Rants & Raves
SPIN-DOCTOR PHIL VS. FAT ACCEPTANCE: MAKING FAT PEOPLE CRY FOR FUN AND PROFIT
By Lynne Murray
Watching the Dr. Phil show is a vice I have frequently attempted to quit.
In case you don't follow pop TV psychology, let me explain. Dr. Phil presents himself on his 5-day-a-week TV show as a good ol' boy psychologist, a likeable cuss, who might even describe himself in similar down home words.
He offers common sense, folksy advice for changing damaging behavior, but I watched in horror as he vigorously defended the lunatic idea that fat acceptance is dangerous because it causes weight gain. In other words, self-esteem is okay—but not for fat people.
Why am I drawn back to his show, even though I find this attitude to be actively harmful, not simply to fat people but to anyone with body image problems? Could it just be because I don't have cable TV, and my viewing choices are thus limited? It's more than that. I do believe Dr. Phil helps some people. His image as a righteous defender of sanity, fighting self-hurtful behavior is as appealing to me as it is to anyone else. More about that guilty pleasure below.
For fans of Sigmund Freud, I'll tell you upfront that my late father was a psychologist. He was also a debunker of any sort of hypocrisy or bull. "Don't throw snow at the snowman," Daddy used to say when I tried some spurious argument on him. Times when I miss him most are when I stand in front of something like the Dr. Phil phenomenon and try to dissect it. I am convinced my father could have nailed Dr. Phil to the mast in 25 words or less. I'll try to do it on my own, though I'll need a few more words.
Let me cut to the chase immediately and tell you what Dr. Phil McGraw's overt agenda is in regard to fat people. Then I will rant on just a bit further about his covert agenda as I see it.
Dr. Phil is going to publish a diet book. He says this as if the Holy Grail were about to be made available on the Home Shopping Network. Furthermore, he is letting his public provide him with the material by soliciting volunteers for what he calls a "diet challenge" on his website.
When I hear that any public figure is publishing a diet book, a five-letter word beginning with "W" and frequently applied to ladies of the evening comes to mind unbidden. My gut level instinct tells me that diet book authors are doing so in the hope of minting money out of people's anxiety about their bodies. Worse yet, they are going to act as if they were offering a magical cure that no one had yet found. It goes with the sales territory. Why should anyone buy yet another diet book if the author couldn't claim that that they have discovered what the hordes of previous diet book authors could not—i.e., "what really works."
Dr. Phil has been more of a debater than a healer in most of his psychological practice. When he met Oprah, he was working as a consultant to lawyers put the right spin on their witnesses in court cases.
He's a charming, down-home storyteller, occasionally eloquent. He presents an appealing self-image as a sensible guy shaking his head at people's craziness and occasionally as a white knight riding to slay the dragons of dysfunction.
But Dr. Phil can also bring out the worst in viewers. He never passes up an opportunity to rail at those whom he considers to be engaging in harmful behavior. In the case of fat activists the harmful behavior he targets is self-esteem!
Let me just say that just one more time, because it irritates the hell out of me. Dr. Phil has decided that self-acceptance for fat people can be dangerous to our health.
Why is it always called "helping people" to facilitate yo-yo dieting? Why is the process never questioned and the victim always blamed in this scenario?
To give credit where credit is due, Dr. Phil did display in his "debate on fat acceptance" show (and on his web site) the "5 Biggest Myths about Obese People." That list includes the statement "Myth #5—Fat people are always unhappy being fat. Body image and self image are two separate things. You can have a healthy self-image whether or not you are happy about your body image."
Yet also on his web site under Self-esteem, he states: "You cannot be completely happy with yourself unless you're happy about everything that makes you what you are."
The disconnect between those two statements shows how completely Dr. Phil's (and his staff's) preconceptions make it impossible for a fat person's body to be part of "everything that makes you what you are."
