Operation Fat-shame Nation: Ireland’s attempts on ‘making the nation’ thin is grossly problematic

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 participant 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 television’s role in examining diet culture and weight loss, we can see why the everyday person thinks fat shaming behaviour is acceptable. Speaking to The University Observer, UCDSU Welfare Officer Melissa Plunkett said that fat shaming can be seen “across all media platforms” and that it can often “be linked to weight loss rather than being healthy.”

These shows tend to begin with the audience viewing the participants lifestyle prior to the introduction of the show’s concept. 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. Series such as Supersize vs Superskinny and You Are What You Eat, will exhibit the participants 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, trainer on The Biggest Loser, which has a title that is itself questionable, has said that the participants will workout 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 them on television for them to become healthy? 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.” In one episode, the Operation Transformation diet plan followed a young teen, with Dr. Eva Orsmond telling a participant that being on your period was not an excuse for not reaching your weekly target. The lesson is clear, that failure is not acceptable and fat people are fat simply because they don’t work hard enough.

Going forward, Melissa Plunkett says that talking about the issues will help to break down the societal pressures that we are faced with. She says that the SU tries to “promote healthy eating in general, it’s not about weight loss and it’s not about changing your body, it’s about being well within yourself. For Mind, Body & Soul this year, I’m hoping to highlight the kind of impact that media can have on body image.”

What these television 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. Let’s start asking ourselves if the T.V. show our families are addicted to is coming from a good place or a cruel one.