Sunday, February 21, 2010

Conspiracy theory of the day, II

Is "The Biggest Loser" perhaps kinda-sorta sponsored by the government? I ask because I was watching it just now while making dinner (ah, Hulu), and at one point, one of those ads came on for what might be the First Lady's attempt to end childhood obesity - or what was at any rate an ad about preventing childhood obesity - by encouraging children to play outside and risk an infinitesimal chance of abduction rather than play video games inside with a much greater chance of needing to buy an extra plane ticket as an adult. It got me thinking: is the whole show a giant public-service announcement? It's certainly got private sponsors galore, clumsily inserted into the script, with contestants saying things like, 'That's right, Bob and Jillian, by eating Name-Brand 99% fat-free turkey burgers, I'll lose those extra 400 pounds in no time!' But there's something about the show - is it the flawless racial and geographical mix? the nonsense message that weight loss comes nearly entirely from exercise, with diet almost too taboo to mention, perhaps because of corn subsidies or whatever it is Pollan's going on about when he's actually making sense? - that makes me suspect it's more official than meets the eye.

15 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

I think the ads on Hulu are random, unless Buffy reruns are specially targeted by Haitian earthquake relief efforts. I have also seen that Michelle Obama ad on my shows, so unless the government sponsors all TV on the internet, I think you're safe.

Phoebe said...

But those ads were just one of the clues, among if not many, at least several. Although it's more likely, I suppose, that the show's a conspiracy of Extra Sugarfree Gum.

PG said...

I find it very unlikely that the "Biggest Loser" is government sponsored in any deliberate sense, given that it originated during the Bush II Administration. OTOH, your description of its weight-loss philosophy as centered on exercise to the near-exclusion of diet actually does sound like George W.'s own practices and reported tendency to urge his staff and colleagues to get on a bike, but not to press for healthier meals. I think this is at most due to a similar underlying conservative philosophy for both Bush and the show, however, and not because the former directly influenced the latter. This would be the philosophy that a great deal of concern for what one eats is fussy, womanly, and not socially acceptable among Real Americans (not to mention very inconvenient on the campaign trail, where one is expected to eat whatever deepfried shit-on-a-stick is being served at the Iowa State Fair), whereas exercise is vigorous and manly.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Is the exercise-over-diet approach conservative, or just American? If anything, pointing out that what we eat determines weight far more than any other factor smacks of tell-it-like-it-is, personal-responsibility-is-all conservatism. (It conflicts, of course, with real-men-eat-corndogs conservatism. And if it's the government ordering rather than advising you to put down the Twinkies, that's another story.) Telling people that the way they eat is all wrong is nicely anti-PC. It's not, however, populist, and so doesn't quite fit with today's right wing.

Miss Self-Important said...

The exercise over diet approach is Rousseau-ian:
"Whatever food you give your children, provided you accustom them to nothing but plain and simple dishes, let them eat and run and play as much as they want; you may be sure they will never eat too much and will never have indigestion; but if you keep them hungry half their time, when they do contrive to evade your vigilance, they will take advantage of it as far as they can; they will eat till they are sick, they will gorge themselves till they can eat no more. Our appetite is only excessive because we try to impose on it rules other than those of nature, opposing, controlling, prescribing, adding, or substracting; the scales are always in our hands, but the scales are the measure of our caprices not of our stomachs. I return to my usual illustration; among peasants the cupboard and the apple-loft are always left open, and indigestion is unknown alike to children and grown-up people." (sorry for the spacing)

PG said...

But I doubt Rousseau considered corndogs to be" plain and simple dishes." He seemed to be concerned about the acid reflux of his day, not about obesity.

Miss Self-Important said...

I defer to Phoebe on the subject of 18th century French peasant cuisine, but given what we know about peasant cuisines of other regions, I doubt it had more in common with Alice Waters than with corn dogs. Rousseau is concerned with the transformation of eating into a science, complete with faddish diets and very authoritative but frequently changing nutritional claims.

Ted Frank said...

I've seen those government anti-obesity ads on "Modern Family," "30 Rock," and "The Office" on Hulu, so I doubt that there's any "Biggest Loser" targeting going on, and I doubt any responsible health advocate would sign off on Biggest Loser weight-loss methodology.

PG said...

