Prime Time Bullies

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

You Are What You Eat

You Are What You Eat‘s Dr. Keith

Lifestyle television is that space where identity is most openly discussed. In programmes ranging from Extreme Makeover to Ten Years Younger our flexible selves are seen to be empowered by experts striving to bring forth ‘the real you.’ This hidden entity is called forth in a range of media including websites, newspapers and countless magazines. Indeed one recent import to the UK is Psychologies, a French magazine whose launch cover invites readers to ‘Rediscover the real you.’

Given that the real you is commonly believed to be in there somewhere it seems reasonable to discuss what methods television recommends for bringing it out.

Two recent television programmes have aggressively sought to strip beyond the surface to find the real you within. In the UK one of Channel Four’s biggest hits is Gillian McKeith’s You Are What You Eat. In the US, NBCs third season of The Biggest Loser was such a ratings winner it disloged prime-time sitcom hours for a week. In both shows the object for treatment is the body. Indeed the shared diagnosis is that within all overweight people a real you can be released by the forces of shame and discipline.

While the transformative device is hardly new to television the sort of rapid physical changes demanded by these programmes are shocking and very possibly not healthy. Each format requires the contestants to make themselves completely obedient because changes have to be quite literally seen to be believed. Thus contestants are chosen partly because of their size and partly because they have the dramatic personalities necessary to make their obedience a difficult but involving struggle. If they can come through this then we can, can’t we? A range of products and web-services help strengthen our conviction to transform and bring out the real you out of recalcitrant misshapen us.

In the UK Dr Gilllian McKeith’s PhD is the subject of much heated debate. But at the core of these discussions are not what McKeith does but her qualifications to do it. It seems that the lessons and indeed the methods of shame are fine as long as one has the correct medical qualifications. This is not merely a moral issue. Since the first series, McKeith has developed a very profitable sideline in Health Foods. Those who believe in the powers of television and have seen her transformations wrought on willing victims may be more willing to pay £5 for the restorative powers of her snacks.

In the US the project is more ambitious. The Biggest Loserhas gone from being a mere television programme to full blown cultural phenomenon. The format has had the distinction of be adapted in Britain, Australia and Israel. The website develops, indeed, makes perpetual the project by inviting a collective effort at slimming down to find the real you via The Biggest Loser clubs. The third series implicated the whole nation by choosing representatives from each state and then photographing ‘before and afters’ (still on the website). This seems to represent an unofficial extension of Bush’s ‘Get Fit’ program designed to energise the nation by getting citizens to ‘take greater responsibility for their future health and welfare.’ This fits into a wider range of new measures described as…

Biggest Loser

Biggest Loser “Before and After”

‘the “tough love” of compassionate conservatism’ through a proliferating network of private and personal trainers (e.g financial planners, home-security experts, smart cars, the Web as customized reference-guide for do-it-youself-ers, professional life-organizers’ on TV, and of course Dr. Phil (Hay and Andrejevic, 2006: 338).

In both programmes the aim is to teach people to become managed, responsibilized selves. And what better, more validated space could there be for this process than television where all dreams come true?

One crucial new factor is this search for the ‘you’ within is the use of Science. Before its treatments can be recommended television has to prove that it is responsible and so it provides the facts about being overweight which cannot be called into question. And so we hear that anyone slightly overweight has a higher risk of heart disease, anyone with more than 25% body fat is close to obese etc. These statistics are presented as if they were indisputable and indeed they are not disputed: science is facts! With a series of scientifically-validated methods outlined for our approval subjects have no choice but to obey. Because science has ‘proved’ what needs to be done (and is validated every week through televised success stories) all manner of punishments, shames and indignities can be visited on
the individuals.

A second allied justification can be found in how ‘fat’ is made to mean in western culture. As responsibilized selves we have a duty to keep in shape. To be big is not only aesthetically displeasing but it’s also cheating the nation. These days the overweight are most often seen in programming such as talk shows which feature the working class as bodies in need of treatment. An association is made between being overweight and a relaxed attitude to sexual morality and employment. Those who become overweight are defective creatures snubbing the project we should all be involved in–making ourselves streamlined engines for leaner fitter nations.

The work of these prime-time bullies validated by science, endorsed by the new common sense and promoted through every possible channel may yet spawn myriad psychological dangers.

‘Identification with the aggressor and privatization can combine to create an insecure psyche that, in attempts to bolster itself, leans on clichés and common sense to the extent that reflection is impossible and…finding security n closing off dialogue with self and other basic needs’ (Sloan, 1999).

