One day in 2009, Eileen Haddrell was taking a break from working out when the phone rang. She had just sat down – the cat had just climbed on top of her – and the voice on the phone said, “Get off your bum and get back on that treadmill!”
The running machine was in Haddrell’s daughter’s living room, and there was a camera attached to her curtain pole. A crew member of the Sky One reality show Fat Families had been watching Haddrell exercise – they’d given her the call. So she got off her bum. She got back on the treadmill. Nearby, a framed picture of a pointing blond man read, “NO MORE EXCUSES / MELT THAT FAT!”.
Fat Families was a short-lived weight loss show that aired in 2010. Self-described “no-nonsense fat buster” Steve Miller would spend time with overweight families, educating them about diet and exercise before giving them a couple of months to lose weight. In many ways, the format was identical to countless other diet shows in the era – in one crucial way, it was not.
“Watch out massive fatties, I’m coming to get you!” Miller said at the beginning of the 45-minute episode that featured Haddrell and her relatives. Within five minutes, Miller called the family “merry munchers”, “fatties,” the “hefty Haddrells” and a “lardy lot”. Arguably, the Haddrells got off easy. On Twitter and TikTok, clips from Fat Families are going viral as people marvel that something so “ruthless” aired just over a decade ago.
“I’m going to be meeting some right beach blubber bellies,” Miller said at the beginning of one episode; “These fatties haven’t seen their feet for years” he said in another. “Wobblers”, “lazy lardies”, “massive fatties”, and “jelly-bellied jumbos” were all insults bandied about on the show.
Haddrell didn’t mind Miller’s insults – she says she and her family got on “really, really well” with the presenter. The 62-year-old from Bedford also found the “get off your bum” call to be good-natured and jokey, though she “felt as if I had to be doing what I was told to be doing.” If someone made a similar call today, she’d instead say, “Up yours, I’m having a bloody rest!”
Fat shaming was a mainstay of British television in the 2000s, from Gillian McKeith’s poo-probing You Are What You Eat in 2004 to Anna Richardson’s surveillance-heavy Secret Eaters in 2012. Still, even at the time, Fat Families was shocking – The Northern Echo said it was “toe-curlingly honest” while the Guardian speculated that the show was a spoof.
Why did people apply to participate in Fat Families, and more pressingly, how did the show affect their lives? Today, many marvel that the show was ever allowed to air. What happened behind the scenes, and what’s happening now that clips are resurfacing online?
“Unfortunately, it’s never gone away,” says Tarnya Cuff, a 52-year-old from Shropshire who appeared in the first ever episode of the show. Cuff applied to be on Fat Families because she was “desperate” – in November 2008, she slipped, broke her leg and dislocated her ankle; immobile while recovering, she gained three stone. “I kind of figured that [going on the show] was my only choice at the time,” Cuff says. “I just didn’t expect it to go the way that it did.”
Haddrell – who also appeared in season one of Fat Families – says she applied in order to have access to dieticians, personal trainers and doctors. Neither Haddrell or Cuff have any complaints about the crew, and both had psychological assessments to ensure they were stable enough to appear on the show. Yet both also felt misrepresented in their episodes.
“They hammed it up an awful lot,” Cuff says. In the first half of every episode, Miller observes a family’s eating habits. “They made us go round the supermarket and throw things into the trolley that we wouldn’t put in the trolley,” Cuff says. Haddrell and her family had a favourite garden centre where they would either eat lunch or have coffee and cake – while filming the show, they were told to have both, one after the other. Haddrell claims producers would encourage her to add extra portions to her plate or bake more than she normally would.
A crew member who worked on Fat Families recalls producers “dialling up” the amount contestants ate, saying things such as, “Why don’t you add a couple of extra sausages to your plate?”. (The crew member asked to remain anonymous to avoid career repercussions.)
Cuff has also seen TikToks of a scene where she asked her son to bring her a multipack of crisps, but she says the show only made it seem like she has her children at her beck and call: “That wasn’t true at all.”
In the second half of the show, participants are put on a diet plan and their homes are kitted out with surveillance cameras and treadmills (Haddrell says these are taken away after filming – she was allowed to keep a Wii Fit Balance Board, but not a Wii, rendering it useless). Cuff says she developed sciatica from exercising – although she was put on painkillers, producers told her to continue working out.
“They kept tabs on you quite a lot,” Haddrell says, relaying the story about the phone call. Cuff claims she was told to skip meals, while Haddrell says the show’s diet plan was unsustainable in the long term, “because you were cutting out absolutely everything”.
After the show aired, Cuff began taking antidepressants. She says her experience on Fat Families caused her to berate herself while making food, affecting her mental health. Viewers also reported her to social services for ordering her children about on the show.
Cuff says her “biggest regret” is that the show’s lasting impact on her eldest son, who was filmed bringing her the crisps. “It doesn’t go away for him,” Cuff says, “It’s just awful.” Her son experienced teasing at school, as did other contestants’ children.
