What Oprah Is Getting (Dangerously) Wrong About the Fat Experience in Weight Watchers Messaging
One of Oprah Winfrey’s most popular ways to discuss living one’s “best life” is through the medium of health and wellness. Her own weight issues and losses have been well-documented throughout the years; the infamous “fat in the wagon” episode is still the highest rated in the entire history of Oprah, and Winfrey has made several statements throughout the years about trying to get weight loss “right.” “Why can’t I get this right, when I get everything else right?” she demands in the opening crawl of an episode in early 2009, when she kicked off a series of Best Life episodes that would discuss how to improve your entire life for the new year, and of course, that series started with an episode on weight.
Now, Oprah has turned her eye to Weight Watchers, becoming the latest spokesperson for the company. In a series of new commercials, Oprah talks about her desires to live her best life and connects that with weight loss and wellness. One of the ads came on before a YouTube video I was watching, and one sentence in particular stuck out to me for all the wrong reasons. Sitting in a lounge chair, her eyes radiating that warmth and empathy I so strongly associate with her, Oprah passionately states, “Inside every overweight woman is the woman she knows she can be.”
I’m sorry. What?
I blinked several times. I nearly threw my phone across the room, and I experienced a trigger in a way that I haven’t felt in a very, very long time. There’s a reason they call triggers “triggers.” It feels like someone has put their hand on a loaded gun in your chest and the kickback drives deep into your lungs.
Let me just put this out there from the start—I am in no way denigrating anyone’s desire to get healthy. As someone who lost 70 pounds and has kept it off with varying success over the past 9 years, I know exactly how it feels to feel “trapped” by a body that feels foreign, and it would not surprise any of my friends or family members to know that I worship Oprah. I own that 20th Anniversary DVD collection she put out. I bought and read A Million Little Pieces before she got all pissed off at James Frey. Like Liz Lemon, I will do anything Oprah tells me to.
That’s why it completely enraged me and broke my heart to hear the fat woman’s experience completely misunderstood by one of my female heroes (or in the terminology of Oprah, “she-roes.”) Here are three reasons why this kind of rhetoric can have dangerous consequences.
1. It presupposes that all overweight women are unhealthy. At my heaviest, I weighed in at around 202 pounds. My blood pressure was perfect, and my cholesterol was totally fine. I was active; I kickboxed, danced in musicals, and was in the middle of a serious drama program that required me to be physical. Sure, I wasn’t necessarily eating the healthiest things, but who does in college? I felt fine. When I lost weight and swan dove into a variety of eating disorders, I was diagnosed with IBS, an arrhythmia, a gluten intolerance, and inflammation in my colon. I had to get put on a muscle relaxant for my guts because I was so stressed out by everything I was or wasn’t eating that my intestines would tie up into knots. I would take being a size 16 over multiple doses of daily medication any time.
2. It creates a messaging that in order to be ideal/beautiful/loved, you must be thin. After I lost those initial 40 or 50 pounds through normal exercise and cutting back on all the junk food and alcohol I was consuming, I felt like I could be even skinnier, so I cut all sugar, wheat, alcohol, dairy, fun, happiness, and love out of my diet. Then it went further. I won’t state what weight I ended up, and I’m not going to mention anything I did in specifics for fear it will show up on a Thinspiration Tumblr, but you name the disordered technique to lose weight, and if it didn’t involve throwing up, I tried it, and I got down to a size Not Good For Me. I’m an Italian with wide hips and broad shoulders, and that too-thin weight dripped over my skeleton like a bad watercolor, but I looked rail-slender in all of my clothes.
My friends and family were glowing in their compliments. I held on to those compliments as I dismissed the facts: My hair was falling out, my skin was so dry from a lack of fat in my diet that my knuckles constantly opened up and bled, and I had gone an entire year without a regular period, which in medical terminology is one of the tentpole symptoms of anorexia nervosa. Yet all I could hear in my head was, “Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this the woman you wanted to be?” Oprah’s rhetoric reached out to that former version of me, a woman who kept wanting to dig into myself to find a happier version of myself when really I was that person all along. Which brings me to my third point.
3. It assumes that there’s another, happier woman inside a miserable bag of fat. Oprah assumes that every single woman of a bigger size has another, thinner woman inside of her, trapped like some sort of prisoner, yelling “HELP ME, STOP EATING DAIRY AND LET ME OUT.” That’s bullshit. I was the happiest overweight person you would ever meet. Sure, I was awkward and didn’t quite like how I looked naked, but I had great friends, I was doing a lot of plays and musicals, and I had a good outlook on life. When I started dieting and starving myself, that’s when it all shifted. I was never truly as unhappy as I was when I was anorexic. My outside, for once, actually did match my inside—I was a husk, bereft of emotionality or true empathy because I had divorced myself from my emotional life. Every calorie I burned was another part of my humanity burning away.
I was digging away at myself, trying to find the aching heart inside and only finding more to hate. I couldn’t find that happier woman. There was nothing left. It has only been in the past few years (thanks to self-love and a lot of therapy) that I’ve realized why all of that was happening—I have been cursed with a desire to be perfect at everything. I wanted to claim lordship over my body, when my body is an evolving, thriving, fluid organism that should be feared and respected for the beautifully weird machine that it is.
That’s the most dangerous and, paradoxically, the saddest thing about Oprah’s new campaign for Weight Watchers, and honestly, the reason why she still hasn’t “got it right.” The goal of weight loss should be about wellness, and there is nothing that screams wellness as loudly as radically loving yourself, as you are, in every moment, at every size, every single day of your life. Since my lowest weight, I’ve gained weight, and then I gained a lot of weight due to depression and a toxic relationship, and over the past year, I’ve managed to get myself into a more healthy frame of mind, which has become reflected on my body.
I feel healthy and strong, and yes, I’ve gotten smaller as a result of treating myself better, but none of that would have happened had I approached it with the goal of punishing myself, of excavating my innards to find something out of reach. Oprah’s rhetoric exemplifies the lies we’re told about the fat experience. I never hated myself when I was big. I hated myself when I got small and was told that it wasn’t enough. Oprah’s messaging implies that we, as women, will never be enough.
There’s a reason why Gatsby’s green light is a goal and a warning. We mustn’t lose our capacity to love ourselves as we are, or else we won’t go anywhere. Only then can we truly live our Best Life.
Alysa Auriemma is a teacher, writer, activist, geek, cosplayer, and her friend group’s feminist killjoy. Her blog, The Curious Ally Cat, has seen notice by newspapers such as the Hartford Courant and the New York Times. She is in the process of writing a series of fantasy novels for self-publication. In her spare time, she enjoys participating in community theater, solo trips to the city to see Broadway shows, really good Mexican food, and arguing with friends about whichMighty Ducks movie is the best (D2).
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