To Dr. Phil, Inc., fat is still a dysfunction. A very profitable one, I might add. But people who make money off of fat people's self-hatred never present themselves as cultivating self-hatred. They always present themselves as "nurturing" fat people to accept themselves as we "should be." Dr. Phil would never have the gall to tell a person in a wheelchair that accepting his/her body is "dangerous." But he and his staff are so infected with fat prejudice that they have set up every dialog to "prove" that accepting one's fat body is a kind of dysfunction.
I am being kind and not saying that Dr. Phil & Co. (being a Ph.D., rather than a medical doctor, he employs a staff of tame M.D.s) are blinded by the dollar signs to be won by making the Fat = Sick equation. But you've got to admit, this dysfunctional fatness is something he's offering to "cure" in his new diet book. Coincidence? I think not.
Take a deep breath, Lynne. Let's talk about my ambivalent reaction and why I wanted to murder Dr. Phil for his cavalierly "caring" put-downs of fat accepting people on his show. (And why I may yet fictionally murder him, seeing as how I have been known to write mysteries.)
I definitely wanted to shoot him when I saw Dr. Phil, who is a very tall man to begin with, standing up on stage and "talking down" to some fat acceptance activists in the audience during most of a show devoted to the evils of accepting oneself, if fat. For someone who has dealt in Spin Doctoring, putting oneself higher than others and bending down to talk to them automatically makes one the parental authority. Ever wonder why judges sit on those raised seats above the court? Dr. Phil & Co. don't have to wonder, they know.
The show where Dr. Phil bent down to enlighten the fat activists, purported to be a dialog about fat acceptance. There were five women participating. Sally Smith and Maryanne Bodolay were from NAAFA (the National Association To Advance Fat Acceptance). There was a woman who had successfully lost weight. There was a woman who had refused to let being supersized keep her from swimming several times a week. And the group was rounded out (or should that be thinned out?) by a thin woman whom I can only describe as a very insecure and rabidly fat-hating. So much debate arose that the one-hour show was followed up by a show cobbled together from overflow material.
Clearly the reason the show went into a second hour (aside from the dieting book promotion aspect) was because of the heated exchanges among the participants. In the talk show business, that passes for objective dialog. There was a definite Jerry Springer quality to this interchange—except that Dr. Phil was joining in the fray and emerging as the victor—something Springer has the class to resist doing.
I deeply admire the activists who took the gamble of participating in this show for their courage in playing despite the stacked deck. I wouldn't go near such a "debate" for anything.
Dr Phil shares Oprah's unhidden diet agenda. He calls it a Life Change, of course. (No, not menopause, that's a different show). This alone should tip you to the fact that he is strongly invested in the idea that psychological health can be weighed on a scale.
During the show where she had to gaze up at Dr. Phil in order to debate him, Sally Smith quoted some of the long term studies showing a 95 percent weight regain among dieters. For a moment, Dr. Phil even disputed that research. He suggested it was more like 85 percent weight regain. He didn't want to dwell on that depressing statistic. So bad for business. So he immediately challenged the MOTIVATION of dieters who regained weight in these studies.
Excuse me for "yelling" in caps. From a scientific point of view I was disgusted to hear that kind of argument. For those of you unfamiliar with scientific studies, I must stress that unless the study is specifically pointed at gauging motivation, there will be no such data included. Anyone speculating about the motivation of people in a purely statistical study is doing just that, and should be ashamed of themselves for presenting it as if it were scientific fact.
The studies Sally and Phil were referring to didn't study motivation. Dr. Phil's sudden argument that weight regain is due to faulty motivation was simply his prejudice showing itself clearly. Was that my teeth grinding or the axe Dr. Phil grinds? That axe is not a therapeutic instrument.
Then Dr. Phil turned on the concern, and whipped out his crystal ball, to suggest that he saw "danger ahead" when he saw very large people. When Sally Smith said that every dieting experience had left her heavier, Dr. Phil, possibly struggling to maintain the upper hand in the debate, simply discarded her experience as irrelevant.
