Eventually, we all look at the messages television programs send. Not only do we look for hints of morals and values, but the personal messages that deliberately or inadvertently, discretely or conspicuously sent to viewers by the writers, producers, and executives. Preeminently, viewers are bombarded with the issue of self-image and more specifically, body image on a daily basis.
I can list three basic ways television programs affect viewers’ body and self-image with the last perhaps being the most dangerous. I’m just gonna be pretty blunt here. If this offends anyone, so be it.
Issue #1: Not Everyone Looks Like That.
When you turn on the television — and it doesn’t matter what country you are in — you will notice that most shows are overrun with beautiful people. Men and women with well-toned bodies, perfect coifs and flawless makeup grace the screen on our favorite shows. Most of the kids watching have no idea how much work goes into making those actors look good, let alone do they realize that some of these “teen” heartthrobs are fully grown adults.
In real life, many adults have trouble putting the work in to keep up with their own physical fitness requirements. The obesity epidemic in the United States is well documented, so no one is truly being represented on television.
Regardless, it is clear that the execs want to draw and keep the audience’s attention by presenting us with eye candy. “Ugly people” need not apply unless there’s a villain or side character role open. Even then, a good looking person could be hired to play a tempestuous bitch/sexy bastard or get a make-under to look homely by Hollywood standards.
This is one example of how the obsession with looks infected real people and hurt their self-image: At one point, Extreme Makeover was a show on ABC that allowed regular people a chance to look like Hollywood celebrities. Participants would drop pounds in a matter of weeks in order to get liposuction and go through a series of other plastic surgery procedures done to them with little recovery time. Like Wanda Sykes once quipped, “No one is allowed to be ugly anymore.”
Another issue that is rarely addressed in America was how many casts are fully white and lack characters of different ethnicities. Starting in the mid to late 1990s, sitcoms featuring black casts were often shoved toward one network or one night a week. There have hardly been any shows with Asian or Latino casts. Love between non-white people has hardly been featured on any program besides the ones geared toward specific audiences. Nowadays, only BET, which has a dreadful lineup overall, is the only network to show programs with a predominantly black cast. You’re lucky to find shows geared toward different ethnicities on any of the major networks.
Some progress has been made. Now, there are shows with diverse casts, like Shonda Rhimes’ dramas and teen dramas will occasionally show diverse casts, including characters with different sexual preferences. However, I think much of the damage has been done. The earlier lack of diversity has worked to reiterate a standard of beauty most associated with Caucasians and a negative self-image that many minorities have.
The problem here is twofold: Producers and Executives are only representing what they perceive the majority wants to see and what they would rather see, but they have a profound effect. First, all this reinforces the premium put on beauty and a narrow definition of it in all walks of life. People are more easily given love, free money, and gifts just because of their looks; television practically justifies this. Second, is the narrow definition of beauty defined and reinforced by Hollywood. In the absence of parents actively raising their children, images on television serve to shape people’s opinions of themselves, their role in society, and society at large.
Issue #2: Even Fred Flintstone Could Grab a Smoking Hot Wife, But Don’t Expect That Kind of Luck, Girls.
Now, there are overweight (or otherwise “unattractive”) people in various TV shows, but they are often kept at a minimum. More of them may be male and it is more likely that you will see fat guys with slim, beautiful women. In an early season of Family Guy, this was lampshaded and that joke was made when Peter and Lois Griffin were represented by a drawing of Fred and Wilma Flintstone. (The situation was described thusly: “a fat man who is inexplicably married to an attractive redhead.”) On a show like King of Queens, Kevin James was opposite Leah Remini.
There have also been shows where “nerdy” men competed for the affections of a beautiful woman. And that woman who is not told how the men would look like. In these shows, the women are pushed to look deeper and not be so shallow when choosing a partner.
Will the opposite happen in any of these scenarios? For the former, not as often (or openly) as drab men being paired with hot women. More often than not, the fat woman will be put with an old man, an ugly one, a man with a fetish, or a man who is fat, as well. When a big or drabby girl does end up with a hot guy, most likely the girl is a side character, so that relationship will end when the episode does. Other than that, the relationship will end for whatever reason (including the big girl proving to be shallow herself). Alternatively, the guy does not discover that he loves the girl until the end of the show’s run, so that relationship will never be done any type of justice. You can forget about a reality show where a man is pushed to consider a partner among women he finds very unattractive.
