Do Shows Focusing on Overweight Characters Further Obesity Problem?

When it comes to (over) weight-related shows on American television, there is quite the buffet selection.

We have NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and “Losing it With Jillian”; ABC Family’s drama “Huge”; TLC’s “One Big Happy Family; Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva”; Fox’s “More to Love;” CBS’s new sitcom “Mike & Molly;” The Style Network’s “Too Fat For 15”; VH1’s “Celebrity Fit Club” – and that’s just to name a few.

“These shows are exploring an issue that’s on the minds of millions of Americans every day – during meals and in between meals,” Todd Gold, Managing Editor for entertainment site told Pop Tarts. “From weight loss competition shows to a new sitcom such as ‘Mike & Molly,’ they’re looking at it from different angles. I think viewers look beyond stereotypes and see pieces of themselves in the characters or participants.”

According to the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an estimated 34.2 percent of U.S. adults over 20 years old are overweight, 33.8 percent are obese, and 5.7 percent are extremely obese. Some experts feel that TV's "fat trend" makes some viewers feel okay being at an unhealthy weight.

“I believe that this new wave of entertainment focusing on those that are overweight will do nothing except showcase human flaws for the sole purpose of profiteering,” education expert Dr. Janet R. Wojtalik said. “Promoting a healthy lifestyle with healthy values and healthful messages will do more for our society than promulgating entertainment based on someone's unhealthy condition. I truly hope the media messages of the future are not 'it is trendy to be fat'!”

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Celebrity trainer Jackie Warner, author of  “This is Why You’re Fat (And How to Get Thin Forever)” and star of Bravo’s new “Thintervention,” supports weight-centered shows, but believes Hollywood has a responsibility to paint a positive picture.

“I’m supportive of all types of actors getting work. What it really comes down to is how the characters on these shows deal with their weight issues,” she said. “I don’t think television shows which feature heavily overweight or obese characters embracing their weight problem as an acceptable lifestyle sends the right message.”

CBS’s sitcom “Mike & Molly” isn’t like weight-loss shows like “The Bigger Loser” and “Celebrity Fit Club,” which focus on fed-up individuals amid the “life changing” pursuit of a healthier existence. Instead it is about two characters simply trying to accept themselves the way they are -- fat and all.

“The show isn’t about weight, it is a show about people who are trying to make their lives better – it is about real people with real problems that a lot of people can relate too, and I don’t think it is in anyway adding to the epidemic,” a source close to the show told us. “It isn’t a show about weight, it is a show about people who didn’t know if they could find love.”

But according to Wojtalik, that concept could potentially be dangerous.

“I really don't think that watching a TV show centered around an obese couple's relationship will boost an overweight person's self esteem or self-acceptance,” she said. “Besides, do we really want our children accepting obesity? Should any of us be 'comfortable' with obesity? With the influx of technology we are creating a new breed of video couch potatoes. Telling our children that weight doesn't matter because 'fat people can fall in love too'  is just wrong.”

But Los Angeles-based psychologist Dr. James Walton believes the surge of shows weight-centric programming is actually a positive step in conquering America’s preoccupation with body image and acceptance.

“People who are overweight often have low self-esteem issues that are either part of the cause or part of the result of their being overweight. The shaming that overweight people have experienced in modern culture has not helped with their health issue of being overweight.  These shows can help to take some of the stigma away from overweight people by normalizing them to the general population,” Walton explained. “It might help to make their lives more tolerable socially.  I think these are good steps into portraying people in all walks of life as human beings with feelings and valid lives."

Josh Berman, creator of Lifetime’s "Drop Dead Diva,” feels his drama/comedy about a deceased “shallow” model brought back to earth as an overweight lawyer to discover the meaning of inner beauty encompasses “so much more than weight.”

“Yes, our star is plus size and that is one aspect of her character, but I like to think that our show deals with issues of identity and being plus size is just one adjective to describe a very interesting and complex character,” Berman said.

So can we expect to see more shows with plus-sized stars? It depends on if people watch the ones out there now.

“Ratings are the true marker," said Gold. "As long as people continue to tune in, it will continue to be explored on TV.”

"Mike and Molly" star Bill Gardell told the Associated Press last week that he "would hope that if this show does anything, it's not going to start a trend of 90 shows about fat people, because that's not what we're about."

- Deidre Behar contributed to this report