Dear Reality Dating Shows: Fat People Fuck, Too

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As a trash TV connoisseur, I have to say: There’s never been a better time to love reality dating shows. The Bachelor might be in a bit of a tailspin, but over the past couple of years, several series have taken the genre in fun, fascinating, often inventively vapid directions. Netflix’s Dating Around ushered in a lower-key approach in 2019, the same year that MTV debuted a deliciously messy, loud, and completely queer season of its long-running show Are You the One? And HBO Max just launched FBoy Island, a deliciously shallow Bachelor in ParadiseLove Island mash-up from former Bach producer Elan Gale.

But each new twist on this old formula highlights the one pernicious flaw everyone still refuses to touch. In their pursuit of freshness, producers will strand horny influencers on a remote island and “challenge” them not to have sex with one another for 30 days; they will dress models up in full prosthetics and send them on blind dates as demons and dolphins, and they will force them to get engaged without ever seeing one another. But they still won’t let anyone above a size 2 fall in love on screen.

As of 2016, the average American woman is between a size 16 and 18—both of which are nonetheless considered plus-sized. (America’s cult of thinness is apparently powerful enough to make us forget basic statistical comprehension.) Reality dating shows, meanwhile, remain glorified advertisements for the diet industry. Influencers have become a go-to casting pool; they often go on to parlay their TV fame into sponcon deals for products like laxative “detox” teas. Reality producer Mike Darnell once acknowledged that the average reality contestant is around a size 2.

This fixation on slender bodies can be easy to dismiss; reality fans know better than anyone that realism is rarely these shows’ actual goal. But the continued lack of interest in people who actually look like the general population perpetuates the discrimination fat people face every day—while dating, at the doctor’s office, and pretty much everywhere else. (As a cusp-sized woman, I use the term “fat” in this piece as a neutral descriptor in light of its reclamation by the community itself.)

In the nearly two decades The Bachelor has been on air, only one “plus sized” contestant has ever appeared—and she went home on Night One. Bo Stanley, a former pro surfer and plus-sized model, battled for “Prince Farming” Chris Soules’ heart in 2015 but did not receive a rose.

Apart from their introduction, The Bachelor included only one moment between Stanley and Soules—when he told her that his farm produces high-quality pork and beef, and she replied, “Oh, shoot, I would love to try that out. I’m a plus-sized model so I’ve got to keep up my curves!” The episode didn’t bother to include Stanley’s exit.

It’s not surprising that The Bachelor, a franchise that has never excelled at diversity, would include only an athletic plus-sized model who really appears to fall into a nebulous in-between category called “cusp-sized”—or that she went home on Night One. But even dating shows that claim to be about personality seem allergic to anyone whose body might actually resemble the average audience member.

Love Is Blind, Netflix’s explosive phone-booth-based dating show, went viral when it premiered last February. But critics observed that its purported goal seemed like a farce, given that everyone on the show was conventionally attractive and, once again, not just straight-sized but generally thin. This “social experiment” was never an experiment at all because the series already knew the answer to its own question—an answer programs like these routinely create by refusing to acknowledge that, yes, fat people can be hot, fall in love, and be horny and messy, too.

When Too Hot to Handle debuted last spring, it was therefore no surprise to find that all of the “hotties” seemed to share the same build: slender and toned. One contestant’s description of his “type” during the premiere could have doubled as the show’s credo: “I like model-looking girls,” he said. “Skinny.” Charming!

But the absurdity peaked with Netflix’s newly released Sexy Beasts—which dares to put conventional hotties in furry costumes to finally answer the question, “Could you fall in love with someone based on personality alone?” Never mind that the first subject is a literal model, and that everyone who comes afterward satisfies all the same norms.

The continual disinterest in people who actually look like the general population perpetuates the discrimination fat people face every day.

One might fairly wonder how well such methods could ever test Sexy Beasts’ purported hypothesis—but once again, that would require believing that the premise is sincere to begin with.

Reality TV as a genre has made a lot of money by stigmatizing fat people. The Biggest Loser, which debuted on NBC and still airs new episodes on the Peacock-owned USA, encourages viewers to gawk as contestants adopt punishing and legitimately dangerous health regimes that have left contestants with long-term health issues. And TLC has essentially built a cottage industry of these shows, with programs including The 650-Pound Virgin and Honey, We’re Killing the Kids.

Reality television might not be a bastion of empathy, but just as Black contestants’ absence from The Bachelor reflects a systemic issue, the constant erasure of fat people in reality dating speaks to another prejudice. America’s hatred of fat people is ingrained in every aspect of our daily life—fat jokes still permeate our media, airlines still refuse to make seats big enough for all passengers, and retailers still work overtime to make finding decent clothing even for average-sized bodies impossible. Fat people have been found to earn less money on average, and doctors’ dismissive attitudes toward patients deemed overweight is also well documented.

But curvy contestants’ absence from the reality dating scene might be a mercy compared to watching them navigate these shallow, often exploitative environments. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which fat shaming does not follow—and there’s already plenty of that to go around in entertainment.

And as we’ve seen before, shows created specifically to highlight fat people’s love lives reliably offend more than they illuminate. Consider, for instance, Fox’s More to Love, which premiered in 2017. (The show’s original title? The Fatchelor.) Although the women on the show were all beautiful, fat activist Mariane Kirby noted in a review for The Daily Beast, the show also made a cruel joke of their size with frequent, lingering close-up shots of food.

“Does every fat woman have a story about the date invite that was actually a humiliating joke? What about the one where the fat girl strikes up a conversation with the cute guy at the bar… and he asks for her thin friend’s phone number? I try to remember that meeting a good partner is a challenge for everyone, but it’s hard in the face of these stories not to feel like the show’s producers are conflating ‘fat women’ with ‘pathetic, sad women’ and leaving it at that,” Kirby wrote.

In 2019 TLC released a trailer for Hot and Heavy, a reality program centered on “mixed-weight” couples. In all three couples, it was the women who were plus-sized. Viewers were not amused, and called for the series to be canceled before it aired in 2020. The three episodes premiered in January anyway.

To really subvert these failures, fat people need to be in the driver’s seat—behind the camera and in front. We don’t need The Fatchelor; we need even just one dating show that treats size like the non-issue it is. We need even just one project that acknowledges that fat people are hot, go on dates, and have sex. (And not awkward, timid sex, either.) Instead of folding a plus-sized model or two into The Bachelor as competitors, we need to see a diverse cast vying for their affection. Until we do, the only thing these “social experiments” prove is how much a large swath of this country hates itself.