Rose has written of the ‘specialists of psy (who) have emmeshed themselves inextricably with our experience of ourselves.’ The pseudo-science inspiring this breed of programming promote health-through-normalization–another example of the spread of governmentality…

Looking for the real you? Just say no.

Biggest Loser Season 3

Biggest Loser Season 3

Image Credits:
1. You Are What You Eat’s Dr. Keith
2. Biggest Loser “Before and After”
3. Biggest Loser Season 3

Please feel free to comment.


  • The critiques you raise are pretty much point-for-point why I can only watch so-called reality TV (and other related talk shows) when forced to. Even if I decide I need to watch it to be culturally aware and/or to critique it, the act of consumption upsets me enough that I’m more inclined to leave such study to others. Even though it’s a head-in-the-sand approach, I prefer to devote my leisure and study elsewhere — and therefore appreciate your taking the time to sum it up and evaluate the trend in a digestible format.

  • Mo’Nique as a possible counter-point?

    The sheer amount of talk shows and reality TV shows dedicated to shaming and trying to “cure” obesity in America is astounding. Even when health is touted as the primary reason for such extreme measures to ensure weight loss, shame and stigmatization are not far behind. As a possible beacon of light involving reality TV and body weight is Mo’Nique’s beauty pageant on Oxygen, Mo’Nique’s F.A.T. Chance. On her show, Mo’Nique reframes the word “fat” as “fabulous and thick” for her female contestants. As host of the show, she not only re-conceptualizes fabulous and thick women as sexy, but also dispels the typical notion of overweight people being working class. Especially after reading your article, I further appreciate her show, for offering overweight bodies a chance to shine without having to slim down.

  • Max Liberty-Point

    The Scale Say I’m Phat

    It seems there’s a hint of hegemony in our nation’s broadcasting and the way it objectifies the ‘fat;’ like the nation is portraying obesity poorly in order to scare others away from it. It does seem to be true that overweight individuals are mostly shown in a negative light. Not since “Fat Albert” has being obese been cool.

  • William AJ Lemos


    This article is very insightful about the “Prime Time Bullies” that continually capitalize on the on the ideologies of the U.S. Gareth Palmer’s critique on how weight loss is constantly forced onto TV viewers is insightful and an important. Commercialization of the “perfect” body is seen throughout our culture and dominates our insecurities. The creation of weight loss reality television has reinforced the notion that everyone must conform to the perfect body. Anorexia and bulimia have become wide spread because the media and TV shows only cast “perfect” people. The creation of insecurities through commercialization in the media has allowed consumerism in our culture to prosper and has left us with a mass hysteria to conform to the “perfect” image.

  • Stephanie Sedhom

    Roseanne Barr vs. Prime time bullies

    It seems as if our media has produced a notion through a visual culture of signs and codes that being overweight is due to being lazy and undisciplined. It is a state that is undesirable and extremely focused on as a place of improvement to address. Palmer is pointing out that this attitude is reinforced by the use of scientific fact as evidence while it might not be a direct link to laziness and weight and the subsequent “self improvement”. Kathleen Rowe addresses this issue in her discussion and analysis of Roseanne Barr by referring to her as “lose and excessive” in terms of her speech, body language and physical presence. By being loud and undainty, she is seen as going against the tropes of femininity. This could be a reference point for Palmer in that there is not necessarily a correlation between body type and personality traits and science can’t be proof of it.

  • is it really the real you?

    I believe in being healthy and having a great body; however, I don’t and I’m fine with that. We all have wishes and hopes to become more lean and now as people call it “normal”, but being attacked and punished should not be part of the transformation. This article pin points important issues that our dominate ideology demand on us. Which is, to be normal is to be skinny, and if your not skinny you can’t express yourself properly. Reality TV is a good way to deal with people who are low self esteem and want to change, but to criticize and ridicule them just makes their self esteem even lower. And from that, the only way to gain their pride is to lose that weight, but what happens when the show is over? What if they gain that weight back, how is their self esteem then? To discover the “real you” and to use television to do that, we must not abuse their pride but to build their confidence and help gain their self esteem. Our society in lifetime television still does not have a correct way of facing obesity or any tough issue justly!

