Last night, ABC Family debuted Huge, the latest teen tale from the producers/creators of Gossip Girl and from the writers behind My So Called Life. Defying an important convention of the teen genre, the show doesn’t feature prom queens and rich girls – it features teens who are sent to “fat camp” by parents who fear for their kids’ health (and if the characters’ confessions are to be believed, are ashamed of their unsuccessful children).
But will tweens and teens make Huge a hit the size of its name? It’s a little too soon to tell. While Huge might feature an unexpected cast, it does deal with the hierarchies that inevitably develop when teens congregate. In this case, the skinniest girl is crowned queen bee in the first few minutes of the series. The show promises love triangles, power struggles and underdogs who get their shot. And, with Nikki Blonski of Hairspray fame playing the central role of Willamina (“Will”), we might see some singing.
And whether or not the show stands out among summer shows, it’s sure to spark debate and hopefully, dialogue, about its central theme. We think body issues and weight are in the Zeitgeist more than they have been in a while. For as long as this latest cohort of kids has been in school, we’ve been encouraging them to be healthier. But while we agree that childhood obesity is one of the most pressing public health issues in a decade, we also wonder if we haven’t inadvertently exacerbated the anxiety that tweens and teens already feel about their appearance.
Tweens’ and teens’ concern – or rather, obsession – with their body might not be news, but the latest numbers from YouthBeat show just how hard it is to embrace Huge’s mantra: love thy body. While 51% of elementary school kids agree that they are “happy with the way they look,” this number drops to 30% for middle schoolers and to 18% for high schoolers. And the number one and number two things that kids, tweens and teens want to change about themselves are “my weight” and “my appearance.”
So is Huge sending youth mixed messages? Love how you look, but go to our website for healthy snack recipes. Aspire to be Will, who rebels against a camp counselor and her parents who she describes as “demanding that she hates her body.” Laugh and cheer as Will becomes the camp cupcake “dealer,” but share in her regret when her cabin-mate gets sent home for Bulimia.
What I love about the series, at least based on the first episode, is that the show not only allows, but assumes that this issue is more complex than it seems. In an almost dizzying way, you’re set up to despise Amber, the girl who seems to be there to lose just a few pounds, but you’re ultimately drawn to her struggle to really diet and really gain control over her eating. You’re asked to side with Will as she displays her bod in a striptease (down to her bathing suit – this is ABC Family!), but you’re confronted with her admission of vulnerability and shame. Beyond building awareness of the feelings that kids who are struggling with obesity experience, the show seems to send a message that feels true and simple: what tweens and teens of all shapes and sizes really need is support.