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November 26, 2014

TV 101: Trimming the Fat With Television

by Dr. Ryan Vaughan, PhD (no, seriously), posted May 18th 2011 5:00PM
Have you heard? Americans are really fat. I know that's a generalization, but seemingly everywhere I turn I'm hearing how fat we are as a nation -- from educators, scientists, my mom, the full-length mirror in my bathroom. It was always easy for me to ignore the whispers of nationwide obesity, even as they turned into firm scolding then into outright screaming, but you know how I know it's a concern of gargantuan proportions? It's on TV.

How can you tell when an issue has turned from mild concern into full-blown epidemic? When you can't turn on the telly without seeing a show on every channel. In this case, there are now roughly a thousand shows about fat people losing weight and getting healthy. The question becomes: is it a call to actually tone flabby arms and get healthy, or an exploitative endeavor to help our rotund masses reassure themselves that "even I wouldn't eat that?"


The latest development in this trend will be premiering on ABC in a few weeks: 'Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition'. While it's not simply fat people losing weight by running away from a hopped-up Ty Pennington, it is a show that will presumably be the kinder, gentler 'The Biggest Loser,' preferring to coddle and sympathize with its hefty contestants rather than humiliate them out of utter disgust. That's my guess, anyway, and if it's true I'll take 'The Biggest Loser' every day of the week.

Therein lies the problem, I suppose. People tune into -- nay, obsess over -- a show like 'The Biggest Loser' for the "WOW" factor. "They were sooo fat, and now they're not! What is that guy going to do with all that extra skin now," they say. On the other hand, a show like 'Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution' that tries to get to the root of our country's obesity and change the way we approach food and fitness on a much more practical and fundamental level, has already been canceled. We don't really want the answers, we want the freak show. "You can heal the symptom, but not affect the cause."

The irony of addressing weight loss through a medium that tacitly promotes the exact opposite is not lost on me. But it's a trend that isn't at all uncommon. It's a tribute to our collective laziness that we're consistently searching for ways to exercise without exercising. This mentality has even been embraced by the video game industry, the young upstart to television's fatheresque status as arbiter of lethargy. Wii Fit, XBox Kinect, and Playstation Move all offer lazier alternatives to "moving around and not eating like a raccoon at the dump."

I do think that we are a nation of thunder-thighs and man-boobs -- I've been to Disney World -- and I fit more into that category than I fit into the "looks decent shirtless" category. We do need to get into better health, and who am I to criticize any of these shows if they have inspired even one person to change. It's difficult sometimes to see through the "TV" of it all, and to get to a point where we can see the forest for the trees... but the trees are french fries with gravy.

Dr. Vaughan teaches English/media/humor courses at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and his milkshake is better than yours. You can also check out his blog or find him on Facebook.

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