Thursday, December 4, 2014

Dr. Phil's Diet Bullshit Extravaganza

I have decided to do this as a "live blog" of sorts. I will blog about Dr. Ridiculous as I go through the episode. Since it's on youtube, I will be able to pause the episode to elaborate on certain moments, so in that sense it's not exactly a live blog, but basically I'm writing as I go. This is because weight loss shows are too painful for me to watch more than once without my non-fascist fat positive interventions. If I had my academic shoes on, I would probably watch it at least once all the way through before going back to key moments. I would also organize my critique coherently. Fuck that.

Dr. Phil's weight loss episode starts with some strange imagery. As women's submissions are shown, where the women ask Dr. Phil for weight loss help, there are spotlights next to the women and then fireworks in the background. Where do they come up with these things? Weight loss is so great we need lights and fireworks to prove it? It's clear that these connections, between weight loss and celebrating in the spotlight, are as arbitrary as they could possibly be.

And part of what is so unfortunate here is that all the women look great. I have to tread lightly here. Ultimately, how the women look doesn't matter. Everybody's appearance deserves to be appreciated and everybody deserves to be approached as more than the sum of their external physical traits and fashion choices. It wouldn't matter if these women looked like really spooky aliens. Spooky aliens are awesome and don't need Dr. Jerkwad to insult them and guilt them into changing their appearance. This is the, "oh, you look good because you're not so fat" argument as if being "so fat" were a physical and moral problem. No. I don't accept the "you're not that fat" bull. Fat is awesome as I know from my own experience with it.

However, I think it's worth pointing out that to me these women all look really good. Their stomachs are nice. Their faces are pleasant, their shirts pretty. They do not resemble spooky aliens as cool as that would be. They look like other women. Their stomachs are bigger than some and smaller than others. Why would that make them look ugly or be in need of help? This is what fat activism and fat acceptance can do for us. Because I'm passionate about celebrating diversity in body size, because I practice appreciating the goodness of my own body, and because I try to expose myself to fat positive blogs, books, and tumblrs, I've been able to open my eyes somewhat. I can now see with little effort that fat doesn't equal ugly and these women look great just as they are. I see zero problems. That's how I've been bucking the tide with the help of some amazing fat activists and friends out there. I'm not saying this to brag. I still struggle at times. Sometimes I catch myself having attitudes about fellow fatties that I don't like. And when that happens I reflect on the fact that like everyone in our culture I have internalized fatphobia. But I can identify it, not believe in it, and choose to appreciate that person's body, or, if that is too hard in the moment, I can at least hold the attention to value how all bodies manifest in the world. I can catch my assumptions and I can choose a different path. Over time this changes how I see. And I am fortunate to be young in the midst of this movement and to have people who have come before me who have changed how they see.

So because I can see fat as beautiful and morally neutral instead of ugly and morally terrible, I can pick up on the sadness here. There is no reason for these women to be opining to the evil doctor, but they are so caught up in fatphobia themselves that they can't help it. They really think this guy can and should help them change something. They judge their own appearance and then put it out there as something that needs to be fixed like a broken car. They're not broken cars. They're living beings and they count, too. I wish they knew that.

Then Dr. Phil asks the crowd (and the home viewer), "are you like them?" to which the studio audience replies with a resounding "yes!" I assume they were prompted. Apparently we are all supposed to identify with these supposedly pathological women and want to change our bodies. It doesn't even matter what we look like. Dr. Yuck is basically saying that we should all change. Weight loss ideology acts as if "fat" women need to become "thin" and then they can "stop" dieting and be "fine," as if weight loss were a finite project you could put in your planner. Lose 50 pounds forever. Check! But the system is devised for women in particular but for men as well to always feel inadequate about what they weigh, never to stop attempting change, simply to see themselves as unsatisfactory no matter what. Diet culture pretends to say one thing -- weigh x number of pounds and you'll be good enough -- but really says something else, something even worse. To reiterate, diet culture really communicates that you are never thin or beautiful enough, that you never look adequate, that you always need what Dr. Douche calls "a changing day in your life." Diet culture pretends that it gives you the secret to happiness in order to keep you perpetually unhappy. It is like a mirage in the desert. It seems to promise you that there is a beautiful place to get to, but that place is never there because it was an illusion from the beginning.

