When Huge first appeared on my radar in 2010, I was still a blogger writing about fat activism while working an impossibly boring office day job. The series didn’t sound promising — the YA book providing the source material was panned as terrible and fat-hating by all the smart folks I knew who’d read it, and the first promotional image, featuring a sad-looking Nikki Blonsky standing apprehensively in a blue swimsuit, didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. I mean, to start with, it’s set over a summer at a weight-loss camp. This is hardly a good sign. I expected a typically depressing story of sad fat teens who uniformly hate themselves.
But then the tide started to shift: I learned the series was being co-developed by Winnie Holzman, who brought us the crucial 90s teen drama My So-Called Life, and her daughter, Savannah Dooley. The first trailer also looked a little more subversive than I expected.
Of course, the series wound up being something very different than even its network — at the time ABC Family, but today known as Freeform — expected or knew how to promote. I recapped it for the first time in 2010 when it first aired, back when I was writing recaps of things. It’s been awhile.
I’m not sure what inspired me to return to it now. In the six years that have passed, fat positivity has become far more mainstream — at the time of Huge’s original broadcast, there was a vibrant and active fat blogging community, but it was pretty small and it was also a little bit of an echo chamber. When a major publication occasionally took notice, it felt like a massive victory. But today you can find “body positive” articles that borrow heavily from original fat activist work on every women’s website from Refinery 29 to Bustle to Cosmopolitan. I feel like I helped lay some of that mainstreaming groundwork when I got a job at xoJane in 2011, a site that gave me absolute free reign to do all the fat positive work I wanted, and I took the opportunity to ask every fat blogger I knew to also write there, creating for awhile the impression that xoJane was a site just wall-to-wall with fat women, and idea that a lot of other publications had fun with.
But as time passed, and more people spoke up, the ideas spread, their popular acceptance slowly gaining ground. And of course there has been a lot of less explicitly political growth as well, particularly with the explosion of fat fashion influencers, bloggers and social media stars, who have done so much to bring fat acceptance into popular culture.
All of which is to say that Huge was even more of an anomaly in 2010, with its genuinely body-diverse cast and its willingness to explore a variety of experiences among fat teens, running the gamut from the stereotypically sad fat kid who wants to lose weight, to the messy reality of fat girls dealing with purging and restricting eating disorders, to the totally unexpected fat teen who doesn’t hate her body and thinks she’s fine as she is. And it explored other things too, becoming more a series about teenagers who happen to be fat, but who also have a lot of other typical teen stuff going on. I found myself wondering how Huge holds up six years later. Would I be more critical now than I was the first time around? Would the show look prescient, or super dated? And if I’m going to watch it, then I may as well recap it (or I guess re-recap it?) as well.
So! Here we are.
The series opens at the orientation and weigh-in at Camp Victory, a fat camp for teens. On this show, this translates to dozens and dozens of fat kids in swimwear, which in real life could be borderline traumatic, but for a TV series is still straight-up revolutionary even six years later. There’s an impressive diversity of shapes and sizes too — these aren’t a bunch of teenage Lena Dunhams struggling to normalize their already-pretty-damn-normal bodies. These are fat kids of every sort, walking around in a variety of swimsuits, being brave in that way that teenagers can be when they don’t know how brave they’re being.
Except for Will. Will (Nikki Blonsky) is chilling amongst the tankinis and swimdresses in Chucks, cargo shorts (LOL, it’s 2010 y’all) and a t shirt that looks like it came from Threadless before there were a dozen similar “art” t-shirt companies making bank by pilfering designs from Tumblr. Will is standing in line next to Becca (Raven Goodwin), who is trying to read a book while Will exorcises her horror at the situation she’s found herself in. From the jump Will is already talking trash: “You know, this could be my summer to gain weight. I feel like inside me there’s an even fatter person trying to get out.” She’s snarky and sharp edges and the most complete nihilistic teenage alienation packaged in one short fat girl. She’s impossible not to love.
Becca, bookish and shy and equally perfect in different ways, assures Will in her soft-spoken way that Camp Victory isn’t that bad. Most of the kids here want to be, it would seem, and they are friendly and engaging with each other, while Will stands alone in her cargo shorts of righteous indignation. Becca explains she lost weight last year, “but then I gained some of it back… basically all of it. But you meet people. People hook up.” She’s shifty-eyed here, and already we start to get hints that this is not going to be a show about a bunch of sad fat kids but a show about a bunch of teenagers whose summer excursion to fat camp is actually an escape, and not a prison.
