“Body-centric reality shows” is an umbrella term I’m using for all those shows that take a stance on our nation’s weight issues. What the shows come down to, I guess, are the stances themselves. Some focus on one or a bunch of people all losing weight and improving their lives. Others aim to teach women to love the skin — and shape — they’re in. I know I tune into these programs from time to time, but I wonder sometimes how much they’re helping, and how much they’re just exactly like every other kind of reality TV: exploitation of vulnerable people for profit. What do you think?
Let’s begin with my guiltiest pleasure: The Biggest Loser. I haven’t missed an episode since season two, and I get such an emotional thrill out of watching these people reclaim their lives. But when I talk about my love for the show to other people, they usually hit me with some glaringly obvious flaw in the show that I have simply chosen to ignore. For example, when a trainer gets super heavy on a contestant and like, really relates to them. And naturally those types of “breakthroughs” tend to “show on the scale” at the end of the week. Sure, they’re pretty heavy-handed, but I don’t think they bust the whole show for me. Then there’s the product placement. Jillian Michaels, one of the former trainers, reportedly quit the show for a number of reasons, one being that she didn’t want to endorse Yoplait Lite because it isn’t actually good for you, they just happened to be a sponsor. Again, it’s awkward, but the contestants have to make a buck somehow. Then there’s the part I love, that apparently it sort of uncomfortable for others: the crying. I cry at almost every episode. These people are under an insane amount of pressure, and the pace of the show runs their emotional endurance ragged, so they’ll get teary at just about anything, which makes me cry. But in a good way, I thought. Nonetheless people seem to have big qualms with the show in terms of how quickly the contestants lose weight, how they’re selected, and how the game is played. The bottom line is that it’s still a reality show, albeit a seemingly helpful one.
Then we have the body-makeover shows, like Extreme Makeover, the Swan, and Bridalplasty. These deeply disturb me, I have to admit. Or disturbed me I should say, since I don’t think they’re on anymore. That doesn’t mean there isn’t another one in the pipeline. I’d love to think network bigwigs would rise above this concept on moral grounds, but that’s seriously wishful thinking. Regardless, though, of the disturbance they caused, they’re kind of like a car wreck — you can’t not look. But while it’s upsetting to think that plastic surgery is literally someone’s only way out of hating who they are — that was the case with the Swan at least — I think a lot of those people were really happy afterwards. It’s like they got to live a new life. It’s hard to put myself in that person’s situation, so it’s wrong to really pass judgment one way or another, but it does sort of strike me as a strange thing to endorse. But then again, we are talking about the entertainment industry here.
Finally, I happened upon a show on Hulu recently — it’s been around a while, and even has an American adaptation by now — and have been super-hooked. It’s called How To Look Good Naked. And I thought that was a funny thing to name just another fitness show, so I bit. Turns out it’s a whole show, based in the UK, designed around changing a woman’s perception (one per episode) of her body, and teaching her to feel good naked. No nips or tucks, just some perspective… and maybe a new haircut. I think this show hits me in the right places because its angles are so delicately indelicate: Host Gok Wan projects the woman’s body (no head) onto a building and asks passersby to say what they think of her body. No one retches or says she’s fat. They all say she’s normal at worst. Most men say the women with some meat on them are incredibly beautiful. This is just the first step toward enlightening the guests of the show that they’re not only normal, they’re beautiful, and that they should celebrate their imperfections. Now granted, these are not people who are — at least blatantly — in dangerous territory with their weight. They’re mostly UK size 16 or so, US 14, and they’re just down on themselves because of the body image stereotypes they see in magazines and such. Gok Wan is doing a pretty great service to these ladies, and to be honest they truly do look fantastic by the time they have their nude photo shoot at the end of each episode. No bodily change, just attitude. They glow. But I bet — and this is just speculation — that the show doesn’t do as well in ratings as something that involves life-altering physical transformations. People don’t always want their TV to be uplifting; sometimes they just want it to be shocking.
So is this all a big guise? Are we just watching people offer themselves for public scrutiny for the potential of a prize, just like any other reality show? And if so, is it such a crime? What do you think about these body-centric reality shows? Do you watch any of them?