By Joyce Dignam
Weight loss programmes are exploitative and sensationalist television, made for the
thin person’s entertainment. These shows operate under the guise of encouragement, health
and self-improvement but when you really look closely, you can see that the design of the
programmes often encourage unhealthy habits and portray the participants as a figure to be
mocked. It is becoming more and more apparent that our society dislikes overweight people.
Whether it’s telling them they’re bad role models simply for sharing photos of themselves on
social media, portraying their weight as the butt of a joke in film and television or erasing
them from popular culture in general. However, each time that this happens, the perpetrators of this hate deny there being any personal attacks based on weight and suggest that they are coming from a place of care, with the intention of encouraging the overweight person to better their health. When we examine diet culture and weight loss television’s role in it, we can see why the everyday person thinks fat shaming behaviour is acceptable.
Weight loss programmes tend to begin with showing us the participants lifestyle.
Rarely this is done with any sympathy and often their lifestyles and mocked and displayed in
an over the top fashion, such as rooting through their fridges or showing them gruesome
images of all the food they eat in a week piled together. Shows such as Supersize vs
Superskinny and You Are What You Eat, will exhibit the participant's lifestyle in such a way
as to shame them by using methods such as hidden cameras in their homes to catch them
eating foods they aren’t supposed to. Even the popular Operation Transformation, which
does seem to encourage Irish people of all shapes and sizes to work on a healthy lifestyle,
seems to have it’s faults.
We never seem to question why each participant must wear little to
no clothing whilst being weighed in front of a panel of fully clothed leaders. It could be
argued that this is done to highlight their weight and therefore their otherness. It does seem
somewhat degrading and pointless to watch someone discuss the triumphs and pitfalls of
their week whilst in ill fitting underwear. These sensationalist approaches fail to address the
why behind the what. These weight loss programmes ignore the reasons behind the
lifestyles that these participants have, telling the viewer that they don’t really have their best
interests in mind in the first place.
The food and exercise plans on these shows are not made to be sustainable but
rather made to get significant results, fast. Jillian Michaels, a trainer on The Biggest Loser,
which has a title that is itself questionable, has said that the participants will work out for four
to five hours each day. These workout plans are not maintainable and on these shows, we
see little evidence that any effort or training has been put into making the weight loss long
term, proving to us that the programmes do not have the participants best interests at heart.
Watching a participant lose a significant amount of weight after a gruelling week evokes a
more visceral reaction for the viewer than watching a person lose small amounts of weight
consistently. It’s like comparing a car chase or explosion in a film to the mundanity of a
character’s weekly routine; which one is more exciting?
Trainers and leaders on these programmes often demonstrate “tough love”, telling
the viewer that health, happiness and weight loss cannot be achieved from a place of
healthy encouragement. On one of the newest weight loss programmes, Revenge Body with
Khloe Kardashian, we see a trainer tell a young girl that she has to “tear you down to build
you back up”. Is this mindset really necessary to achieve weight loss goals? Why must we
break overweight people down to tears and shame on television for them to become
On the Operation Transformation food plan we are told that you must power
through any hunger you’re feeling and that “an extra piece of fruit in the first week or two
may help you get over the hump but ideally stick to two pieces of fruit/day in your two
snacks”. I remember following the Operation Transformation diet plan as a young teen and
watching Dr. Eva Orsmond tell a participant that being on your period was not an excuse for
not reaching your weekly target. Then I learned, along with many others that watch these
programmes, that failure is not acceptable and fat people are fat simply because they don’t
work hard enough.
What these T.V shows teach us is that the fat person is there to be mocked and their
weight is something that is a result of laziness. It tells us that the act of losing weight is the
most important thing and that the reasons behind it and any issues relating to it are to be
ignored because the most important part is the number on the scales. Overeating and not
looking after yourself are often signs of depression or lack of self-worth all of which are
ignored for entertainment purposes on these programmes. It’s no wonder that fat-shaming
has become normalised and is constantly being defended, when we look at how it is
infiltrated into the everyday household. This new year, let’s ask ourselves if the T.V show our
families are addicted to is coming from a good place or a cruel one.