Is there anything sadder than Britain’s fattest man? Yes, the former fattest man. When Nick Harding interviewed Barry Austin in 2009, he had lost his title and was sinking fast. The reporter perceived him as:
[…] bedridden, fighting infections…, struggling to breathe, immobile and waiting to die.
By the age of 40, Austin, also known as Big Baz, had starred in documentaries and entertainment films, and wrote a magazine column. Here he is at about 770 pounds, testing out a bed-chair product. He got famous for being fat, but blamed the media attention for helping him get fatter, saying:
It was like giving a heroin addict drugs.
Ambivalent about publicity, Austin told the reporter:
If it highlights the problems and the health issues associated with obesity then that is a good thing. Attitudes are changing. People see anorexics and feel sorry for them; they used to see fat people and were disgusted by us — we were fat and lazy. Now those perceptions are changing and obesity is becoming an acceptable illness. The danger, though, is when it gets turned into a freak show.
But Barry, it’s NOT an acceptable illness. That’s the whole point. It’s preventable and curable. Perhaps you meant, it has become acceptable to see obesity as an illness rather than a moral failing. And that much is true. But a dangerous condition like obesity is definitely not acceptable, not when it can be avoided or fixed.
He may be right about the freak-show aspect, though. Harding makes the point:
With shows like Half Ton Mom, Fix My Fat Head, Supersize Teens: Can’t Stop Eating and Fat Teens in Love, it’s evident we may have a few hang-ups about the morbidly obese, who are wheeled out on reinforced gurneys for our entertainment.
There is what Harding calls an appetite for “fatsploitation” entertainment, that some see as deplorable and on a par with, for instance, the racist ambiance of a minstrel show. Then the journalist goes on to talk about some things that make us blush. In his perception, there is a certain kind of obesity chic going on, and it’s unhealthful.
Awareness is one thing; creating a pop culture movement is an entirely different thing. Sensationalism has invaded the way obesity is seen and thought about. Is this helpful?
In the US, where two-thirds of the population are overweight or obese, the forthcoming book The Fat Studies Reader argues the problem is not obesity per se but the way it is presented in culture. Sociologists point to a ‘societal fat phobia’ which engenders prejudice against the obese — and argue that this prejudice is tolerated by those who would never dream of making racist or sexist remarks.
One of the side effects of childhood obesity, Harding says, is that teachers have lower expectations around the abilities of chubby kids. This was proven by a Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and we’re talking about Yale University, so it is worth worrying about.
On the other hand, there is the obvious attraction of making money by creating programming that captures the eyes of viewers so they can be sold things that will make them fat, too. Harding quotes an entertainment executive who would only talk off the record:
People like to read about really big people because the stories make them feel better about their own lives… No one wants to read stories about weight loss any more, they want weight gain, the bigger the better. There’s an innate morbid fascination… If you put a web cam in the world’s fattest man’s bedroom, people would watch.
By the way, the world’s newly designated fattest man, Keith Martin, is also a Brit. He weighs 812 pounds and reportedly requires a crew of 18 people just to keep him alive.
And speaking of fat men’s bedrooms, will some TV network seek to install one in Barry Austin’s, when he gets his honeymoon on? Remarkably, Austin, still Birmingham’s fattest man, recovered from his “waiting to die” condition and now plans to marry his longtime sweetheart, Debbie Kirby. They became engaged on Valentine’s Day.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Nash TV — New Nash Indulgence Bed Chair Ultimate Test,” YouTube.com, 09/19/10
Source: “Is ‘Fatsploitation’ fuelling the obesity crisis?,” The Independent, 07/20/09
Source: “Fat Records! World’s Fattest Man Keith Martin,” PostChronicle.com, 02/16/12
Source: “Barry Austin is to get married to his long term love,” SundayMercury.net, 02/19/12
Image by goodmami, used under its Creative Commons license.