Of course, it’s not a fat-kid utopia; our first glance at angelic blonde Amber (played by Hayley Hasselhoff) proves that beauty standards apply here too, they’ve just put on a few pounds. “You’re totally the thinnest girl here!” a fellow camper tells her right away, as though it is the highest possible praise.
Will doesn’t get far before she is stopped by Dr. Rand, who is Gina Torres, so you know she’s gonna be important. Indeed, Dr. Rand is the camp director, and she needs to impart to Will the importance of being in a swimsuit for her “before” picture: “This is the start of a very important journey and we ask that you begin by taking an honest look at yourself.” Did I mention they’re also photographing the fat half-naked teens? They totally are!
Will is all nah I’m good, and Dr. Rand is all no really, this is non-optional. So Will complies — by doing a noisy and exaggerated striptease in front of the whole camp. Please note: we are four minutes in, and a pointedly tomboyish fat girl is loudly performing hyperbolic feminine sexuality as a form of protest.
Some of the kids are horrified, many are mildly intrigued, others are cheering. Dr. Rand is not impressed. Will returns to collect her clothes and finally, when everyone’s attention is off her, she feels a chill of horror: “Oh my god. Why did I just do that?”
Will is off to settle in to her cabin, where she meets Poppy (Zoe Jarman), the impossibly cheerful counselor, who is now going to dig through their belongings to ensure that no one has brought any food into camp. Even gum. Even sugarfree gum. And “certain forms of lipgloss.” Amber has a toothpick. “Is it flavored?” Poppy asks, trying to assess the danger. Meanwhile, forward-thinking Will has smuggled candy inside a shampoo bottle, suggesting there’s more where that came from.
Oh hey, more characters to meet! There’s the Jillian Michaels clone who shrieks, “I’m Shay, your worst nightmaaaarrre!” at the campers after literally sprinting into the shot. Chloe Delgado (Ashley Holliday), one of the more conventionally pretty (and smaller) girls, enthuses to a friend, “She lives to make people cry. I love her!”
Shay (Tia Texada) explains how excited she is to torment our campers with the horror of physical movement, and then introduces her new assistant coach, George (Zander Eckhouse), who rounds a corner in slo-mo, with a stability ball under each arm, and a face that looks like a mad scientist’s experiment in boiling down an entire boy band and jamming all their combined inoffensive nonthreatening sexuality onto one carefully-tousled young man. When we cut back to Amber and Chloe, you can basically hear the tide rolling in.
George takes the kids on a cross-country run through the woods; some of the kids seem okay with it, and some are really struggling; mostly the nerdier ones. Alistair (played by the magical, wonderful Harvey Guillen) drops out to sit on a rock and catch his breath while Shay helpfully screams in his face and makes him do jumping jacks and it’s not the last time I will want to break Shay over my knee like a loaf of ciabatta, drag the resulting chunks through some good olive oil, and eat her.
At dinner, Chloe marvels at Amber’s slow eating. Amber explains she chews each bite thirty times, and that she’s been dieting since she was ten: “It’s probably the thing I’m best at.” She might even skip dessert! Will is quick on the draw here, volunteering to eat it for her, and Amber gives the notably fatter Will a withering look. “You really think that’s a good idea?” OH SNAP, do you know how many times I heard that growing up? Everybody wants you to think about whether eating is a good idea! If you’re fat, you should be able to subsist on air and self-loathing and the fear of Forever Alone doom.
Later, Will leaves the cafeteria and is stopped by Caitlin, one of Chloe’s friends. She wants to know if Will is “holding.” Ha, because junk food is drugs, get it? Caitlin is looking to buy. Will naturally starts dealing junk food out of one of the camp bathrooms in an adorable if fairly problematic and cartoonishly stereotypical montage.
A day or two later, some of the campers are sitting in a circle under some trees in a group sharing circle or whatever, and we get a proper introduction to Ian (Ari Stidham) for the first time. Ian is telling a story of the day he realized he was fatter than the “fat kid” at school; it’s a startlingly familiar story — as a fat teen myself I remember there was a kid in my year who was really fat, fatter than me, and I clung to this as evidence that I was okay, as long as someone else was fatter, as long as I wasn’t the fattest kid in school, like he could be the sponge to sop up all the fat-related bullying. It didn’t work. I still got bullied.
Dr. Rand wants to hear from Will next, and Will is ready to stick it to the calorie-restricting forced-jog man: “Everyone here wants us to hate our bodies. Well, I refuse to.” Dr. Rand argues that no should hate themselves, this is about health. Oh right. Will smirks and looks at svelte-by-comparison Amber and asks if she is here for her “health.”
