Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Addicted to Oprah

Oh Lor': what'll they thank of next? A whole TV channel with Oprah's name on it? Well, her initials at least, which in essence spell out, "I Own You".

Out of curiosity I sometimes dip into this channel, which suddenly came along and usurped a rather shallow "women's channel" called Viva. Viva disappeared; Oprah was "in". I think it's only a preview however, and soon you'll have to pay extra.

The first thing I tried was a behind-the-scenes "reality" show about Oprah's final season. And, oh Lor', was it hard to watch. It consists of Oprah throwing her formidable weight around while her myriad producers scurry this way and that trying to placate and please the Queen like termites in a rotten foundation. 

She has her little hissy fits, along with bouts of raucous laughter, almost like something out of Gone with the Wind. (She does frequently affect a Southern drawl, a y'all thaang that's supposed to make her look like Jest Folks, which she isn't, unless Jest Folks is worth a few billion bucks). If this sounds racist, I apologize, but it has always struck me as weird that she has fought so hard to beat black stereotypes, then feigns one of the worst ones possible at regular intervals.

OK then, due to a sort of vertigo combined with queasiness I had to go on to the next program. I noticed that there were shows hosted by Suze Orman, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Dr. Feelgood and many, many other Oprah-anointed experts. I skipped those, having become perfect already from watching her show for umpteen years.

Lisa Ling hosts Our America, which really showed some promise until I saw how soft and squishy it was. She puts her arm around dope fiends and sex offenders and people trying to "pray the gay away", and speaks softly into the camera, her eyes glistening with empathy. This show might work if it were tougher, or at least more objective. Tackling issues like this requires real journalism, not hand-holding. It was a real disappointment.

But soft! What's this? I confess I am addicted to recovery shows, especially what my son calls "fat shows". I saw one called Heavy which was either on TLC or A&E (and is there a difference?), in which 500-lb. people were mercilessly whipped into shape, risking a heart attack or stroke doing strenuous exercise that even a very fit person couldn't stand. And nearly starving to death on 800 calories, when they were used to 8000. They all lost weight, of course, but nearly lost their minds in the process.

But this new show, Addicted to Food, takes place in one of those hidey-hole luxury resorts designed to make y'all better and set y'all free from whatever demons ail you ("Out, Satan!"). It's run by a hardass Southern woman who claims she used to eat herself practically to dya-a-a-th, sugar, but now knows the secret and can impart it to you for only $5,000.00 (and in just 42 days!).

I don't know why 42 days. Isn't that six weeks? Why not say six weeks? Anyway, these people, eight of them I think (but only one man) have a ragbag of eating disorders ranging from bulimia to anorexia to just plain eating too much. All these conditions are considered the same because they are all connected to food, and all of them are treated as addictions.

The contrast with Heavy is startling. Instead of doing any exercise, they sit around a lot yakking. The heaviest thing they lift are books about eating disorders. In "group", they dig out all their deepest traumas from childhood and give them a good airing. The previews show them bending over the toilet and crouching on the floor and screaming (hey, we can't wait!), but so far it has been pretty slow.

There's a painfully-thin, pinched-looking woman who cheats, not on the first day but at the first meal. She upchucks the whole thing, then lies about it. Someone always follows you into the bathroom on this show, but somehow she slipped past the Nazi guards.

The therapists all look underweight, and are obviously under the thumb of this Southern lady, don't ask me her name because I don't feel like lookin' it u-up, y'all. She ducks behind a doorway and sheds a decorous tear at one point, from identi-fahh-in' with the pain of one of the large ladies in her care. (Sorry about the accent parody. I don't want to be mean. Let's say I'm doing it in the spirit of O, the goddess behind all this arcane transformation mythology.)

There are squabbles and blowups, like on Heavy where the fattest guy of all jumps up and down and yells, "LEAVE! ME! ALONE!" But nobody is left alone here, ever. They even sleep in dorms with four beds to a room (and all sharps are confiscated). I was aghast to see the "assignments" they were required to accept without question: one woman had to wear a blindfold for several days, so she would have no idea where she was going(thus surrendering her "control issues"); the token male had to wear thick, heavy gloves all the time, giving him a preview of the self-inflicted neuropathy that would be his fate if he didn't shape up; one woman, deemed too talkative by the staff, had to wear a big sign that said she was not allowed to speak at all.