Also consider the trope of the old man and much younger woman news anchor pair. More often than not, a man may be allowed to serve at this capacity much longer than his female counterparts (and even as long as he wants), but once a woman is on the wrong side of 50, it’s only a matter of time before she is pushed off the desk.
The messages I get from this:
- “Girls, don’t be ugly. Being fat or old automatically makes you ugly. In that case, how can you honestly expect to win a guy like that?”
- “What a guy looks like does not matter as much as what YOU look like.”
- “You can’t be ugly and a bitch.”
- “Guys are allowed to assess you by your looks because they are visual creatures. You are not allowed to do the same, because that makes you a shallow bitch.”
Issue #3: Shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Weight Loss” actually do more harm than good.
Tbqh, I don’t know what good the former show does at all. In my last post, I discussed how badly the contestants were treated, but I just scratched the surface. The worst part of the show* is threefold:
- The regimen abuses the contestants’ bodies.
- The contestants are left mentally scarred after appearing on the show.
- The wrong message is being sent to viewers, especially those with their own weight problems.
The last two are reinforced by the messaging system for each contestant, where some sick individuals on the Internet can verbally abuse each participant. This of course includes making death threats. Additionally, minors who view the program will likely try to do some of the heavily edited things they see on television. After being disappointed by the results, they risk being pushed toward anorexia, bulimia, or even suicide attempts. This show takes the fraudulence of quick weight loss commercials, pumps it full of steroids, and throws in a peanut gallery to laugh at its marks.
It seemed like Extreme Weight Loss (which aired on ABC from 2011-2015) had more heart, but I still had my concerns about it. On the show, each participant shared their story behind their weight gain, because the mental aspect is just as important of the physical one. Also, each person was met with a seemingly caring training team led by the empathetic Chris Powell. The process took over a year, which was better than Biggest Loser’s timeframe. Now, here was my problem with the show: The use of “Extreme” in its name, although the show takes the schmaltz from one of its predecessors, was a big red flag. In fact, it was originally named “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition.” That was a big tipoff that those participating were supposed to be losing a great deal of weight in a period of time. Is a year enough for the loss of 100 pounds or more? Any physician or physical trainer worth his salt will raise some flags and mention things like personal physiology.
What was not being directly addressed by both shows by varying degrees is how hard weight loss is, let alone how long it should take. It is not normal for a person to lose 50 or more pounds in a matter of weeks or a few months after years of little or no training, and if they do, they will often be left with access skin. Also, the body needs the time to adjust to a change like that, so it should not be drastic in too short a period of time. The latter show did address this with the inclusion of surgery and a yearlong commitment. However, the body chemistry is all but ignored and an entire year of footage is being condensed to just one hour.
The bottom line: An exercise program can probably do more for its viewers than any reality show about weight loss. No one should compete for weight loss or be pushed to meet an extreme goal in a short period of time. There is a mental aspect that needs to be addressed first and foremost by those who need to lose the weight and although they need a push, they need to do this on their own time. These shows put a time table on one or both, and that is more destructive in the long run.
Bonus: The Representation of LGBTQ Characters Does Broach the Topic of Self-Image
This has little to do with looks, but I think the subject has at least a small effect on self-image.
In an earlier version of this post, I mentioned that a lack of characters with different sexual orientations reinforced a standard of “normalcy” that still negatively impacts the members of the LGBTQ community. Granted, there has been greater acceptance of those from the LGBTQ community all around. In fact, Hollywood and show business have largely been ahead of the curb – especially in terms of gay characters. However, this isn’t entirely reflected on screen and there has been little shown about transsexuals.
Why is that? The representation isn’t so much about Hollywood as it is in the reception by the greater audience. Views on gays and transsexuals are reinforced by parents, peers and various elements of society. And vocal groups have threatened to boycott programs based on the inclusion of anyone with different sexual preferences or gender dysphoria.
The still hasn’t stopped shows from featuring gay characters or even broaching the topic of transsexuals. In fact, stars like Ellen DeGeneres have received tremendous support from time to time after coming out. The subject of gender dysphoria is really difficult to address, though, but there are some programs that are willing to deal with it in a heartfelt way. I would concur that it needs more study and television could have a profound effect in this regard.
My next topic in this series will discuss shows that don’t put a premium on the looks of its participants. Why is that? (Hold that thought…)
*Note: One of my sources comes from Cracked.com. I found the article in 2014. If you follow the link to the website, you will see a series of cringeworthy headlines. That’s because after one notable person was allowed to write an article for them, the site subsequently went to the dogs. The article I linked to is still worth a read, but be careful.