Dr. Difficult points out that the audience in total has tried and failed 2,000 diets. This could be because diets don't work. But apparently this one is different. Hmmm...

Then a video package introduces two chatty Southern schoolteachers, Candy and Lyndsey, who gain and lose weight together. They are the Abbott and Costello of self-loathing. One says, "I can tell you my problem in three words: I am fat." These apparently terrible words flash on the screen as the soundtrack gives a resounding bang for each word. Guess what, readers. I can tell you one of many joyous aspects of my life. I am fat. There! I said it! Not seeing the problem. The problem I do see, however, is that these women act so delighted to put themselves down. They are shown going out to eat together. (Of course! Because only women with weight problems do that!) "You could go ahead and put that bread right on my ass," says Candy. Bread is tasty. Large asses are lovely. It's a shame she speaks so disparagingly about two of my favorite things in the world. Incidentally, and I'm not completely sure this is true, I've learned from modeling shows that male models put pieces of bread against their penises to get a nice shape for underwear modeling. In this case, having bread relatively close to your ass, against your genitals, is considered flattering. But you don't see men at the table getting lunch and saying, "I hope this will go on my penis so I look great in my next underwear commercial." If only.

The women order food, how dare they, and what they order is listed on the screen in red. God forbid! The women get zucchini, mozzarella, and calamari. *gasp* Now I would understand the shaming if it were around chocolate or steak, but those are not conventionally "harmful" dishes. You can talk about not having too much cheese and the perils of calamari being fried, but if a person of a different size ordered those things would you bat an eye? Then the women really sin by agreeing with the waiter who encourages them to get the house special ranch dressing. The fact that he suggested it doesn't seem to matter. One of the women says, "we never turn down ranch dressing!" putting the emphasis on her self-loathing and her normalizing of it, not allowing any consideration of the role of restaurants in diet culture, the capitalist cycle of overselling the food that is supposedly shameful to eat, driving up cravings and profits. This is not to call restaurants evil. I enjoy them a lot. I just think that it is worth being aware of their role in a larger profit-driven system. This show, and diet culture more broadly, pretends that if the women simply "ate virtuously" there would be no problems with things as they currently are. This blaming, including self-blaming, of the (often female) fat person prevents everyone from being able to see larger systemic flaws and from working toward changing that system. As a shockingly perfect example of this, my youtube video of Dr. Dummy was interrupted by a multiple choice question that asked me, "which restaurant would you prefer eating at?" and listed Chili's Applebee's, Olive Garden, and Outback Steakhouse. You see, there is no question that these things are linked. It is not the women's fault. There is not even a problem with their bodies for them to be at fault over.

One of the women says that her boobs are the size of basketballs and her ass is the size of Montana. Again, I don't see a problem with this. The issue is how strong her self-loathing is, how she makes it a sport. She seems to revel in it. It's like she's going hunting and she's the prey getting shot over and over again. It is amazing how mean women are encouraged to be toward themselves (and toward other women) and then they're supposed to laugh as if they're having a great time. It is really the strangest thing when you think about it. Both women are doing the classic self-shaming fatty move of wearing large, baggy shirts. I grew up learning to do this and there are people I know deeply immersed in diet culture who continue to do this. The idea is that stomach fat supposedly looks terrible. Its lovely, sensual roundness should supposedly be banished rather than appropriately adored. Therefore, the story goes, shirts need to camouflage fat instead of showing it off it proudly. Candy and Lyndsey's shirts are pretty colors, both women look nice, but as someone who has been through this racket (as in any woman 8 years of age or older, sadly), I know that the shame is pouring off of them. For some reason thin women are encouraged to wear tight clothes, perhaps to show off the curves and flesh that they don't have. Then women who are fortunate enough to have luscious breasts and beautiful fat rolls are encouraged to dress "tastefully" like nicely colored paper bags. 

