Sickbags at the ready as we delve further into the world of hypocritical, exploitative and sensationalist ‘self-improvement’ television.
You can tell a great deal about a civilisation by its popular culture. This means, I hope, that if any aliens do beam down in the next six months and glean their cultural awareness through watching the strand of ‘self-improvement’ reality TV that was all the rage in the late 00s to early 2010s, they will switch on their laser rays and fry our sorry asses. Because having gone on YouTube during the Lockdowns, and revisited the delights of Supersize Vs Superskinny, Secret Eaters and – the aliens save us – Fat Families, they would be forgiven for thinking that we are all a bunch of fat, self-obsessed, and rather dim slobs, or uber thin and completely angst-ridden skinnies, and therefore really not worth saving. Thanks, Channel 4 and Sky.
Where did these programmes come from? The ‘diet culture’ show was very much a phenomenon of the insidious trend from the late 1990s onwards to tell people how to live their lives from every single angle. Buying a property? You needed faux estate agents Kristy and Phil on Location, Location, Location! Not knowing how to dress yourself? Enter the harridans of high couture, Susannah and Trinny! Wanting to decorate your house? You need the expertise of designers such as Laurence and Linda, whose lack of taste was more embarrassing than the alleged tatty décor of hard-working people’s homes they sneered at. And if you were running up massive credit card bills, only Jay and Benjamin of Spendaholics could save you. In effect, these shows were taking people who had desires to move on and improve their lives and ridiculing them for the entertainment of the masses. At least, you can argue, people might get a good property deal, spend a bit less, or have a nice outfit at the end of it. Fair play. But the problem with these shows is that they eventually spiralled into a new, and frightening area. If you can get people on TV to de-shabbify their wardrobe, their décor, their credit cards…why not their bodies?
In today’s world of Body Positive Instagram Influencers, where people are encouraged to make the best of themselves, but not denigrate their bodies, the idea that programmes were made that paraded people who clearly were suffering from disordered eating (or outright eating disorders) for entertainment is horrific. But then we also live in a world where ‘wellness websites’ sell clean eating that sometimes veers dangerously close to promoting anorexia. These shows gave it a bit more substance. Once the nation had stopped reeling from Gillian McKeith poking into the nation’s poo samples on the comedic-but-humiliating You Are What You Eat at the start of the 2000s, C4 gave this burgeoning genre more weight. (Sorry). Supersize Vs Superskinny was first broadcast on Channel 4 in 2008 and featured a concept that was both absurd from a health point of view and genuinely unpleasant. Each week two people, one very overweight, the other very underweight, would meet in a ‘feeding clinic’ (the mere name of this carries some disturbing fetishistic overtones) and swap diets. Literally. If the ‘supersizer’ was used to eating over 4,000 calories a day, they had better get used to eating what the ‘superskinny’ did. But not before both were paraded in their underwear and met each other. This often led to embarrassment and shock, as both were then shown talking candidly about their impressions. Comments such as “you can see her bulging out of her underwear” and “there’s nothing of him!” would be condemned if made in public – such as a workplace or a cafe – for body shaming. And yet there they are, on celluloid forever. Worse were the comments made at the actual meals, which frequently involved questions as to why the other person ate like that, did they care about their health, and were they being honest? Bear in mind that this was broadcast the same year Twitter was launched, and imagine these comments on social media… yes. There was not even any attempt at a hug with this, it was lashings of criticism and judgement.
Perhaps the most shocking part of S Vs S is that it was presided over by an actual medical doctor – Dr Christian Jessen, who himself has admitted in the last few years to suffering from depression, body dysmorphic disorder, and eating disorders. The fact that C4 allowed an actual sufferer to wave his medical degree to give it a sheen of respectability is appalling. It’s equally appalling that at no point were any of the ‘guests’ on this given access to an actual therapist. Instead, they were left to “learn from each other” – clearly just learning how to eat really badly for both. One priceless moment was a severely underweight man facing a roast dinner designed for two on one plate, whilst an overweight woman faced a pile of doughnuts. No context, no explanation of why this was not good for you. Much more fun to watch two people clearly emotionally struggling to snipe at each other over their crap diets, which frequently ended in actual tears. Very uncomfortable viewing, as you realised that neither was reaching any kind of peace over a difficult relationship with food. In fact, experts now have dismissed the show as ‘triggering’ for those suffering from eating disorders – and what makes it even more disturbing is that as well as the obsession of a female journalist to shrink herself to perfection, several series featured actual anorexics and bulimics coping with a recovery programme. And what no one wanted to admit is that all the participants were being pushed for a body ideal. But the problem with ideals is they do not exist.
