Reality Shows About the Obese: Empowering or Exploitative?
A couple of months ago, one of my patients alerted me to the fact that a new TV reality show was about to launch. She was intrigued by the title, HEAVY, and scoped out the teasers wanting to know what I thought. I decided to rustle up a number of my patients to watch the show for six weeks and study their comments.
Shows like this are of particular interest to me because, as many of you know, I live in the world of TV reality shows dealing with health and fitness. I am the featured physician on Discovery’s National Body Challenge series and host of Could You Survive?, which was based on my book Fit to Live. I have spent years working on camera with individuals, families and kids who were striving to shed weight and lead healthier lives. I have been honored to share so much time with real people slugging it out at homes, and in schools and worksites, all of which are veritable mine fields of temptation and sedentary lifestyle. In every season we shot, there was always endless drama and trauma as each individual took on their own demons and worked hard to make even the smallest sustainable change in their behavior.
With the advent of so many obesity-related shows (e.g. Ruby, Biggest Loser, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, More to Love, Dance Your Ass Off, Making the Curve, One Big Happy Family, etc.), many wonder if it’s right to turn being overweight or obese into entertainment. Are these shows empowering or exploiting people?
So, it was with interest that I viewed this new show. I found it somewhat ironic that it airs right after Intervention and occurs on the same network as Hoarders and Scared Straight. From addiction to obsessive behaviors, everyone’s battling their demons. Now it was time for the “heavies”.
The show’s template is to take two very large people, a man and a woman, away from their homes to a lovely spa-like facility where they were to spend one month on a boot camp type of weight loss program, then go home to spend the next 5 months completing their mission. If they gained weight, they had to return to the facility and regroup. The people who were chosen are severely obese, with average weights in the range of 400-600 pounds. Throughout each hour-long episode, there are frequent moments of what seems to be embarrassing over exposure of the participants, with numerous half-naked shots revealing enormous rolls of fat. If the producers wanted shock value, they achieved their goal.
Heavy’s first six weeks were filled with the usual overly buffed-bodied screaming, ranting, raving trainers. Most of the time, the participants were sweatin’ it somewhere — weights, “dreadmill”, pool, outdoor paths. The man and woman in each show repeatedly noted that they felt addicted to food, and that food had become the default for life’s stresses as well as pleasures. Yet, despite their pleading for help, all they seemed to experience was a grueling workout schedule, the usual low calorie cuisine, and occasional interactions with a thin, bearded therapist who never smiled, lacked compassion and didn’t offer desperately needed words of wisdom. No wonder that after having endured 30 days of boot camp weight reduction, the participants when sent home to fend for themselves regained weight. Biceps curls, although integral to physical health, don’t help to change eating behavior. Here are some of the comments from my patients:
“I watched it finally, and I sure have some thoughts. I was pretty frustrated throughout the show; it was so heavily focused around WEIGHT being the only important measure of success. They called the people food addicts, but they didn’t address how they should address that or any of their emotional issues. You don’t get to be that overweight without serious emotional stuff going on and that wasn’t addressed. They paired these guys with buff trainers who pushed them, and a super skinny dietician, which is just like every network weight loss show/competition, then they wrapped it all up nicely in an hour. Again, the focus being weight loss as the indicator for success. I felt so bad for these people and confused about what message this show is trying to send to overweight people. That if you’re in a very controlled environment with expensive buff professionals pushing and guilting you that you can lose weight? One valuable thing was the woman’s statement in the end of one episode that you need a community around you to really make a lasting change. “ Hillary
“At no point did this program actually represent any of these individuals in a beneficial capacity (imparting valid instruction/information that folks at home could actually consider implementing themselves). Instead we were presented with an unemotional shrink, two bombastic and in-your-face boot camp style trainers who were stressing the emotions and physical capabilities of their trainees, and a nutritionist who (apparently) did not impart any nutrition or eduction. Instead took a woman who had no newly established responses against her food addictions into the ICE CREAM section to show her the error of her ways”. Monique
“As an obese person, it was a smack in my face to see how another person’s negative comments affected one of the contestants workout the next day. That emotional baggage made her physically weak. I act like I’m so strong, but I’m really hiding, trying to prevent myself from getting hurt again, when I’m not really living either; I’m surviving. I guess I don’t really want to admit that my emotinal state is what I am allowing to control my life and the armor of flesh that I have been protecting myself with is actually the very thing that is actually killing me. I could really relate to one of the contestants struggles. She was really courageous to put all her ’stuff’ out there and be vulnerable. It made me recognize that I’m not going to move forward without getting help to let go of the emotional baggage, the armor of flesh I hold onto so tightly.” Samantha
“So…where do we talk about addiction, I wondered. When do the endocrinologist and addiction therapist come in and talk about why food is such a turn-on and what withdrawal is like? They don’t. On Heavy, the trainers, nutritionist (who has a token appearance because, well, she’s just not as exciting as the raging drill sergeants) and producers are in charge, and they use the word “addiction” because it opens gory promises of drama to the (talk about insatiable) viewer. “ Frances
After I’d all but given up on this show, I’m happy to report that the show’s team must have gotten the message and dumped the boot camp trainers and completely switched locations to a weight management facility with compassionate trainers, nutritionist and mental counselors. The show still doesn’t provide viewers with enough tools, tips and techniques to help foster behavioral change at home. It’s still too centered on gym workouts and fitness training. But, it’s a fathom leap better than the first half of the season.
Here’s what I would recommend TV producers need to consider as they think about creating any show about obesity:
1) Avoid Exploiting: It’s imperative to honor the dignity of people on these shows. They are human beings who are suffering and in mental and physical pain. I’m not sure how valuable it is to have women hike up their clothes to show endless mounds of fatty rolls, or men to be videotaped almost naked struggling to get out of bed. This is controversial. On the one hand, the shock of visualizing their bodies could knock a viewer into reality and get them motivated to change. On the other hand, many obese feel it’s voyeuristic and humiliating. Regardless, I’m simply arguing for TV folks to think twice and do everything that’s possible to avoid exploitation of their participants. This isn’t entertainment. This kind of TV should be educational, motivational and inspiring. That’s the kind of show we’d come back to again and again.
2) Educate and Empower: As my patients’ comments noted, the TV viewer wants take-home lessons from each episode. There should be discussions about food addictions, the biology as well as the psychology of over eating, and simple, practical take-aways regarding nutrition and physical activity. Viewers also want to know that they have the power within them to make changes that will save their lives and improve the quality of their daily living. When you see the face of someone who is successfully working to change their mental, nutritional and physical activity behaviors, the enthusiasm and passion are infectious. You see the glow of new enlightenment. You also see the reality of life — the price you must pay to make the changes and sustain them for a lifetime. This includes leaving relationships that don’t support your healthy lifestyle, and changing everything from careers to where you live. That’s why it’s imperative to have the coaching and education from a great show to help guide people as they try to navigate life’s challenges every single day.
Each person has the power to pull this off. Anything on TV should be supporting this goal, not detracting from it.