  • TV World Versus The Real World

    One point I found interesting was how weight loss shows like The Biggest Loser came onto the air after George Bush’s “Get Fit” program. The ideas of change, fitness, and becoming healthy that are given off from shows like The Biggest Loser have a hegemonic effect on its viewers without us even realizing it. Back in the 1980s, a similar affect on television with Reganism caused popularity for shows like The Cosby Show, showing picture perfect families, and what the “American Dream” should be. While I do agree that most shows do go unhealthy measures (physically and mentally) to show that change is necessary for everyone, I do feel that there are exceptions. Dr. Phil is guilty of having many makeover shows and weight loss segments, however he himself is an example of being in good health, but not necessarily fitting the cookie cutter image of what good health is to look like. He is a bigger person naturally, and he admits that being healthy does not necessarily mean being thin, which shows that it is not the fact that these shows display a healthier person that is the problem. It is the false idea that viewers gain from seeing a 300-pound woman drop down to a size 4 that anyone can do that, and that they should do that.

  • Holly Charlebois

    I full heartedly agree

    Superficiality surrounds us, and our culture overexposes us daily to superficiality. We need not look farther than Southern California to find flocks of Barbie dolls, who are, as Aqua says, “living in their Barbie worlds.” They swish their perfectly blow-dried hair in time with their fat-free hips. These girls spend countless hours in front of their reflection whirling, curling, straightening, and primping in an attempt to accomplish the unattainable image of perfection. Investing numerous painstaking hours at the gym, these same girls jump on the Stairmaster and hike their way to perfect buns. This endless strive for perfection stems from shows like The Biggest Looser and countless other makeover shows. They tell us that any imperfection is unacceptable. What is not conveyed in these makeover shows is that it is our idiosyncrasies make us who we are (not our dress size) and maybe the thing we hate the most about our selves is the thing that others love the most. For example everyone from Queen to Sir Mix-A-Lot has written songs favoring big butts. Jennifer Lopez even became famous not for her music, not for her acting abilities, but for her butt. After all Queen and Sir Mix-A-Lot said it best when they states that they “like big butts” and that “fat bottomed girls make the rocking world go round” So stop jumping on that treadmill running away from their voluptuous bottoms. Running away from ones problems never solves anything. The solution lies in accepting oneself, and remembering worrying about one’s appearance to the extent of achieving perfection is ridiculous, because after all, “beauty is only skin deep” and “it’s what’s on the inside that counts”.

  • The Fit Nation

    Although your article as a whole was extremely interesting, I found your discussion about the country’s weight responsibility especially resonate. It is striking that in a country so incredibly concerned with their global political image that our leaders would put an equal weight upon the necessary work to be done in order to guarantee a nation of “streamlined engines”.

    Television shows such as “The Biggest Loser” definitely further the national mystification of weight gain and weight loss, and your investigation of such is really poignant.

  • While I would say obesity is a problem, it is becoming more then a health problem. It is a way of categorizing people to further breed them for these morally questionable shows. Rarely do these shows focus on the mental health of thier contestants. Mental health, I believe, is at the root of this supposed “epidemic.” Putting contestants through these unnatural regimens does not solve the problem. In foresight, I would see these shows as doing nothing more then increasing eating disorders rather then curbing obesity. The situations in which these people find the “real you” are abnormal and far from normal conditions. They receive around the clock training and guidance. These shows are only about results which can hopefully contribute to the sales of whatever health paraphenalia the experts on these shows are hyping. Furthermore, optimum physical condition is being sold as the “real you.” I find it ridiculous that people are buying into this jargon.

  • I vote no.

    I also object to the “reality television” shows which objectify women and lesson the beauty and value of real normality, the people not represented on shows like MTV’s “The Hills.” The title of the show “The Biggest Loser,” in itself, is enough to make any aware person take note of the offensive material that is in store for them.

  • People Just Want to be Happy!

    It is only human nature, as Gareth Palmer says, that we have “tendencies to act in certain ways”. When shows like the “Biggest Loser” and “What Not to Wear” constantly show people who we can relate to or who look ‘normal’ seeming extremely happy and satisfied after a change in their lifestyle, we begin to think that is also what we want. As a result we are no longer satisfied with who we are. We look at ourselves and constantly look for something to change to make ourselves thinner or more fashionable because lifestyle television influences us in that way. This type of television, life style television, uses the knowledge of how people think, and in turn, altered the way we think. Because the ‘fashionable look’ is always changing, ideologies about how we should act, dress, or look are also constantly rewritten as well. So by making themselves thinner, they become more socially accepted since they can now be categorized into the norm. This in turn leaves the television viewer happy.

  • The “Me” beneath those pounds?

    I firmly agree with this critique. What authority does anyone have in saying who I really am all according to how much fat my body has? I find shows like The Biggest Loser, are helpful in that they promote hope for the obese, but these shows seem to be more about how many pounds one person can lose over another. Personally, the times I have seen the show, the identities of this people weren’t the most important aspect of the show. Instead other things seemed to come to mind: What will these people look like after dropping that weight? Who will get kicked off? Who will win? Who will fail? With these questions in mind, I realize I honestly don’t think about who these people are. The actual contestants that I “know” are simply the pounds on these people.