Dr. Doofus stresses that the women hide behind humor and the women are quick to agree. Well guess what. I disagree. I think the insidiousness of diet culture is behind their humor. Humor is the acceptable way to self-flagellate and self-shaming is the only way in which women are allowed to be fat. There is a reason Dr. Douchecanoe and his staff of evil minions has led the show with these women. Their self-hatred is entertaining. They normalize their self-loathing and our culture's disregard for the humanity of fat people by making it look pretty. It is everyone else -- the diet companies, advertisers, restaurants, gyms, the supposed saviors, the uncompromising fitness gurus who pretend to preach self-love and tell you to lose half your body mass -- it is they who hide behind the humor of these women. The women do not hide behind humor; they are clearly suffering. They are suffering for an ableist, classist, racist, misogynist patriarchy that returns their favor with more blame. This is what obedience gets you, apparently. And Dr. Phil does immediately return the favor. After we hear about how these women have suffered at the hands of a fat-hating culture -- one of them was anorexic, the other was taunted mercilessly by sorority sisters -- Dr. Doom tells them that they have internalized the mean messages that they were told and are now torturing themselves. "They were makin' fun of you and you started makin' fun of you and you never quit" he says. He says that they have "a bad internal dialogue" and "cheat everyone in their life [sic]."

Now, I agree that they have internalized negative messages about themselves from people who were unfair to them. But what this means is that they deserve supportive, not-Dr-Phil therapists who help them see through that meanness and embrace themselves as they are. The point is to combat the messages, not to lose weight. In a context that supports weight loss, however, Dr. Philistine's point is yet another way of blaming the women. The "doctor" is basically saying that the women in question have made themselves fat by believing people who said mean things to them. As if they have that much control over their internal dialogue, as if they don't respond to the ways in which they have been mistreated by learning those thought patterns, just like everyone else. Because of their "bad internal dialogue" -- notice how their internal world is being judged even though he never disagrees with any of their self-shaming statements -- they are being mean to the people around them, they are "cheating" innocent, probably thin people. And thin people need to be treated well until they become fat! Then they should be chewed up and spit out on national television, or so it would seem.

I would also like to point out that Dr. Philthy treats these two women, Candy and Lyndsey, as if they were the same person. Candy had an eating disorder but he says to both of them that they started making fun of themselves and never quit. Blaming a woman's eating disorder on the mean things she says to herself (partially unconsciously, mostly uncontrollably, and approved of by society) is a deeply offensive trivialization of anorexia. I do not know a lot about anorexia, but I know that people who struggle in this way deserve a much more reasonable and compassionate treatment than Dr. Phil is giving them here. But apparently if they read his new 20/20 book they can turn it all around. Thank goodness!

The next story is much more upsetting. A woman named Kate is so ashamed of her weight that she is endlessly postponing her wedding and feels that she does not deserve her husband's love. Let me briefly remind you that I was a proud wide bride this summer. At no point before or during my wedding did I feel any guilt or even discomfort about my weight. I chose, and partially created, an unconventional outfit I loved and felt great in. More importantly, I married the love of my life. Fat love is possible, people! So Kate is trapped in a prison that the bridal industry does a lot to build.

Dr. Phil addresses Kate's suffering at the hands of diet culture and the bridal industry by asking her, while she's crying, "how did you get this way?" I sure that Phil learned during his doctoral program that pathologizing people is really therapeutic. He even hands her a tissue to dry her tears. He announces her height, weight, and BMI, telling her that she is in the morbidly obese category. The fact that she gives him approval to do this before he says it does not make it any less appalling in its objectification of her. All you need to do is watch Martha Rosler's "Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained" to have a sense of this. Dr. Doofus then says exactly what was implied in the previous segment: he tells Kate, "if you had this negative internal dialogue, you generate the results you believe you deserve, and you know that to be true." You see, it's all her fault! And blaming her for everything she doesn't like in her life really helps her! If we blame fat people enough they'll lose weight! Life is so simple when the bald mustache man is guiding you through it. 

