Rants & Raves
DR. PHIL, THE SEVEN SUTHERLAND SISTERS HAIR GROWER, AND THE NEW SNAKE OIL SALES GAME
By Lynne Murray
I am sad to report that what had been an uneasy love-hate relationship with Dr. Phil McGraw has crystallized into a solid distaste for his enthusiastic and self-righteous exploitation of fat people and his power trip. I write this in sorrow, because Dr. Phil still demonstrates common sense in many areas (such as teaching parents simple, effective behavior modification techniques rather than spanking or hitting children).
On the issue of weight Dr. Phil has chosen to disregard proven research and go with profitable prejudice—and once he embraces prejudice, he goes whole hog, to coin a phrase. How can something that looks so much like a game show dare to call itself therapeutic?
Dr. Phil's Diet Challenge shows shamelessly rip off the Survivor "reality" TV game show concept, just as some of his dubious therapy (with cameras in people's homes?!) rip off both the TV show Big Brother and George Orwell's cautionary tale 1984, where every room has a surveillance unit and Big Brother is always watching.
In the Diet Challenge game, he sets up competition among the fat people who participate—right down to allowing them to vote each other "off the island." Big Brother Phil, who has votes that count more than any of the fat participants, can exercise veto power—which he does with solemn portentous soul searching about whether the person will benefit from the program.
Like Dr. Phil's many products—which include "meal replacements"—his shows come in several flavors. The next time I watched he was marching around shouting drill sergeant cadences with people who wearing T-shirts testifying that they had enrolled in "Dr. Phil's Booty Camp."
I received an email from a very wise young man of 16, who is an admirer of the larger figure. He was distressed about the damage the Teen Challenge version of Dr. Phil's diet program would do to young fat people who already have precarious self-esteem. He said he would be willing to debate Dr. Phil on his show if he thought there was the slightest chance his message would be heard. But he knew it would be edited into yet another infomercial for Dr. Phil. I'm afraid I have to agree with this young man, having seen the slice and dice done to people who had the temerity to think Dr. Phil really wanted an honest dialogue.
Another email from a very well-informed woman, Sara Binkley Tarpley, expressed her concern about Dr. Phil's attacks and insults, not just on fat people, but on many families he was supposedly trying to help. She also touched on issues of consent. She asked:
Is Dr. Phil not bound by a code of ethics? I understand that adults can waive confidentiality for themselves, but surely they cannot waive it for minor children. I do not understand why no one with any kind of authority is concerned... At the end of his hour with [a troubled] family, Dr. Phil piously informed the audience that he considered an hour like the one just passed to be "the highest and best use of television." I wonder when his book on humility is coming out.
Dr. Phil spent a great deal of his earlier psychology practice working for wolves—excuse me, lawyers—so I think we can be sure that liability issues relating to the show have been thoroughly explored and enough hedging is built in to keep him out of court.
I took a look at the disclaimer on the Dr. Phil web site and it specifies that everything on the site is for entertainment and should not be confused with therapy. Guests on his show most assuredly sign even more stringent waivers. But when someone is in tremendous emotional pain, and they are being offered something that sure looks like free therapy, how can they give informed consent? Judging from their anguish, most of the people on the Dr. Phil show are under the impression that they are receiving actual therapy.
Dr. Phil's shameless spectacle in the name of health called to mind the Snake Oil Pitch "doctors" who toured the United States in the late 1800 and early 1900s.
These charlatans would lead a circus-like parade (often with a band) into town. They would set up a circus tent and provide a show with skits and stunts, followed by a pseudo-medical lecture by a self-anointed doctor aimed at selling products with names like Swamp Root Kidney and Liver Medicine and The Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower.
"Doctor" So-and-So's Magical Elixir was usually composed of water and alcohol, with some bitters or camphor added to provide a medicine taste and pepper oil to provide an impressive burning sensation.
Like the diet industry today, the "patent" medicines of late 1800s were ineffectual at best, harmful at worst. The doctors of that time had no "magic bullet" to cure microbe-caused infections; antibiotics would not be discovered for another half century. There was very little licensing or regulation of drugs. The vendor could make any claim he wanted without fear of being held accountable.
We are in a similar state of ineffectuality in regards to "treatment" of what is being called "the disease of obesity." No one ever died of simply being fat, but fat is hated and feared. The statistics that relate disease to obesity are the worst kind of statistical lying. The fact of the matter is nothing works for long when it comes to weight loss, and that opens up the area to charlatans of all stripes.
As a child I remember once coming across a TV evangelist program and asking my own psychologist father if he believed in original sin. He replied, "I believe it is a proven fact of human behavior that frustration leads to aggression." I've seen that principle at work often. I think it explains why many physicians respond with such punitive would-be treatments due to their frustration with fat patients. Nothing works, so the aggressiveness of treatments escalates to the point where a truly objective person would find them truly abusive. But it's hard to find logic in the anti-fat business.
Standing tall among the crowds of con men seeking to live off of American desperation over obesity, Dr. Phil uses the fact that nothing works and no one knows what works, along with his psychology training to protect himself from responsibility. If for any reason, his program doesn't work, he can and will blame the fat people involved for being poorly motivated.
Dr. Phil is also taking advantage of a deep-seated, almost religious faith in what I will call the "eat less/move more" school of dieting. It makes a catchy mantra, right? No one could argue with moving more. Eating less ties right into the "fasting and mortifying the flesh" tradition of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The "exercise more" is where the "mortifying the flesh" comes in.
The religious self-denying fervor that people fall into in the early weeks and months of dieting has a very strong link with the human desire to purify though purging. Victims of anorexia and bulimia know this very well, and dieting as a fad in America skates right on the line of the anorexic/ bulimic/ religious fasting streak in human nature.