    Culturally what does this really say? Yes it is healthier to NOT be obese, but is something as serious as one’s health something to compete about? These shows label the contestants and participants in inescapable ways. If looked in popular magazines, these people are STILL remembered to be those “fat people” except now they are referred to as the former “fat people” (Not “former fat people” of course).

    I don’t see how this reveals one’s own identity in any way when such people are identified constantly as imperfect. Instead of finding the real you, you find that people in the end really just want to see who wins the show.

  • Megg Sicotte-Kelly

    As an overweight woman I find myself responding to your article with ambivalence. On the one hand, I detest shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “The Biggest Loser.” I feel that they promote unrealistic standards, and go to unrealistic and sometimes unnatural lengths to achieve them. Not everyone can devote all of their time to losing weight as is expected on “The Biggest Loser” and there are few people have the means to hire a trainer, and get massive amounts of cosmetic surgery done.

    However, on the other hand, I have to admit that if someone came up to me and told me that I too could easily achieve the weight and appearance that is expected by popular culture, I wouldn’t turn them down. I personally want the real me to be fit and attractive. Does this make me a hypocrite? I don’t believe that it does. Those who conform to societal standards are guaranteed to have certain advantages, and who wouldn’t want that? We have also been conditioned by society to find certain things attractive, and thus many of us wish we could look the way we’re expected to, for that is what we find attractive as well. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t necessarily right, but it true.

    However, there is another side to shows like “The Biggest Loser” and I don’t believe that it is an entirely negative one. It is true that we live in a culture of excess and lethargy, and anything that encourages people to eat less and eat better, as well exercise more can’t be all bad. However, this does not excuse the shows from reducing individuals into numbers on a scale, and I have to wonder if shows like “The Biggest Loser” are doing any good at all, because when it comes down to it, what exactly are we doing when we watch them?

    I don’t think it’s exercise.

  • For the most part i do agree that shows like “The Biggest Loser” make are made to create problems with the way that people see their bodies. i do feel that they were designed to make people more self- conscious about their bodies because the way that they pushed the people on the show to stay focused on not eating all the bad things and to exercise were constant reminders that what they had done before was wrong.But really who are they too say that you’re fat because of whatever reason. What if the person felt good about themselves before they saw the show then all of the sudden they’re told No!! stop what you are doing and loose weight. That’s typically the message sent out were basically not good enough the way we are we have to change another show that did the same was “The Swan” which changed everything about people adding features that are thought to make woman look beautiful. What if they are beautiful the way they are?Or were?

  • Socially Constructed

    Many of the reality Television shows that are now on TV play on the Ideologies that are constructed by our society. There seems to be a hegemonic theme that to succeed in life you must be skinny and beautiful. Most of the people that we see on reality tv shows are all young beautiful and thin, and when, on the off chance, they are not, the shows main focus is usually to make them beautiful, thin and younger looking. This can be seen on “The Biggest Loser”, “The Swan”, “Extreme Makeover” and “Ten Years younger”. This ideology has always been seen in our society, and has never been fought. We all accept this hegemonic ideology without any thought. What we see and hear becomes our own ideals and ideas in this society, no one really thinks for themselves.

  • It is sad to see such television shows presenting overweight people in a negative light. I think that being overweight is a relative term that can be measured differently by different people and that having a show decide what is and poke fun at obesity is harmful to many, especially young kids who may be watching the show. The fact that there is a person underneath the “fat” does need to exist, showing the outside and not the inside of these people dimmenishes those who may indeed be overweight.

  • Interesting that the responses so far have predominantly been concerned with ‘weight’. I think the most interesting aspect of this article is its illumination of the psycho-political motivations of lifestyle TV’s work to persuade people to search for ‘the real you’, and the way in which this ‘real you’ is used in the service of governmentality. Gareth Palmer is spot on!

  • I think the notion of transformation on reality television is a powerful one. It’s not just weight-loss shows like The Biggest Loser, there are so many others that try to guide people into being better versions of themselves. Extreme Home Makeover tears down a house to construct a totally new larger one. Supernanny insists that children could always be more well-behaved. How Do I Look? suggests that a makeover will improve everything in a person’s life. I think this theme of transformation increases the consumer aspect of television. Many of these things that are supposed to improve your life can be bought: even on the Biggest Loser, viewers can buy workout equipment or health food just like the contestants on the show. These kinds of shows seem to promote advertisements and quick fixes more than actual help.

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