"People are not overweight because of eating" Dr. Unethical explains, "people are overweight because they abuse food." How dare they! We fatties apparently mistreat ourselves, our spouses, our children by weighing more than some arbitrary standard, and to top it all off, we're even cruel to the very food we put in our bodies! He adds, "you gotta get your mind right and we gotta heal your feelings." This statement implies that people who are within a certain weight bracket have "right" minds, whatever that means, and healed feelings. All thin people are sane, smart and completely healed from any trauma that they have ever been through. That is why our society is such a happy, healthy place. That is why policemen who are not stigmatized for their weight are so kind and intelligent at work that they shoot innocent people, put them in choke holds, and sit on them until they die at the hospital. Right minds and healing feelings at work.

You see, I agree with Kate and Dr. Annoying that we bring distorted mental patterns and unresolved feelings to food and we eat more or less than our bodies need because of that. But those mental patterns and those painful feelings need to be approached with the support of a compassionate and qualified therapist. Somehow we have this naive collective belief that if we change our appearance and have less body mass our inner life will follow suit. There is no reason that would be true. From this perspective, diet culture is about a collective denial of pain. Instead of finding effective ways to work with our pain, to come to terms with our lives and our histories, we distract ourselves with weight loss projects. We can distract ourselves with food, too, or with the internet (my amazing blogging is exempt from all faults, though), or emails or sex or even graduate work, trust me, but the only way to deal with these things is to bring compassion, skill, tenderness, and more compassion to those tough places, to work on these things over time and try, as hard as it may be, to be patient with the delicate healing process. The way to approach our wounding is to approach our wounding, not to create even more pain by stigmatizing people of certain body sizes.

Dr. Witless finishes Kate's segment and cuts to a commercial break. He says something pretty scary to the audience: "be thinking about where and when you have heard somebody say something to you or about you that stuck with you." This is incredibly vague. Later he talks about mean comments again, but he still seems to see weight loss as a solution to other people being mean about weight. (Just ponder how little sense that makes.) I think his ambiguity sends another message. He is actually saying: "audience, remember when someone has shamed you about your weight either to your face or behind your back, both of which are unacceptable but I'm absolutely fine with it. These shaming statements stuck with you not because meanness hurts and we should change the dialogue around weight in this country and beyond but because, as a TV therapist I totally support shaming as a viable approach to strengthening mental health. In fact, I engage in it myself -- that's what this whole show is! But I'm a white guy in patriarchy so I'm beyond reproach. You should listen to those people and lose weight to please them, and to please me. You should bend for other people and constantly worry about how they judge your body. That's how you keep your mind right and heal your feelings." Okay, buddy, I'll get right to it...

Then Dr. Dastardly has some "success stories" from his 20/20 diet test group. A woman and a man talk about how much they love the diet. This segment stresses portion control. They say that in "phase 1" they eat much smaller portions than they are used to but learn to savor the food more. What is interesting is that Dr. Numnuts seems to encourage people to apply his prescribe plan to all of their eating instead of listening to their bodies. They are supposed to go through phrases where they eat portions he has chosen in advance. They are supposed to eat 20 foods he has chosen over 20 days. They are supposed to combine those foods in particular ways. Well, what happens when they stop doing that? They'll gain the weight back of course and maybe gain more. It happens a lot with diets. But for some (promotional) reason the "doctor" guarantees that you won't gain weight back on this diet. Ha! I've heard that before!