But a corndog is much more the product of science than the meals that Alice Waters promotes; why should Rousseau frown upon "Salad of green asparagus with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and farm egg"? And certainly the whole Michael Pollan shtick about not eating food your grandmother wouldn't recognize seems to fit with Rousseau's admonitions.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure about that. Rousseau is not really making a proto-Pollan salvo in favor of tradition and poor people's ways. He is against turning eating into a science, which includes doing exactly the kinds of things that Pollan and Waters do--that is "opposing, controlling, prescribing, adding, or substracting." Sure, both claim that they are only making these calculations in order to distill the essence of the "natural diet." But the point is that thinking too much about eating is the problem, not what one eats. And exercise, or whatever else that distracts from dwelling on meals (or the lack of them), is a solution--not because it makes you thin, but because it makes you stop thinking about food. The obsession with eating can lead to either gluttony (obesity, in modern parlance) or self-denial (thinness), but in neither case is it a good approach to eating. "Salad of green asparagus with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and farm egg" is just a 21st century equivalent of whatever complex thing bourgie French society people ate in 1763 dressed in the rhetoric of simplicity and naturalness (I'm guessing the 18th century would've preferred the rhetoric of spice).

Rousseau would be against the corn-dog, I suppose, since this excerpt follows a long section on the justice of vegetarianism. But the problem of corn-dog mass-production and nutrient dearth would be outside the scope of this particular point.

Phoebe said...

It's been a while since I've read any Rousseau (about Rousseau's inevitable and constant), and the one to go to for what 18th C French or Swiss peasants or otherwise ate would be my friend and officemate Max (see the cheese blog on the sidebar).

That said, it strikes me as impossible to speak of any 'natural' eating for members of our species, except perhaps in hunter-gatherer societies. One type of 'natural' is the Pollan-Waters-hippie idea of avoiding foods that are unnatural (as in, very far from how they're found in nature or even through agriculture). Doing this is, of course, unnatural behavior, in that it requires going out of your way and thinking extra about food. But a 'natural' - that is, a healthy, non-neurotic, eating-only-when-hungry, eating-only-what-you-want-and-not-what-They-say-you-should - attitude probably means eating a whole lot of foods that's unnatural and unhealthy by just about any standard. In other words, not thinking about food will, for many people, lead to obesity, given today's food supply. In Rousseau's pre-Dorito world, this was probably less of an issue. But today, at least, the whole 'if you listen to your body and don't use food for comfort, equilibrium will ensue' ideal doesn't make practical sense for most of us past age, I don't know, 20? If only serious food-oriented neurosis made people fat, Americans would be a whole lot thinner.

Phoebe said...

"about Rousseau's inevitable and constant" - by this I meant that it's inevitable that I'm reading about Rousseau in one way or another constantly...

Matt said...

In Rousseau's pre-Dorito world,

I will try to work this in to the next thing I write involving Rousseau.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm also not sure that's true. A big part of the first couple books of Emile, where this quote is from, is about shielding the child from cultivating non-necessary desires, such as for Doritos, or their 18th Century equivalent (they had oil and frying pans, so I imagine they had some equivalent). In other words, Rousseau recognized the Dorito problem and he went to some lengths to try to protect the child's most instinctual dietary preferences from adulteration by social forces, like the ones that say, "Look at these Doritos, they are so yummy, let's eat the whole bag." Anyone raised by these forces and told at 30 to "listen to their bodies" is unlikely to hear anything but desire for Doritos, and so is doomed to a lifetime of food neurosis.

But Rousseau also didn't care about Emile being thin. So you might say his idea of natural eating allows for pudginess, if pudginess happens to be the state one attains by neither creating nor denying hunger. Better to be fat and unconcerned with what one eats than thin and unable to think of anything but food. As for obesity, it wasn't really an 18th century issue, but I doubt any average-sized and reasonably active person reaches 500 lbs through occasional, indifferent Dorito consumption without some socially-induced hunger, so Rousseau's plan, if carried out correctly, would not likely contribute to the present American problem.

Anyway, my point in all this was only that these attitudes towards eating have deeper roots than either contemporary political party.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

"my point in all this was only that these attitudes towards eating have deeper roots than either contemporary political party."

There's always deeper roots, and the stuff about Rousseau is interesting. But that doesn't mean a particular attitude doesn't currently reside one place or the other.

As for the rest...

500 pounds, agreed, is the result of a mental or physical problem, or both. But there's quite the range between harmless pudge and needing a crane to leave one's house, and I suspect that some (not all) who simply eat when and what they feel like end up in that in-between situation.

Because how are we defining "non-necessary desires"? If you mean (if Rousseau means?) foods that are not highly nutritious, then the idea would have to be that you yourself think a great deal about food choices, because the default would mean Doritos, but raise your child to see kale and sweet potatoes as food, and to ignore Doritos. I haven't (embarrassing, I know) read Emile, so I'm not exactly sure where Rousseau goes with this, but it seems that if your child will go on to interact with others outside the family, the taste for Doritos will eventually find a way to cultivate itself. Or so it works for contemporary children raised on health food by well-meaning parents.