The Pedagogy of Obesity Reality Shows

One of the consequences of the obesity epidemic is the proliferation of “reality based” media aiming to lay bare and expose the unhealthy behaviours that lead to obesity and tout “solutions” primarily aimed at changing individual lifestyles.

Notable examples of this ‘”entertainment” genre include television programmes such as Jamie’s School Dinners and Jamie’s Ministry of Food, You Are What You Eat, Honey, We’re Killing the Kids, Supersize and Superskinny, Fighting Fat Fighting Fit, and The Biggest Loser. In Canada we have our own examples like X-Weighted and the most recent CBC addition, Village on a Diet.

Given the mass audiences that these shows command, it is worth considering how the causes, consequences, and possible solutions to obesity are portrayed in these shows. Perhaps even more importantly, the implicit and explicit portrayal of  people with obesity in these shows and the “narrative” around obesity deserves exploration.

This is the topic of a paper by Emma Rich from Loughborough University, UK, just published in the latest issue of HEALTH, which explores how reality media portrays and perpetuates the interdependent connections between parenting, social class and broader political discourses of parenting and health risks relevant to obesity.

As Rich points out:

“Reduced activity and poor diets are repeatedly reported as leading to escalating rates of overweight or obese populations and related mortalities resulting from associated conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancers. This is asserted without reference to work which reveals that many of the ‘certainties’ populating obesity are based upon scientific evidence which others claim is either inconclusive or incorrect. Within this discourse, it is routinely declared that the health of western society is facing imminent decline unless measures are taken by individuals to eat less, lose weight and exercise more.”


“The imperatives around ‘eating well’, exercising regularly and monitoring our bodies, carry powerful moral overtones about how individuals ought to behave. These imperatives are strongly associated with body size, such that the thin or slender body is taken to represent not only a state of ‘good health’ but also reflect control, virtue and good citizenship.”

Drawing on specific examples, Rich looks at how these shows reduce the complexity of obesity to rather simplistic messages often with strong moral and judgmental overtones. These simple solutions are offered by so-called “experts”, who seldom appear to fully appreciate the reality of the participants lives.

To illustrate this point, Rich cites a dialogue from an episode of Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, in which

“Jamie returns to Natasha’s house to find that she is once again feeding her daughter cheese-chips. ‘Sorry, I’m just embarrassed’, Natasha says eventually. ‘I don’t know how it gets like this. I really try with money, I do.’ Jamie, looking confused replies ‘Look’, he begins, ‘I’m not going to say to you that I understand, because … well, erm, I don’t.’ Natasha gets tearful, and explains that during the week she had spent all of her benefit money on bus fares and overdue bills, and had little left to buy the ingredients for the recipe that Jamie had taught her. As Jamie stands in the kitchen Natasha cries. ‘Come here’, he says, moving towards her to hug her. ‘Get off’, she says, pushing him away.”

Or an episode in which another woman explains to Oliver ‘The thing with you, Jamie, is you live in a bubble. You’ve got no bloody idea what it’s like for us.

As explained by Rich:

“Natasha’s rejection reveals how public pedagogies such as those functioning with Jamie’s Ministry of Food can be at odds with the realities of individual lives when health is abstracted from the social contexts which shape it.

For example, the class association of food choice is given little regard in Jamie’s Return to School Dinners when he routinely inspects teachers’ and children’s bags for junk food, telling one young teacher caught with junk food ‘That’s no way to live, darling. You’ve got to have some pride in yourself.’ There is no acknowledgement of the cultural value that chips (albeit in the British context) as ‘a white working class food’ might have for Natasha, or that they might ‘be cheap and filling’ thus meeting her financial needs.”

Similarly, Rich draws on specific examples from other reality shows with similar narratives.

Rather than theorizing these interventions as imposed or regulated by neoliberal ideals of ‘responsible individualism, consumerism and self improvement’, Rich examines how these shows lead the participants

“to know themselves in relation to dualistic body knowledges which ‘abolishes multiplicities and variation’; as either fat or thin, healthy or unhealthy, failing or morally right/wrong.”

These discourses not only position individuals as blameworthy, but moralize and decontexualize health inequalities by glossing over the social and structural contexts that come to bear upon this.

…self-management is at the heart of reality television, thus as is revealed in Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners, a child’s diet becomes a reflection of parenting choice, rather than antecedent gender, class, cultural or ethnic localities. Those parents who do not comply with the sanctioned behaviours of the Oliver campaign become the figures through which affects associated with bad parenting choices flow (‘you’re an idiot’) within an obesity assemblage.

The complexities of health disparities which so strongly come to bear upon health, are often obfuscated in this discourse…reality TV positions the working classes as a maligned and ‘abject’ social category to be managed, controlled and ‘taught’ how to live better lives.”

However, as Rich also points out:

“This is not to suggest that all media focusing on weight and health are assembled in this way….Indeed, some media may lead to more critical or creative public pedagogies perhaps even disrupting neoliberal discourses on health.”

Perhaps it helps to always remind ourselves that even the best-intended tv shows need to capture the interest of its viewers.

Or, as Dr. Ali Zentner, the physician on CBC’s Village on a Diet, so succinctly summarized in her comment on my blog,

“what is “good tv” is not always perfectly accurate science.

Edmonton, Alberta

Rich E (2011). ‘I see her being obesed!’: Public pedagogy, reality media and the obesity crisis. Health (London, England : 1997), 15 (1), 3-21 PMID: 21212111