is incredibly smart and funny - and has used both of these to compensate for her fat and to hide her pain. I'm guessing her beauty and her confidence actually work against her with boys, whose lack of interest Anna ruefully expounds upon, saying "they have to be attracted to you, you know. Who's going to be attracted to this?" A lot of them, I'm willing to bet - and it probably puts them in a tailspin. They aren't brave enough to tolerate the social stigma of dating a fat girl, but they want her...which makes them more than usually cruel.

Anna's mother is bullimic - someone who must have been incredibly beautiful, but whose face and stick-thin body show the ravages of years of binging and purging. She looks like an emaciated Stevie Nicks. Anna's mother actually says on live tv that she feels that Anna is jealous of her because she is so slender. To which Anna says "she buys herself chocolate cake and hides it in her room --- and she thinks I don't notice this? Gee...wonder where I got my habits." Anna's mother watches Anna's eating like a hawk - and not just what she's eating at the time, but what she ate days ago. There are endless conversations about how many calories are in blue cheese dressing and how she might have controlled her portions.

Worst and most betraying of all, the mother holds up Anna's sister as a paragon - "I have one daughter who does everything right - and then I have Anna." The camera pans in on Anna's sister in the audience, who is weeping mortified tears for Anna - she seems very nice. She is a very pretty girl, and thin, but in fact, she isn't as beautiful as Anna.

The counselor at the fat camp says that Anna is a girl who hides a lot. That she can be laughing at one moment and then in a deep, dark place the next. The camera shows a slow motion image of Anna clowning around for some friends, her winning smile gradually fading as she winds down.

In the live portions of the show, Anna's body language is positively rigid. She will not let her mother, whose long, thin arm is snaked out over the back of the couch, even touch her. Her face is beautifully designed for anger, with its high cheekbones, slanted blue eyes and pouty lips, and whenever anyone is not talking directly to her, that's what it shows.

Amanda #2 is the most pathetic figure of the three. She's a pretty girl, but of the three of them looks the most beaten, and the most like someone who was destined from birth to be fat. She has a big, round whey face with round, washed-out blue eyes and a moist cherub's mouth and slack light brown hair. It's almost weird to watch her, because her face shows so little, and then, suddenly, the tears will start falling, and the vague, weak voice is suffused with pain. She comes from an abusive household - her stepdad hits her Mom - and Amanda has at times stood up to him, threatening to call the police. There is something about the way both Amanda and her mother talk about this that seems to lull everyone into thinking it's a workable situation. When the nutritionist actually advises Amanda #2 to find other ways of dealing with her fear of her stepfather so she won't turn to food, I feel sick to my stomach.

Amanda says that she and her Mom both started gaining weight after her Mom married her stepdad ("I think she's afraid to be alone," Amanda says, in a remarkably astute observation for a 13-year-old). Of the three mothers, Amanda #2's is the most loving - but she is remarkably weak, and seems incapable of doing anything for her daughter - - even supporting her weight loss attempts or stopping her cruel elder sister from taking nasty jabs at her and eating big bowls of ice cream in front of her, hoping to trip her up. Amanda is an easy target. She comes in for more abuse from her peers than either of the other girls. She has a face that tempts a bully. It's way too easy to prick the surface. She's infinitely hurtable - downtrodden. One of those people that makes a bully feel so good about not being her.

I imagine her, still in her teens, finding her way into an awful marriage that is the perfect reflection of her meagre sense of self worth. I imagine her having probably more kids than she wants, gaining more weight and finding herself more and more isolated. Amanda #2 is tough, though. I'm rooting for her. I want her to end up with a life where she is in control and she's getting her needs met, and her requisite allotment of wants - and where she is no longer trod on by anyone, for ANY reason. I want her to be loved, but something tells me it won't be romantic love. A woman who combines introversion with plain looks will attract the attention of a lot of predators, and it wouldn't take her long to realize that. I imagine her finding a friend though, maybe on the bus some day. Someone like Amanda #1, maybe.


Anonymous littlem said...

I was going to just leave the comment "well that was riveting. You write a ton."

And then I realized whose blog this is.

8:24 PM  

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