Later, Will, having successfully alienated herself from almost everyone, is hanging out alone by a creek when she hears a guitar. She goes off in search of the source and discovers Ian in a boat. We should just get out of the way now that if Will is Huge’s version of a snarkier, more ballsy Angela Chase, then Ian is the Jordan Catalano, only not a giant lumbering douchebag filled with acid specially formulated to dissolve teenage girls’ hearts.
They bond over their shared appreciation of the Pixies (huh, this must be what it felt like for people in their 30s to hear sixteen-year-old me go on about how much I love The Clash). Ian confesses that he was scared to talk to Will, particularly after her aggressively fuck-you swimsuit dance the first day. Will is surprised. Oh girl, I feel you, I was intimidating my peers regularly in 1994. Have I mentioned yet how much I relate to Will? At her age I still hated being fat, but I had her fledgling sense of injustice that catching so much shit for my body was wrong, and also her simmering rage. Not to mention basically identical fashion sense. And I didn’t even look at an eyeliner pencil until college.
Amber breaks up the conversation by striding purposefully up to Will and telling her Dr. Rand wants to see her in her office, now. This is also a convenient moment to introduce our central love triangle; Ian looks at Amber with the expression of a boy utterly besotted, and I want to punch him in the face.
Dr. Rand reveals that Will is busted, somehow. She thinks Amber ratted her out. Dr. Rand makes veiled threats about having called her parents, and that she could be sent home. We don’t know much about Will’s family yet but there is a sense that this would not be the preferred outcome for Will.
In the TV room that evening, the boys are watching sportsball, and evidently Becca wants to watch some kind of sci-fi (?) show. I looove how nerdy Becca is. Becca won’t ask, of course, so Will strides over and inquires about the changing the channel, and is ignored. Seconds later, Amber and Chloe and Caitlin — the Fat Plastics of Camp Victory — slide in asking to watch something else and the boys roll over immediately. SO MANY BOY FACES I WANT TO PUNCH RIGHT NOW. Oh god we should just lock all straight teenage boys in boxes and not let them out until they’re 25 or even 30. Think of all the feminine self esteem that could be saved.
Suuuuper insecure Amber sits on a guy’s lap and it’s a big deal for her and she needs to process this extensively with her friends afterward. Man, I want to sympathize with Amber but it is hard.
In the cabin that night, Will confronts Amber about Dr. Rand’s discovery of her side hustle. Amber denies snitching, and shuts Will down utterly with a pretty classic “I don’t think about you at all” slam. Because the cabin is a big hexagon with like eight girls in it, everyone hears and exchanges glances. Will backs off and watches Amber do about a million years of meticulous body-checking in the mirror. Will seems to get an idea, and then goes to bed.
The next day, Will’s grand plan is to steal Amber’s teeny red shorts and shrink them by washing them in hot water, which is pretty insidious, I have to admit. As she’s following through, Caitlin appears, jittery like an addict, looking to score. I get that it’s trying to be satirical but this food-as-drugs thing is pretty frustrating and I’ll be glad when it’s over.
Obstacle courses today! As an adult this looks fun to me, but as a teen I would have been horrified. Amber is tugging at her ensmallened red shorts while Will looks smugly on. As Amber struggles to pull herself up a wall with a rope, dreamy assistant coach George gives her a boost. You know where this is going. Amber’s shorts split, and she is scandalized and runs off crying. Everybody laughs. Okay, that wrung a little bit of sympathy for Amber out of me. Even Will seems to feel bad.
George finds Amber, gives her his sweatshirt to tie around her waist, and tries to make her feel better by telling an embarrassing story of his own. He’s deaf in one ear so he mishears things sometimes, which explains why he thinks Amber’s name is “Sandra,” and it’s both annoying and understandable that she doesn’t correct him. (Also, on a barely related note, this scene is shot in this crrrrazy afternoon light that makes Hayley Hasselhoff look even more like a glowing golden angel than usual.)
Amber returns to the cabin cheered up, but everyone else is in chaos. Caitlin is gone, because Poppy learned she’d been purging, and bulimia is evidently against fat camp rules. When Poppy leaves to get Dr. Rand to explain, the girls process the situation (I forgot how much of this show is “girls processing”), detailing their suspicions of Caitlin’s eating disorder or lack thereof, even listing suggestive symptoms. The girls who were here last year already knew.