These are adults, and we are adults, and not dummies, so why then must these people wear big 12"-wide cardboard signs with string on them? Is telling them what they must do not enough? Another bizarre ritual involved stripping naked in front of a full-length mirror with a paper bag over your head. This is supposed to bring out the full extent of your self-loathing. No, I'm not making this up.

It's like healing a sore by scraping on it and jabbing at it and rubbing sand in it. The 12-step orientation is never spelled out, but at one point, beaten down at the end of another humiliating day, they all join hands and say the Serenity Prayer.

They have to surrender, see? Surrender to a power greater than themselves (that Southern lady, or, hey, perhaps it's O herself!). Oprah has always refused to see a therapist (while at the same time practically demanding that everyone else see one), and her "own" weight has fluctuated madly for the past 30 years. Her current size could easily lead to significant health problems at her age, yet she continues her obsession with "transforming" everybody around her.

Addicted to Food isn't really about diet and exercise, like Heavy, but about "feelings". Getting in touch with those feelings. Crying: that's good! But it means being essentially out of control. In reality, how is this going to help you?

You can't go to the office and blubber at your desk every time you think about your Dad. It looks bad and won't get you out of your dead-end job. You can't talk on and on to everyone you know about your trauma: it's boring and embarrassing and it doesn't change anything. The chances of your overcoming a serious eating disorder with hokey "treatment" by some self-styled "medical" expert with no degree and no real training at all apart from her own experience is, shall we say, slim.

Not long ago Oprah brought back Ivanyla Vanzant from the dead, or at least from the recycle bin. In the '90s this lady was hot: her self-help books and smart-ass patter really dragged them in, and even Oprah was entertained, laughing uproariously at all the messes she'd made. But it turned out the mess was worse than anyone thought.

This expert, a diva in her own right, turned down an offer from Oprah to host her own show, going instead with "an offer from someone big. I mean BIG." Turned out it was Barbara Walters. But Vanzant's show was such a mess, it lasted barely a year. Meanwhile she burned through an advance for a book that never materialized, and found herself in a spot of trouble.

On her recent Oprah appearance, she showed footage of herself living in a shack and dressed like a bag lady. The disbelieving audience tittered, but she was serious. She was obviously looking for sympathy, if not pity, and a substantial handout. She'd written a new book about it, of course. Her reason for failing: deep down she didn't think she deserved success, due to generations of "DNA" that programmed her to fail.

Whoa. DNA?

DNA is responsible for bad cheques and bad decisions and bad books (I ordered a copy of the book and immediately sent it back to Amazon, it was so appallingly awful)? Isn't that, just a little bit, abdicating responsibility for your own choices?

OK, so what am I getting at here? This OWN franchise seems to be celebrating personal transformation, but not through your own strength or courage or integrity. No, you have to "surrender" to one of these sagn-hanging' experts who, without question, know better than you do.

Breaking someone down to build them up again is something cults do. If you resist, it's ego (Edging God Out, or something like that). It all has a Stepford quality to it, pre-programmed along with all the sobbing for the cameras (and surely these people are exhibitionists if they want to do all their agonizing "work" on national TV).

I think people can get better, in fact I know they can get better, but not on TV with "kick me" signs around their necks. Even group therapy (especially group therapy) needs to be private, led by a professional, with each individual carefully protected. Over and over again we hear that people with addictions have very poorly-defined boundaries. The solution to this isn't trampling them, but encouraging individuals to rebuild themselves. It's slow and there are many backsteps. But it can happen.

Just not in a three-ring public coliseum with a kick-me sign around your neck.


  1. So glad I kicked the TV habit when I found OS.

  2. It's slim (pardon the pun) pickin's these days. Increasingly I watch Turner Classics and shows like Dateline.