A programme that developed out of S Vs S was Secret Eaters – broadcast again on C4 in the early 2010s, presented by Anna Richardson. Richardson had been a major feature of S Vs S trying extreme diets and exercise to achieve a ‘perfect body’. You again have to question the wisdom of the producers in allowing someone with such issues to lecture others, but that would not make good TV. Secret Eaters involved spying on ordinary people, and what they ate. A particularly nasty aspect was not just PIs following people around, nosing into their grocery baskets and restaurant dinners, but the encouraging of their workmates, friends, and family to leak details of what they ate at family meals and in the office. What really comes out of watching the episodes of this on YouTube is none of the people on this programme are bad or ‘naughty’ – a word that should only be used to describe ill-behaved toddlers – they’re just clueless about calories, often not realising a few rich tea biscuits quickly adds up and that a huge latte with syrup and cream is as much calorie-wise as a small steak dinner. I’m pretty sure everyone at some point has underestimated how much they ate – I don’t believe people deserve ridicule for it. And I’m also sure that people do genuinely lose track of what they eat in a day. The intensely irritating Richardson’s mock-dramatic gasps of “oooh, look at that!” and “was this after your meal?!” in a manner akin to the school goody-two-shoes watching in horrified pleasure as the girl sitting next to her makes a mess of her work and gets a ticking off from the teacher. But it was notable that she floundered when dealing with people who clearly had a serious problem – a woman who admitted that she ate when she felt upset or lonely, or the man with a gastric band who made himself vomit so he could eat more. At this point, you’re clutching your head in your hands and wondering if the producers actually bothered to properly research and screen the people who applied to the show. And if anyone actually pointed out that telling people to see a GP for a proper assessment might be a better bet than parading them on TV in front of tables groaning with replicas of what they’d eaten, whilst a stern-faced nutritionist haughtily lectured them on how bad they were. One of the more ridiculous aspects of this show was when the ‘secret eaters’ were told that the calories they’d consumed in alcohol/sweets/takeaways were the equivalent to “this many iced buns!”, “this much fried chicken!” – cue more shamefacedness and mutterings of “but I would not eat that.” But the real twist is that there was no advice given on what they should eat, except generic muttering of a “healthy eating plan”, the contents of which were not disclosed to viewers.
Whilst it might have been a bad idea to let a doctor with his own issues and a “serial dieter” (by her own admission) present shows that claimed to help people, C4’s output is broadsheet intellectualism compared to the bullying tabloidesque nastiness of Fat Families. Presented by Steve Miller, a man with zero medical qualifications but a real sense of purpose, this ran for two seasons before being axed by Sky. The point? Miller ingratiated himself into the lives of a ‘fat family’, then proceeded to tell them why they were fat. This led to some genuinely shocking scenes – taking a mother and daughter to a graveyard to sternly tell them they were heading there fast, giving a wife her husband’s death certificate and making a young woman wear a fat suit for a day. Again, it was pantomime villainy building up to giving them a healthy eating plan and making them exercise – which could be achieved without going on television. And could also be achieved without Miller’s continual references to “wobbly buns”, “pair of puddings”, “porkers” and other charming terms that if used in a workplace to describe a colleague, would likely get you ostracised or having a chat with management
Despite the fact that these shows finished broadcasting less than ten years ago, it still feels really puzzling that they were ever commissioned. It also feels really puzzling that programmes that dealt with troubled, and in some cases, clearly unwell people were presided over by those who had problems themselves. I can only assume that their popularity and the fact that S Vs S ran for an astonishing seven series and Secret Eaters for three demonstrates that what the nation really suffers from is the weight of moral judgement. Because it’s so much easier to judge others for eating biscuits or not eating them than be honest with yourself. Which is what watching these was an admission of doing. Making money out of human misery. Perhaps the Body Positive crew have got the moral high ground, after all.
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