Two former Fat Families participants declined to be interviewed because of the impact the show had on their lives. “On reading your message I actually felt sick to the pit of my stomach,” one wrote. “That show can only be described as social suicide… It made my children’s lives a living nightmare.” Another wrote: “The program still haunts us as it continues to be shown 12 years on. I promised my family I would never do anything like it again.”
Despite some negative experiences, Haddrell says that overall the show was a “positive experience” for her family. She was troubled by the underpants contestants had to wear in one section of the show – custom “awful pink bikini things” that she felt she had “no choice” but to put on.
Still, “it’s nice that certain things have stayed with me”, she says, explaining that the show helped her reconsider negative habits. “Obese people get very much into their own routine,” she says, “Sometimes you need something to take you out of that to give you a little bit of perspective.” Thanks to the show, Haddrell continues to visualise weight lost in packs of butter.
Darrel Parker is a 46-year-old from Derby who also looks back fondly at this time on Fat Families. “I loved taking part in it,” Parker says – he describes himself as a competitive person and says he enjoyed trying to lose more weight than his sister. Parker does recall that a producer once “had a right go” at him for eating an ice cream while on the show’s diet plan, and “that was the only time I was a little bit annoyed”. His children also experienced “a little bit of bullying at school”. Otherwise, he has no complaints and believes reality weight loss shows can be educational.
The anonymous Fat Families crew member felt that producers did truly want to help participants and have a “positive effect” on lives. They say the production didn’t feel too exploitative or manipulative. They recall an incident where some participants didn’t want to be filmed in their underwear for the show, so the director did it first to make them comfortable. Overall, the crew member felt that participants and crew had “a good relationship”, but at times the show “edged into shaming territory”. Still, they added, “I think it’s aged quite badly.”
TikTok seems to agree. Parker didn’t mind Miller’s insults, and neither did Haddrell, who says the presenter was supportive behind the scenes. Cuff was more negatively affected by the language on the show. “You never need to name call somebody that’s already in a bad place,” she says. “For me to allow myself to be called a ‘massive fatty’ publicly, and ‘lardy’ and things like that, showed at the time the level that I was at.”
Miller – who used to be overweight before losing over four stone – continues to work as a weight loss coach and hypnotherapist. He recently appeared on Good Morning Britain and said that people with a BMI over 40 should be refused service at fast food restaurants.
Miller initially agreed to a phone interview but then asked to answer questions via email through a Sky PR. Sky declined to put Miller or anyone else who worked on the show forward for interview because Fat Families “hasn’t aired since 2010”, although reruns appear to have aired up till 2018. In a July tweet, Miller said he “loved” presenting Fat Families, and compared it to Little Britain: “I doubt it would ever be recommissioned!”
A spokesperson for Outline Productions, the company who created the show, said: “We take pride in the care with which our programmes are made. In the case of Fat Families, which was produced in 2010, we built close relationships with the contributors over many months – they understood the context and nature of their involvement.
“They were happy with the final shows, in which they were given detailed medical insight into their health and bespoke healthy eating and exercise regimes which led to significant health and wellbeing benefits. We are not aware of any complaints made in the 12 years since the series was first transmitted.”
Cuff lost around five stone on Fat Families, but afterwards gained back eight and a half stone. “The weight you lose in that short amount of time is because you are literally put on a harsh crash diet,” she says, “The pressure to do what they got you to do was quite horrific, really.” In 2013, she had weight loss surgery and is now happy with her quality of life.
Haddrell also gradually gained back the weight she lost on the show, and wishes she had been offered aftercare so the results were sustainable. Three years ago, she had a gastric bypass. Parker’s weight has continued to fluctuate since he appeared on Fat Families: “Weight has been an issue in my life and it always will be,” he says.
For six years, researchers from America’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases followed 14 former contestants of the US weight loss show The Biggest Loser. In 2016, they published their findings: Most subjects had “regained a significant amount of the weight lost during the competition”. A January 2022 study from the same lead researcher, Kevin Hall, argued that the “large, sustained increases in physical activity” on the show slowed contestants’ metabolic rates in the long term. In practice, this means contestants now have to adhere to an extremely low-calorie diet in order to maintain weight loss.
Dieting shows have not disappeared from British television: 2019 saw the launch of BBC Scotland’s bizarre Secret Body, in which participants lose weight over the course of 12 weeks but wear “fat suits” in order to hide their transformation from loved ones. In January, You Are What You Eat was revived by Channel 5 after 15 years off air, though new hosts Trisha Goddard and Amir Khan promised a more scientific and empathetic approach. It is unlikely that a show like Fat Families would air today, but it is equally unlikely that fat-shaming will disappear from our airwaves any time soon.
Despite her experiences, Cuff doesn’t necessarily regret appearing on Fat Families. “I don’t wish I’d never done it,” she says, “because how would we learn from things otherwise?” Still, from the very beginning, “I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do.” Why did she do it? “Sometimes,” she says, “when you’re in a desperate place, you do things you think are going to help.”
Correction as of 29/9/22: A previous version of the article referred to a falsely edited TikTok clip from the show. This has now been removed, and we apologise for the error.