There is one more story. A girl named Nicole used to do body building to such a degree that he had to put vaseline on her lips to help her smile. After that she gained 60 pounds. The body goes from starving itself to eating heavily in compensation. It's natural. The "doctor" promises Nicole that in a matter of weeks on his diet she can "return to health." Who said she was unhealthy at her current weight? She certainly needs healing around food, as we all do, frankly, but there is nothing to "prove" that her physical health is in jeopardy at her weight. If she has health problems, there are many ways to approach them that are not weight dependent. Unlike with Kate, treated the worst because she's the heaviest, her height, weight and BMI are not coldly rattled off. So there is no way for anyone to claim that her weight causes her health problems, and even if it did, she is still a worthy human as she is who does not deserve to be shamed. As Ragen Chastain beautifully says, body size is not a barometer for worthiness.

There is still more to say, but I am dismayed and worn out. Dr. Douche is not going to dominate my life. I do think it would be worthwhile if someone bought this 20/20 book and deconstructed its method, explaining its false assumptions. I am not science-oriented enough to go into these kind of details. My focus here has been on deconstructing ideologies, not on dealing with statistics. In conclusion, both Dr. Phil and our diet-obsessed culture in general are absolutely unconscionable. There is no justification for the distortions, shaming and cruelty that weight loss culture promotes. It claims to be the solution to the problems it perpetuates. We don't have to be trapped in cruelty and ignorance. It can be really tough, but we can be free.

During this writing I have been thinking about a story commonly told in Buddhist circles. There used to be a large animal (I don't remember if it was a lion or tiger) at the Washington zoo that had spent most of her life in a cage. When she was given a better environment to be in, she continued to pace the length of her cage until she died. She was so accustomed to suffering that she couldn't see her increased freedom. Another Buddhist story reaches the same conclusion. A monk once asked his students, "is the rock heavy?" They all said yes. He said, "no. The rock is not heavy if you don't pick it up." Freedom is closer than we think. We are all being treated like Ingrid Bergman in the movie Gaslight. The things her husband claims are happening -- that she forgets where she puts a letter, that she hears sounds that aren't there, etc. -- are actually not. They are designed to make her go insane so he can rummage through the attic and steal her jewels without her being able to object.

We don't need to be victims of gaslighting. We don't need to stay in the imaginary cage or pick up the heavy, pointless boulders of the diet and weight loss industries. Whatever analogy we prefer, we can be free, and freedom is actually right here. Bodies in their diversity are here, and they are all great. They are limited and do not represent everything about us, but they also have wonderful things to recommend them, like keeping us alive, giving us pleasure, allowing us to get from place to place, and giving us a way of experiencing the world. All bodies are here to be loved. If we directed more energy to that love and less to weight loss products and ideologies, we would be too busy loving each other to care about what anyone weighs. Diet books would grow moldy as we would all hug and dance and jiggle together. That's the kind of world I want to live in. And I think that world is there to be experienced. We just need to put down our boulders and walk out of our imaginary cages toward the sun, toward the big, wide, hot, fat sun.


  1. Thank you! I couldn't agree more with your assessment of "Dr" Phil and his "I have the Fail Proof diet for YOU!" nonsense. The man should be ashamed to call himself a reputable psychologist.

  2. This was nicely broken down and funny to boot. I admit I kept giggling with each new word after "Dr." :)

  3. I never liked that guy. As far as I am concerned, his psycho-pop and drama can f* right off. I hate that he is making all fat women look like people with lack of self-esteem, self-control, and general self-respect. What is even worse is that a vast majority of the population is drinking the kool-aid, and this has got to change, pronto. It is very hard to learn to love one's body when one is fat, and Dr. Douche is contributing to the problem. How sad is that, when psychologists contribute to a collective psychosis?? Also, I HATE HATE HATE the dichotomy of «fat is okay as long as you are not sick», a language very much coopted by Dr Jerk and Jerk-in-chief Jillian MIchaels and the like. So sad. I think that body love will be much more easier for everybody when the ginormous scam that is he diet industry is unveiled for what it is.