As a child of the 1980s and '90s, I routinely saw a handful of plus-sized bodies on my MTV interspersed between taut video vixens and studs. The Fat Boys. Heavy D (rest in peace). Missy Elliott. Biggie Smalls, Fat Joe, and Big Pun. Since then, MTV has ceased playing videos and has cornered the young, thin, and vapid reality television market with The Hills, The City, and The Real World/Road Rules series and spin-offs. For a while it seemed like its broadcast schedule would be filled only with budget Abercrombie & Fitch body types.
While the cable channel's bread and butter still very much revolves around this conventional sense of "hotness" and generally poor programming choices (see: the dramatic rendering of the Teen Wolf franchise -- yes, Teen Wolf), it has also become a surprising go-to platform for weight-related series and specials that don't involve cash prizes and egregious product placement. MTV still makes some missteps -- like featuring most of its plus-sized bodies as subjects of weight loss who are disappointed with their appearance and quite less often as folks who are happy and healthy -- but for a channel that pays uneducated teen moms to be dysfunctional in front of a camera, it has some fairly insightful body-related moments.
Fat Camp and Return to Fat Camp
This set of 2007 reality specials followed teenagers at a weight-loss camp for one summer. Despite weigh-ins in front of a panel of staff members, mandatory aerobics, and low-cal cafeteria food, the show succeeded in revealing how kids are kids: They gossip and make out, and they sulk just like peers who aren't trying to drop some pounds. The campers' revelations on camp as a refuge from body-related teasing at home -- yet, ironically also a place for them to do some teasing of their own -- emphasizes how adolescence can suck and how adolescents can be resilient.
This documentary series is probably the least manipulated reality programming on the channel -- and sometimes quite profound in its examinations of issues such as addiction, poverty, incarceration, and living with disabilities. It has featured multiple episodes on people who are content with being plus-sized or overweight, struggling to lose weight, obsessed with exercise, or learning to adjust to new bodies. Its fly-on-the-wall presence shows the good, bad, ugly, and humane sides of its subjects and their stories.
The teen transformer series MADE has featured several awkward, inactive youth who train to become athletes, dancers, or pageant contenders with nutrition and exercise usually an integral part of their regimens. The structure is pretty fabricated (let's just say, those Prom King votes for the school outcast/foremost Star Wars expert are probably influenced by MTV cameras), but it's refreshing to see young folks push their physical and social limits.
I Used to Be Fat
This series hooks up high school seniors with personal trainers to lose weight and gain confidence before starting college. The series, in its second year, makes for a refreshingly wholesome take on weight loss. The show also captures the real-life distractions from weight loss -- just wanting to veg out instead of hiking up a big ass hill, or living with family members who want to mercilessly eat Ben & Jerry's in front of you.
This plus-sized, working-class, woman of color answer to Lauren Conrad moves from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles to pursue a career in fashion with no money, no network, and a weight of 324 pounds. Though there's something to be said for seeing a non-white, non-upper-middle-class gal with a different body type try to "make it," the show is still as manipulated as its The Hills and The City brethren in pre-planning Chelsea's every move and opportunity. The show also set a less than progressive tone at the beginning of the season by shooting the obligatory shaming scenes of an overweight person gorging on junk food at a drive-thru and later crying on the scale. While this journey to get healthier is certainly part of the story arc, I'm not sure why MTV felt the need to kick off the series on an exploitative note.
The Jersey Shore
Hear me out on this one. While most of the cast adheres to the ethos of Gym, Tanning, and Laundry, there's something empowering about seeing self-proclaimed "meatballs" Snooki and Deena traipse through Jersey, Miami, and Italy in whatever they want to wear and declare their love for their bodies, which are quite average compared with those of their overly chiseled castmates. Of course, it's hard to see those bodies behind the digital blur when their genitalia is exposed at the club, but their confidence is something to behold.