By Ellie Philips
Design by Aimee Lee
Before social media had asserted itself as the dominant purveyor of unrealistic beauty standards, it was reality TV that assumed the brunt of the responsibility for disseminating content intended to make people feel inferior within their own bodies. The Biggest Loser, 10 Years Younger and Snog, Marry, Avoid were titans of our Noughties television screens- all propagating a not-so-subtle rhetoric that inherent worth and appearance are indelibly connected.
The programmes’ unrelenting focus on weight loss as a route to contentment is perhaps their most retrospectively shocking characteristic. Each episode of Supersize vs Superskinny and The Biggest Loser involve multiple weigh-ins of the show’s participants, where dramatic weight loss is celebrated. The presenters indulgently tell these newly shorn contestants how much better they must feel as they nod and smile vaguely, presumably lost in a daze of hunger and fatigue as their bodies struggle to adjust to the routine of severe restriction which has allowed for such transformation. Indeed, drastic weight loss is so prized that The Biggest Loser offers a five-figure cash prize to the participant who is able to shed the highest percentage of their body weight over the weeks within which the competition takes place.
Shame plays a heavy-handed role in proceedings. In Supersize vs Superskinny contestants are made to confront their weekly food intake as it is slopped into transparent tubes in front of them. Both the ‘supersize’ and the ‘superskinny’ are lectured for their nutritionally deficient diets, before being encouraged to try one another’s out for the next week: swapping one unhealthy lifestyle for another. Despite Dr Christian’s best efforts to tease out some enduring moral gleaning from the practice there is little to be learned: instead it merely opens up these struggling participants to the deflective ridicule and sanctimonious scorn of a nation of hungry rubber-neckers.
Whilst there is some lip service to the danger of diet culture, it doesn’t make a dent against the domineering rhetoric of shame. A routine segment on ‘Supersize vs Superskinny’ sees Anna Richardson trying out various extreme diets- from existing merely on apples for a week to undergoing hypnotherapy as a means of food avoidance. Often, she recognises the insanity and unsustainability of these exercises, yet this recognition is marred by her ceaseless commitment to trying anything if it will help her ‘drop a dress size’ and attain ‘supermodel thighs’.
Entertainment rather than health was at the core of these programmes.
Certainly, there is no heed paid to the considerable risks involved in the drastic plastic surgery that contestants undergo on ‘10 Years Younger’. Facelifts, nose jobs and liposuction are all presented as necessary rites of passage for these women in their bid for self-improvement. They each emerge from surgery clad in a pair of fantastically oversized, bedazzled Noughties shades to disguise their swollen faces, only a wincing grin visible as they tremulously assure us that the pain and dramatic recalibration of their central features will all be worth it for that elusive sense of self-worth they may or may not have secured.
Whilst most of the content in the programmes is harmful, some of it is downright ludicrous. On one season of ‘Supersize vs Superskinny’ Gillian McKeith has a weekly segment in which she evangelically tours the UK on an uncompromising mission to ‘Ban Big Bums’. Whippet thin Gillian marches around the sparsely populated town halls of the UK’s cities prodding and castigating the exposed backsides of the women who have inconceivably volunteered themselves up for this humiliation. Particularly notable among her many remedies to help her ‘flabby bottomed brigade’ lose inches from their posteriors is a highly questionable looking horse riding simulation stool which she straddles with demented glee, urging her uncomfortable looking entourage to follow suit.
The public humiliation of women is a frequent feature in much of the reality TV of the Noughties. At the beginning of each episode of ‘10 Years Younger’ the subject is dragged onto the street and made to stand meekly as passersby make wildly off-the-mark guesses at their age. When the passersby are left visibly reeling upon being informed the participant is inevitably far younger than they had assumed, it is the woman who smiles apologetically, absorbing the double dose of her own embarrassment and that of the public. The ordeal is repeated a few weeks on, following extreme plastic surgery, dental work and a wardrobe overhaul, and, unsurprisingly, the public’s guesses are far more charitable.
‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’ adopts a similar practice: asking people on the street if they would ‘snog’, ‘marry’ or ‘avoid’ the participant and repeating the process after the participant has received a makeover which renders them almost unrecognizable. Naturally, the second time round the ‘snog’ and ‘marry’ percentiles outstrip the previously dominant ‘avoid’ category. These neat little resolutions bolster the enduring notion that a woman’s primary purpose is to please and appease others. It is a tidy conclusion which allows no space for further probing. Much like the ‘messy bits’ of women’s bodies which are smoothed over and squeezed in throughout the programmes, so too is any exploration of the entrenched socio-cultural dogmas which allow these narratives of female suppression to prosper.
The fact that these programmes no longer dominate our TV schedules suggest the narrative may well have shifted. There is at least recognition that the messages they purported were problematic. Yet, whilst they may have transitioned from our television screens to our phone screens and morphed into a shape that is more cognisant to contemporary sensitivities, the subliminal messages of these shows linger on.
Weight loss is less commonly framed as the prime goal, instead ‘health’ has become the more discreet prescription for the ways in which female bodies are sanctioned and regulated. This vision of health remains woefully circumscribed: it is still largely the domain of slim, beautiful white women and whilst thinness is no longer always the ultimate objective, there are a myriad of freshly unattainable body shapes and beauty standards we feel obliged to emulate. Whilst the thought of Gillian McKeith having to swallow the idea that larger posteriers are now en vogue is to be relished, the trend presents yet another opportunity for women whose natural body type is anything less than Kardashian-esque to punish and begrudge themselves.
No doubt we should be glad that our reality TV has become more conscious, but much of its troublesome rhetoric has lived on. Body shaming and exclusionary beauty standards persist, just more sneakily: lurking behind buzzwords such as ‘wellness’ and ‘self-care’ and on the screens of our phones, as opposed to the family television set.