Let me just point out that if you tell someone they are in danger of burning to death and try to hand them a can of kerosene, they may tell you they understand the danger in the situation, but they have tried pouring kerosene on a fire many times in the past and found it only made the fire worse.
If Dr. Phil were acting as a therapist and not a diet monger or a debater, he would not have been so contemptuous as to dismiss Sally's experience out of hand.
Hell, you shouldn't need to be a certified therapist to at least consider what people have tried in the past to solve a problem. The fact that Dr. Phil dismisses fat people's experience and brushes off the scientific research that supports them, makes his prejudice stand out as the naked discrimination that it is.
Worst of all from my point of view is that Dr. Phil was trying to bring his Medical-Scientific-Therapeutic authority into the debate. Any therapeutic intent was negated by his need to be right.
I have to say that Sally Smith fought fairly. A dirty fighter would have mentioned Dr. Phil's obvious economic incentive in being right here. Of course, she might have been lynched by the Dr. Phil-adoring studio audience, so she probably made the wisest choice.
Having faulted the motivation of the people in scientific studies showing weight regain after dieting, Dr. Phil had no problem easily brushing off anything Sally Smith may have experienced. All he had to do was fault her desire to change.
As fat people, we have frequently had our dieting experiences discarded as irrelevant because they don't fit people's expectations of what a diet should do. The fact that such a tiny percentage of diets ever do what diets should do, doesn't seem to figure into the equation. The fact that so many of us gain weight through the supposed weight loss regimes is similarly deemed as irrelevant.
The frustration of being dismissed is how I came to be very militant about fat activism. It has taken me years to value my own experience. I have fought very hard against a monolith of prejudice to see how much of this fake "concern" is aimed at parting me from my money and then blaming my flawed motivation if the so-called cure for my supposed disease doesn't work—yet again. They can offer a money-back guarantee on every diet with absolute confidence that no fat person would ever dare ask for money back. How could we prove that the diet didn't work? We have been brainwashed into believing that any diet failure always means we have failed, never that the diet has failed.
Do you begin to see why I question the ethics of those who write diet books?
A major portion of Dr. Phil's dialog with fat acceptance program was devoted to the activists' desire to make things like seat belts and airline seats accessible to fat people.
Dr. Phil found that asking for that kind of "special treatment" was too much. How dare those fat people ask for seats that fit? They should be working on their own motivation to shrink down to fit what's offered. This is the kind of thinking that kept people in wheelchairs out of the public eye for most of the 20th century.
When Sally suggested that penalizing fat people is "blaming the victim" he attacked her for casting herself as a victim. Another debating tactic. He then whipped out his therapist's hat and expressed his concern about her health at that weight—never once having acknowledged that every effort she had made to lose weight had had the opposite effect.
Dr. Phil has marshaled (and I use that word for a reason) a very strong role for himself. He's cast himself as the Voice of Reason, a sort of Lone Ranger Shrink who rides in to rescue the dysfunctional from themselves.
Dr. Phil picks his targets, and his underdogs, with care. This is the part where I face my addiction to his TV show and begin to take some steps (12 perhaps?) toward recovering.
I confess to having indulged in the guilty pleasure of watching Dr. Phil ride to the rescue.
Cue the William Tell Overture. An anxious groom whose bride-to-be wants to go into long term debt for a dream wedding they cannot afford. "Have you ever seen my show before?" Dr. Phil asks, rolling his eyes to the camera before skewering the future bride with an impassioned plea not to cripple the marriage with a horrendous debt for "a 30-minute ceremony."
I have often felt very positive toward Dr. Phil while watching him dissect some abusive couples' situations with sound advice. He has cultivated with care his image of championing the underdog. Then I simply watched in amazement to see him shamelessly trash a mother in a high-profile child neglect case—a woman who might as well have had a target painted on her back.