This isn't about what is healthy for people, or we wouldn't see all the emphasis on losing weight. If health were the issue, Dr. Phil would be providing incentives to do positive things for your body at any size. But it's not about being healthy at any weight. Self-acceptance is a hard sell when the person counseling you hates fat and refuses to admit the possibility that a fat person could like her or himself.
Dr. Phil uses his own fat hatred as "motivation." He is a former college athlete who is pretty clearly terrified by the idea of fat. He hit an easily accessible nerve there. Most people in America either fear getting fat, or already are fat and hate it—in themselves and others.
I happened to tune in when Dr. Phil took a physical exam on camera (to encourage men to have a regular check-up). The doctor asked if there was a history of obesity in the family—the answer was, "My sister has a history of obesity." Any history of diabetes. "My sister has diabetes. You should get my sister in here."
You don't have to be a psychologist to look carefully at what Phil has said here. He just said that that he doesn't include his sister in the same family as himself when it comes to being fat or at risk for diabetes. In essence, "Fat is her problem, not mine." That's a very common psychological quirk. If you have a problem—project it on someone else. Then attack them.
This is one of the uglier sides of human nature. At its worst, when deep fears are projected onto an easily recognizable subgroup, hatred can be mobilized into persecution.
Fat people are the group du jour in America.
When he's not dealing with his own fears and verbally beating up on fat people as a sort of diet drill instructor from hell, Dr. Phil is now openly selling diet products as well as his diet book. He draws the line (and there may be a legal line here) by not advertising his diet products on his television show, although other companies' diet products are advertised.
In "Dr. Phil, Medicine Man," a New York Times article by Shari Day (October 27, 2003), Ms. Day writes:
[B]ecause Dr. McGraw carries the honorific "doctor"—though he is a clinical psychologist and not a physician—his critics say that consumers are more likely to trust his recommendations...
His licensing deal with CSA Nutraceuticals calls for a percentage of the products' annual sales to be given to the Dr. Phil Foundation, a charity in Dallas that addresses epidemics like childhood obesity...
But the deal also has some novel restrictions. Although the cover of his weight-loss book and the package design of the Shape Up products have a striking resemblance—both carry a full-length image of Dr. McGraw flashing a toothy grin and a red-and-white color scheme—neither product is explicitly used to promote the other. (New York Times, October 27, 2003)
Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, a media consulting group, says later in the same article:
"[Dr. Phil] knows that he's got a popular following, and he's taking advantage of that to further create an image of himself as a brand"... (New York Times, October 27, 2003)
The "Dr. Phil brand" is the glue that holds the show together. It is slathered on so thickly that that if you were remove all the "Thank you, Dr. Phil" and "You saved me, Dr. Phil" from participants, and also take out the "Read my book" references from the man himself, the show would be half as long! I exaggerate, maybe one third of the average program consists of a Dr. Phil Infomercial.
Scientific studies over the past several decades consistently prove that the methods Dr. Phil endorses fail spectacularly. When 95-98 percent of the people Dr. Phil is "working with" regain whatever weight they lost within five years, some will regain more. All are risking damage to their hearts. (See the link at the end of this article for summaries of this research.)
The con men who victimize fat people are never shy about using hatred of fat and fat people to evade responsibility for any failure of their methods. Which is handy, since their methods almost inevitably do fail. Conveniently for the con men, hatred of fat also means self-hatred. So when fat people fail to lose weight and keep it off, "experts" like Dr. Phil blame them and dieters also blame themselves.
Dr. Phil has already started blaming the unsuccessful dieter. When fat activists confronted on his show with the overwhelming number of dieters who regain every pound (and more) within five years, he cited the dieters' "poor motivation."
Dr. Phil presents a strong parent figure to his guests—we can't call them clients, because this is "entertainment, not therapy," right? From the con man's purely cynical "entertainment" point of view, what difference would it make whether the people who lost weight regained it in five years? Over the years we've seen these unfortunate victims being used as dramatic candidates for more con man "intervention." Several diet gurus, such as Richard Simmons and Dick Gregory, have turned the damaging of their client/victims into decade-long dramas with the diet guru playing the part of the selfless savior, and the client/victims as the repentant sinners.
I have seen fat people go on Dr. Phil's show with a positive attitude toward themselves and towards him, only to be attacked and trashed for (a) being fat, and (b) daring to think they could feel okay about themselves, and (c) daring to criticize Dr. Phil in any way, shape or form. When one extremely poised young black woman accused Dr. Phil of hating fat people, he actually played some footage of himself hugging fat people to demonstrate that he didn't hate fat people.
Note to Dr. Phil—The way my cats play with a mouse very closely resembles the way they would play with a kitten. But there is a difference. A cat is a predator. Playing with her kitten, the mother cat stops and licks the kitten after a bit of wrestling. With the mouse, she bats it around for awhile and then kills it. The kitten is her offspring. The mouse is her prey.
As fat people, Dr. Phil may be talking nurture, but the claws are out and the jaws are open. He will not hesitate to snap your neck on national television to protect his own deep-seated neuroses. I'm being kind to the man, I don't think he trashes people purely for profit. He may actually have deluded himself into believing he is helping.
But for whatever reason the effect is that he has decided that fat people are acceptable prey. Whether this blindness to the research has a neurotic or a purely a profit motive is between him and his analyst. But I would hazard a wild guess that, aside from the pure profit motive, he preys on fat people in hopes of never becoming one himself.
I would stay out of his claws if I were you. And make sure your wallet is securely stowed when getting within hugging range.
(To read the medical research that Dr. Phil ignores in order to maintain the illusion that he is helping fat people on his show, here is a link to Sandy Scwarc's very clear and readable Series On Obesity. This is basic, well-documented, research and she presents references for those who want to delve deeper.)
© Lynne Murray