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“Eat Your Vegetables—News at Eleven”—Why Common Sense Health Advice Makes Bad Television

by Jeanette DePatie (The Fat Chick), MA, ACE

Over the past few weeks, especially in the shadow of the Weight of the Nation series, I’ve heard the same question from a number of people:

“Since we know that the same common sense health advice works for people of all sizes, why don’t they share that advice?” they ask. “Why do they have to whip up such a fat panic?  Why can’t they just tell people to exercise a little more and eat their fruits and vegetables and get a little more sleep?” they wonder.

I can’t blame them for asking.  It seems like most of the studies that have come out over the last few years point to common sense solutions.  Get 150 minutes of exercise per week.  Eat 5 servings a day of fruits and vegetables.  Get 7-9 hours of sleep each day.  And so on.  It seems like these common sense solutions should be shared in every newspaper and magazine and aired in every show on television.  There’s just one problem.  Common sense does not make good television.

Over the past ten years, I have worked in Hollywood in the entertainment industry.  I’ve learned that television, at its core, is about story telling.  But not just any old sort of storytelling will do.  Television shows are very expensive to make and are thus created in very specific, tried and true ways designed to get the viewer to stop on a particular channel and stay on that channel over the commercial break.  Television is not designed to be an ideal dispensary of rational, common sense health advice.  Here are a few reasons:

Television stories need heroes and villains.

Plus-sized lizard menaces
small town way of life.

This is true whether you are talking about a reality show or a drama or a documentary.  On TV, fat people are usually the bad people and the doctors, trainers and skinny people the good people.  Stories imply that fat people are killing themselves, that fat people are making airline tickets more expensive, and that fat people are “crushing the American economy!”  (Cue the old black and white Godzilla footage of the monster crushing school buses and buildings.)  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a full-blown “fatocolypse” on our hands!

What’s particularly interesting in this good guy/bad guy scenario is that the “good guys”—the trainers and the doctors and the coaches—get to act like bad guys in order to protect the public welfare.  Like Dirty Harry, trainers are allowed to be the menacing tough guys in order to make people exercise far beyond what is medically advisable and make them cry, “all for their own good.”  Because seeing the bad guy punished makes for good TV.  Seeing the bad guy break down and cry is the kind of high drama that will pull you over the next commercial break.  (Ironically, those same commercials often depict high-calorie, low nutrition “food porn” encouraging you to run out and consume.)  Seeing fat people repent and move closer to the thin party line makes for good “transformational” television.

Television transformations are not like real world transformations.

In order to make good television, transformations need to be far more dramatic and much faster than those in the real world.  There are no home makeover shows where they just mow the yard and paint the kitchen.  On TV, the whole house gets redone—from the painting to the landscaping to the furniture to the statues and flowers on the shelves—seemingly overnight. It should be no surprise that the same is true in health and body makeover shows. Although HAES® practitioners do not recommend intentional weight loss as a goal, even doctors who do recommend that patients drop no more than one to two pounds per week.  But how many people do you think would tune into a prime time television show depicting characters that lost one or two pounds each week?  At the end of a 13 week season, will people tune in to see characters who lost 16 pounds each on America’s Most Moderate Weight Losers?  I don’t think so.

Television relies on stereotypes.

Most television shows are pretty short—sometimes just 22 minutes with commercial breaks.  In that time, the show needs to hook you into the drama or comedy of the story.  This leaves little time for explaining difficult or subtle concepts.  Television relies on stereotypes as a sort of “shorthand” to help the viewer quickly sort the good guys from the bad guys and the problem from the solution.  The Health At Every Size® approach to wellness is currently not all that familiar to most viewers.  If a TV show were to include a HAES angle, it would have to spend an awful lot of time explaining.  Whereas “unhealthy, lazy, sad, fatty who sits on the couch all day and eats junk food” is a stereotype that a TV show might convey in just a few words, a few seconds of footage or just one still image.  This allows the creators of the show to get to the drama point faster and focus on pulling you into the show or bringing you past the commercial break.

Why it matters.

So what?  Why worry about what sort of health advice people absorb from TV?  It’s important because an awful lot of people turn to television for information on health.  A recent survey shows over 50% of respondents rely on media/information service companies (e.g., Dr. Oz, The Doctors, iVillage, WebMD) for health information.  So, when someone approaches you with a bit of medical information that “everyone knows” there’s a good chance he or she heard it on TV.  This is particularly distressing since health is not the main goal of the medium.  While television can provide information on health topics, the primary business of TV is driving ratings and improving advertising revenues.  And while I don’t in any way wish to suggest that television shows deliberately misinform viewers on health issues, I feel the need to point out that TV is, after all, an entertainment business.  I don’t have any magical solutions to offer here.  It may always be somewhat challenging to convey the HAES approach on television.  But perhaps a bit of awareness of the nature of television as a medium will help us brainstorm new ways to bring the Health At Every Size® approach to health to even more people.

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