Plus-Size Women, Reality TV: Is the Exposure Always Good?

More To Love/Reality Series

Watching a 33-year-old mom clad in a Catholic school girl's uniform gyrate her perhaps size 16 hips on a stripper pole begs many questions, but none (no pun intended) bigger than these:

Why, and for what purpose?

The answer seems easy on the surface. The mom in question was, at the time, a contestant on "Dance Your A** Off," the Oxygen network's uber successful reality competition in which overweight contenders attempt to shimmy and shake off extra pounds. An amalgam of "The Biggest Loser" and "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dance Your A** Off" debuted on Oxygen in June, setting a network record of 1.3 million total viewers with its first episode.

Simple enough, right? She wanted to lose weight and reveled in doing it for the cameras; Oxygen figured out a formula to boost ratings.

But once you get beyond the superficial, figuring out the "why and for what purpose" can get more murky. The question doesn't just apply to "Dance Your A** Off," which, to be fair, features male and female contestants -- it goes for most of the small but growing genre of overweight-and-on-camera reality TV, notably "More to Love," the new FOX series in which full-figured women compete for the heart of a similarly hefty bachelor.

For Sally Ann Salsano, the executive producer of both shows, the goal is altruistic.

"These shows are about teaching you to be OK with yourself," she said. "That you don't have to be stick thin to find love or be healthy, and getting those things doesn't have to be a miserable process."

Plus-size ladies surround "More to Love's" bachelor, Luke Conley, at a mixer.

Others, like Samhita Mukhopadhyay, editor of the blog Feministing.com, wonder if audiences absorb a different message.

"These people put themselves on display in a way that viewers just eat up. Sometimes I cringe because it seems so humiliating for the person," she said. "It speaks to the general anxiety of fat women: You're a slob, you can't find love, you hate yourself."

It all boils down to the question of "fatsploitation": Do shows like "More to Love," "Dance Your A** Off" and other similarly premised reality TV competitions exploit the size of their female contenders for entertainment value?

Here, the answers aren't simple at all. Take "More to Love": While on the one hand, it's refreshing to see, from a fairness perspective, that women who are not stick-thin size zeros can play the same courting games as their counterparts on "The Bachelor," listening to contenders in the introductory episode sniff and snivel, "I just want people to love me for me" and "I don't want to be alone, I really, really want to have that love story" makes them all seem pretty pathetic.

Luke Conley will whittle down the batch of contenders through the course of "More to Love."

"There were a lot of tales. It was very weepy," Emme, the plus-size model who hosts "More to Love," conceded about the show's premiere. "But I think that's reflective of what's going on -- the frustration, the self-loathing. It's a travesty that women above a size 12 feel like they can't find love."

"I wish that there were more self-esteem-infused girls on the show. They are not reflective of all full-figured women," Emme added. "I can't wait to see the 'Bachelorette' version of this. I would love to see a very confident woman owning her curvaceous body and trying to find a wonderful guy."

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