Kate Tuttle: When I was in high school, an unpopular boy named John, chubby and bespectacled, took advantage of his parents' absence and threw a party. As seems to always happen when the adults are out of town, his suburban house was soon completely filled with teenagers; even in those pre-text, pre-Facebook days, our whole class knew to converge on John's house. A bunch of us were in the master bedroom, swilling beer and tipsily snooping through his mother's bedside table, when we found it: a snapshot of John, our host, shirtless and smiling, in front of a banner announcing that he and the other overweight teens in the picture were at fat camp. It wasn't called "Fat Camp," of course, but the picture couldn't have been more clear.
My friends and I took one look at the picture, shook our heads and put it back in the drawer. It was as if we had seen him naked -- we felt ashamed for him, as if we had crossed an embarrassing threshold. But I never forgot that picture, how John looked happy and proud in the company of other overweight teens, while in our school he was often picked on and alone.
"Huge," which debuts tonight on ABC Family, takes us all to fat camp. The hourlong drama follows a group of hefty teens at the fictional Camp Victory. It stars "Hairspray's" Nikki Blonsky. Although I haven't seen the show yet, promotional photos make it clear that the actors themselves are quite overweight, not your typical Hollywood versions of fat (like Renee Zellweger going from a size 0 to a size 6 to play Bridget Jones). While I applaud the realism of the casting -- and also the opportunity for actors of this size to get work -- I hope the show manages to avoid the two clichĂ©s it naturally faces: easy, tasteless jokes about obesity (like the sight gags that accompany any person of size in, say, an Adam Sandler movie) and glorification of a "big is beautiful" idea that ignores the very real health risks faced by the obese.
The truth is that America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic -- which is why fat camps for kids (and, increasingly, for adults as well) are big business. But outside of these protected environments, overweight teens face the same mixed messages we all do in this culture: an abundance of cheap, fatty foods and an entertainment industry that frankly promotes a beauty ideal unreachable by 99 percent of the population. It's hard enough to get through adolescence at an average size; for those who don't fit in due to weight, the teen years must be excruciating.
TV has been obsessed with weight in the past few years (witness the success of "The Biggest Loser," "Dance Your A** Off," "More to Love" and so on). But television has a hard time treating bigger people as if they're just, well, people. They have to fit some stereotype, whether it's for cheerful hilarity or disgusting laziness. If it can sidestep these clichĂ©s, "Huge" could be really beneficial -- a television show that shows overweight kids they're not alone, and that they're as varied and valuable as any other people their age.
In a nation struggling with obesity in all age groups, finding the right mix -- a message that promotes health and also healthy self-esteem -- will be as difficult as it is lifesaving.