Everyone wonders who told on Caitlin; some of the girls, Will included, think it’s good someone told, so Caitlin could get help. But Chloe somewhat ominously intones that they don’t know anything, and “home is the last place she should be.” Amber blames Will for giving Caitlin food; Will blames Amber’s grotesque “thinspiration” gallery above her bunk. When Will tries to tear down Amber’s pictures of skinny girls’ thighs, Amber pulls her down and they both crash to the floor just as Dr. Rand comes in.
Will is all set with Camp Victory and is going to run away under cover of darkness; her plan is to hitchhike to her uncle’s house. She finds Ian to return a mix CD he loaned her; when he is confused, she explains she’s out, she’s done, this place is dead to her. Ian seems genuinely disappointed but y’know, he’s on Facebook. He lets her keep the mix.
Will makes her escape while everyone else is getting a lecture from Shay on the importance of warming up. Afterward, Amber approaches a crying Becca who confesses she’s the one who told on Will’s food stash — not to get Will in trouble, but because she couldn’t deal with knowing that stuff was around. Amber is all “yo Will sucks, it’s better she’s gone.” Then Amber confesses that she’s the one who told on Caitlin’s bathroom refunds because she didn’t know they’d kick her out.
Elsewhere, Will rolls into a diner and orders fries and a shake. It turns out Dr. Rand is here too, with the camp’s cook, Salty, who is also her dad. Aw. They have a strained relationship. Dr. Rand doesn’t see Will, so Will gets to overhear Dr. Rand’s efforts to engage her distant dad. Will tries to bounce but the waitress foils her, and now Dr. Rand has to have a heart-to-heart with her too. Dr. Rand is all disappointed-teacher and Will just looks tired. She refuses to eat in front of Dr. Rand and says, “I don’t want to change. Why should I? Just because my parents are ashamed of how I look?”
Part of me wants to tear into Dr. Rand right now: you send a kid home for having an eating disorder and you’re willfully ignorant of the many complex circumstances the teens in your care may be facing in their regular lives, from abusive parents to devastating bullying to depression and even suicidal ideation? I’m feeling kind of disgusted by this camp in general; why are there fat camps and not self-acceptance-and-effective-coping-strategies-development camps? Probably because the parents whose kids most need such a place would never send them there.
“I know you’re scared,” intones Dr. Rand.
“I’m not scared,” says Will, “I just think everything you stand for is crap.” Touché.
Dr. Rand brings Will back to camp and calls her parents, who don’t seem to particularly care where Will spends the summer so long as she’s out of their hair. After listening to Dr. Rand’s side of the conversation on the phone, Will realizes she hasn’t got a better option, and she asks if she can stay. Dr. Rand reluctantly obliges.
Will strides back into the cabin, and begins weaving a tale to Becca of how her efforts to escape were cruelly thwarted by Dr. Rand, and how she’s being forced to remain at camp. Will and Amber achieve a sort of tenuous truce when Will asks for one of Amber’s omnipresent toothpicks, and then after lights out, they discuss the chocolate shake Will left behind at the diner.
I remember what that was like. Talking about food you weren’t allowed to eat, living under a daily burden of no, no, I can’t have that, no. When you quit thinking of certain foods as forbidden and immoral, that food tends to stop mattering so much. In my early 20s, when I stopped restricting food and compulsively dieting, and ended so many socially-encouraged destructive behaviors I’d engaged in since I was 8 years old, I also stopped gaining weight. Nothing makes you want something like not being allowed to have it. When you learn that you can be relied upon to care for and feed your body — that you are not a monstrous storm of insatiable desires barely controlled — you also learn you can trust yourself to make choices. Do you want a chocolate shake? You can have one. Allowing yourself the option kills the idea of eating as protest, which was something I did a lot at Will’s age. I starved and restricted until I couldn’t stand being hungry anymore and when the urge to eat got to be too much, I would secretly buy and eat a two-pack of snack cakes I didn’t even like, but I ate them to make a point, to fight myself, to punish myself. I didn’t deserve things that were good, that tasted good, I could only eat things I hated. I was angry, and I wasn’t sure why, I just knew it didn’t feel fair. Nothing makes us hungrier than shame.
Will’s there too. But she has a lot of baggage to unpack still. Amber as well. And we’ve got nine more episodes for that to happen. I hope you stick around for it.
Want to watch along with me? You can buy Huge on iTunes. Or you can find a copy of the out-of-print DVD set on eBay. Or hypothetically you could pirate it somewhere, although maybe don’t because a lot of people worked very hard on this show, and you should pay them for it. Thank you.