During the course of dealing with guests' problems, Dr. Phil will frequently mention that he will force his guests "to be honest and change." The implication is that the guests wouldn't be there if they weren't in desperate need of change. When they arrive on the show, guests are making a tacit assumption that they are wrong and Dr. Phil will be right. Making fat people cry just comes with the territory.
"Why shouldn't he do that?" you may well ask. What's one more diet-monger coining money by making playing on the anxiety and desperation of fat people? This kind of behavior made Richard Simmons cry all the way to the bank. Dr. Phil's television mentor and godmother, Oprah Winfrey, can play both parts—the dysfunctional fat person and the therapeutic rescuer. Sometimes she plays both at once, and her audience adores it.
For someone like Oprah, who is so publicly addicted to dieting, I see her as enacting the Myth of Sisyphus. Remember that poor guy in the hell of Greek mythology? Sisyphus was the one who rolled that boulder up the hill. It would immediately roll back down again, forcing him to repeat the process throughout eternity. That was a pretty good definition of hell, the punishment of futile endeavor. The modern dieter is voluntarily taking on that struggle, with the approval of society, and to the accompaniment of cheers when she reaches the summit, and jeers it rolls back down again.
A major part of my deep disappointment in Dr. Phil is guilt on my part for enjoying his righteous indignation when it's directed against people who seem to me to actually deserve being set straight. What I hated about his eye-rolling disrespect for fat people was the same thing I enjoyed when he was skewering a spendthrift or abusive spouse or parent.
I imagine many in his audience see fat people as deviant, even if they themselves are fat, or fear becoming so. So those people, no doubt, enjoyed watching Dr. Phil beat up on those uppity fat women who dared to think they were "okay" or that they deserved to have airline seats that fit or armless chairs made available in public places.
It's one of the uglier parts of human nature. There is a side of humankind that likes to see someone else get knocked around-so long as the person getting slammed seems to deserve it. When it's us getting slapped, it starts to feel like abuse. Unless, like so many fat people, we are used to getting insulted "for our own good." Note to Dr. Phil—it ain't. The word that kept coming to mind to describe this behavior was bullying.
Dr. Phil is a bully.
Oddly enough Dr. Phil used that very word during the program where I saw him bully the young fat woman who dared to say she liked herself. This was the show wherein Dr. Phil had invited people who disagreed with him to take him on—"You know where to find me!" One of the people who wrote in to take issue was a woman who disagreed with his previous opinion finding fat activism "dangerous."
All this woman wanted to express was that she was healthy and liked herself. Dr. Phil questioned both assumptions. He then proceeded (with background help from his staff of performing medical doctors) to trash this lovely young woman—who was, of course, a lone individual with no professional "staff" to debate him on an equal footing.
The unequal contest turned out to be a slam dunk for Dr. Phil, who even had the temerity to disagree when she said her blood pressure was normal! She may have normal blood pressure now, he suggested, but there was bound to be trouble ahead.
Dr. Phil thereby provided us with a textbook example on nationally television of medical hexing.
Medical hexing is making an unwarranted, pseudo-scientific prediction about a person's future medical outcome with no justification whatsoever. Usually these predictions are made by medical doctors in hopes of forcing a patient into following their treatment plan—be it good, bad or indifferent. The real message is, "Shut up and do what I say." Dr. Phil is a Ph.D., rather than a medical doctor, although he mentions that he employs M.D.s on his staff.
A truly fair contest would have been if the young woman being attacked had been able to call Dr. Phil to account for his profit motive for predicting disaster ahead for her. But she had no staff behind her to prepare counter-arguments, and she had no years of association with professional debaters (i.e., lawyers) to arm her to argue with him on his home turf.
Dr. Phil's diet book isn't out yet. He's still gathering material from willing volunteers and beginning the drum beat for an eventual publication.
At the end of this program where everyone had "taken on" Dr. Phil and been roundly defeated, the good ol' doctor shared his view of what he himself personally hates. He said "bullies."
Dr. Phil hates bullies.
I think Freud would find that interesting.
© Lynne Murray