The Cultural Contradictions of Jenny Craig

I was astonished to learn that the number of TV shows about weight loss has ballooned to seven this season. Alessandra Stanley’s superb report on them catalogs the cultural contradictions they’re a part of:

Americans are goaded into ever more drastic and extreme expectations of physical perfection on prime time, while their path is mined with Double Croissan’wich specials at Burger King and Olive Garden “Tour of Italy” triptychs (lasagna, chicken parmigiana and fettuccine Alfredo). On “Today” a homily on sensible dieting from the Joy Fit Club is followed by instructions in a following segment for hibiscus margaritas and churros — deep-fried, sugar-dipped Mexican crullers.

On the WE network’s show “The Secret Lives of Women,” a tribute to three women’s hard-won journey to extreme weight loss is interrupted by an ad for Baskin-Robbins Oreo sundae. It’s a world of contradictions bracketed by all-you-can-eat breakfast at Applebee’s and pay-as-you-go gastric bypass.

Anyone who’s read Benforado/Hanson/Yosifon’s work on the situational pressures toward obesity probably won’t be surprised by these juxatpositions. Nevertheless, they’re a strikingly intimate example of what Daniel Bell might have termed the “cultural contradictions of capitalism.” The donut factory may forbid its workers from smoking in order to lower its health care costs, but its profit margins depend on big sales to the 65% or so of the population that is overweight or obese.

The market has given us these shows primarily because they offer a chance to feel like we’re doing something about the problem without actually doing much. As Stanley notes, “Mostly the visuals feed complacency; as overweight as a viewer may feel, he or she surely will never fall this far into the potato chip abyss. And if the morbidly obese people on screen can drop 100 pounds, then even the chubbiest kid on the couch can fit into a swimsuit by summer.”

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