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Dr. Binks Blog

The Exploitation of Obesity: Why Reality Weight Loss TV is a National Disgrace

Posted on April 26, 2012 by admin

Given the recent study published in Obesity showing negative impacts of “reality” weight loss TVI thought it fitting to re-publish one of my early reactions to these programs.

 (Article originally released September 2007)

 As the new season of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” unfolds, ask yourself this: would I want to watch my child, my sibling, my loving partner, my friend — who struggles daily with the physical, mental and emotional ramifications of a life-threatening illness — treated this way? The program, which capitalizes on one of the fastest-growing epidemics in our country, is the latest example of how the sideshow mentality and sensationalistic abuse of reality television has gone too far. Several years ago when programs like ‘The Real World” and “Survivor” began to place real people in contrived situations with cameras rolling,Americasat transfixed as unscripted human drama unfolded. Despite arguments over the shows’ questionable taste, their presence was justified by the opinion that placing these consenting adults in front of the camera did little real harm. Unfortunately, as the entertainment value of preying upon human frailties became apparent, programmers looked for more dramatic situations to exploit. This has ultimately resulted in one of the more alarming and distasteful trends in reality television to date: the exploitation of obesity.

 Overweight and obesity now affects 65% of all Americans and is one of the most serious public health crises in modern history. Many people affected by this often debilitating medical condition suffer discrimination at school, work and other public settings. They often deal with a lifetime of blame, ridicule and shame. In addition to being the target of social stigma, people who struggle with excess weight are also frequently the victims of irresponsible business ventures devoted to selling all manner of ineffective, unsafe and unregulated weight loss products that contribute to a perpetual cycle of misinformation, false hope, failure and desperation. Now, reality television programs prey on this desperation too. They entice people to watch and participate in a theatrical scenario that is reminiscent of a circus sideshow.

 When the Biggest Loser first aired four seasons ago, I tried to approach it with an open mind.  However, the title’s slick double-entendre made it difficult not to see that exploitation was right around the corner.  I watched in disgust as tables full of tempting cakes and foods were put out to tempt the participants – only perpetuating the stereotype that overweight people are somehow gluttonous and lacking in self-control. I watched as so-called fitness experts perpetuated the “no pain – no gain” attitude and encouraged participation in fitness challenges that not only pushed people beyond any reasonable medical risk but also served to perpetuate the misguided notion for all who watched that in order to be successful in weight control, grueling and painful exercise is required.

 I was alarmed to see the participants’ medical and emotional well-being placed at risk. I quickly realized that “The Biggest Loser” was yet another missed opportunity for television to educate and help curb this growing epidemic. I silently hoped that the public would reject this distasteful exploitation of human suffering. Unfortunately the opposite has occurred. To gain market share and rise above the many programs in this now crowded field, the entertainment division of ABC recently stooped to an all-time low: the exploitation of obese children.

 This past summer (2007), my immediate reaction to the announcement of ABC’s shows, “Shaq’s Big Challenge” and “Fat March” was disdain. While some people remained hopeful that they might take the high road and reach millions of parents and families who struggle with obesity with a healthy and balanced message, deep down we knew better. Healthy, balanced, sensible and medically responsible does not sell entertainment television. Instead, in “Shaq’s Big Challenge,” we saw children coerced into emotional submission, humiliated in front of millions, and their struggle with weight turned into a public spectacle. (2012 note – thankfully we drew the line here and this trend stopped)

 I do not intend to diminish the accomplishments of those who have been able to, despite these inappropriate methods, improve their lives, their health, and lose weight. Nor do I wish to diminish the inspiration that some may have derived from watching these programs. However, in my years of working with people who struggle to achieve a healthier weight, it has become infinitely clear that the potential for harm in approaching the issue in the way these programs do far outweighs the benefits. There are far better ways to help and inspire without humiliation, pain and shame.

 Many of us in the medical community have made battling this epidemic our life’s work.  We have learned that education is key; it is the foundation of any responsible approach to weight loss.  My colleagues and I value our relationships with media organizations because of their power to reach and educate millions about appropriate and healthy ways to battle excess weight.  We are encouraged to see many newspapers, magazines and network news programs putting forward valid and scientifically sound information.   

 Unfortunately, the entertainment divisions of the nation’s television networks haven’t followed suit.

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