Louise O'Neill: How is Operation Transformation in the public interest?

'Surely public money would have been better spent on addressing the growing rates of disordered eating?'
Louise O'Neill: How is Operation Transformation in the public interest?

Photo: Cathal Noonan

When Operation Transformation first aired, my family watched it every week. When the contestants were brought on stage to be weighed in front of the judges, shifting uncomfortably in their skin-tight Lycra, and were either applauded or scolded for their efforts, the message was clear. Fat was bad.

Fat was disgusting. And I thought to myself — I am right to starve myself and I am right to vomit after meals and I am right to think that I would rather be dead than gain weight. 

Because look at how I would be treated if I was fat! I would be a circus freak, rolled out to entertain the masses. It didn’t matter if I was kind or creative or smart — all anyone cared about was my body.

There has been a reckoning of sorts brewing over the last number of years. The Intuitive Eating Ireland Instagram account — an account I’m a big fan of — has been instrumental in this, starting a petition to have Operation Transformation taken off the air or completely revamped. 

I know several people who work on the show, both in front of and behind the camera, and I know their intentions to be good. I’m not advocating for anyone to lose their job; in fact, I think it’s a mistake to target the show’s presenters.

A much bigger issue is that the Department of Health has spent €230,000 sponsoring the show, while services for people with eating disorders are practically non-existent. 

In 2018, the Government launched a plan to ensure specialist care for eating disorders and allocated €1.5m to it; only €137,000 was spent. In 2019, no money was spent on the plan and the HSE confirmed they did not allocate any new funding to the programme in 2020, despite a 66% rise in hospital admissions among young people. 

Surely that €230k would have been better spent on addressing the growing rates of disordered eating rather than funding a programme which Bodywhys (the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland) has said is “triggering” for their service users, and “causes them distress and impacts negatively on their mental health”?

And what about RTÉ itself? This is our national broadcaster. RTÉ receives some €200m a year in licence fees and, in turn, it has a responsibility to ensure its programming is editorially sound.

RTÉ uses trigger warnings frequently — this show contains scenes some viewers may find distressing. This show uses imagery of flashing lights and may not be suitable for viewers with epilepsy, etc – and it’s curious to me that RTÉ don’t use the same tactic with Operation Transformation.

Would such trigger warnings call into question the mission statement RTÉ outlines on its website, saying its vision is to create “trusted, engaging, and challenging content”? 

If Operation Transformation is to be ‘trusted’, does that mean RTÉ stands over the more dubious aspects of the show — the restrictive dieting, the calorie counting, the fat-shaming? Are they willing to declare that is all done in the public interest?

The thing is, there have been no peer-reviewed studies that verify Operation Transformation contestants maintain their weight loss after they finish the television show. Instead, what we do have is decades worth of research that prove diets do not work.

Any weight lost as the result of calorie restriction will be re-gained, and more besides as we now know dieting actually increases your body’s set point. 

To add insult to injury, the most recent data emerging in this field has found that anywhere from one third to three-quarters of those termed "obese" are metabolically healthy, showing no signs of insulin resistance, high cholesterol, or elevated blood pressure.

You cannot measure a person’s health by the number on a weighing scale and the fact that RTÉ continues to perpetuate that myth beggars belief. 

And when I consider that Operation Transformation is seen as a ‘family show’, that children are watching and being told that dieting is a normal, healthy thing to do, I am genuinely horrified. 

Not every diet ends in an eating disorder, but I can guarantee you this — every eating disorder began with a diet.

I ask again. How is this in the public interest? How could this ever be deemed ‘trusted’ content?

An RTÉ spokeperson said: “The programme does not promote restrictive dieting; it encourages slow and steady weight loss with the aim of preventing long term illnesses. It prides itself on bringing communities together and encouraging people to make positive healthier choices to improve their well-being.”

Defenders of OT will say that if you don’t like the show, change the channel. Firstly, that doesn’t tackle the way in which programming like this enables fat-phobia in Irish society, and the hurt that is caused as a result. And secondly, I think it’s a missed opportunity.

The show is popular, it’s watched by hundreds of thousands of people in this country. Can you imagine how powerful it would be if Operation Transformation was completely, well, transformed? In last year’s series, the weekly check-in incorporated an overall health check looking at factors like hydration, sleep quality, and psychological wellbeing. 

What if the programme took an even more holistic approach, and told its audience that vegetable intake and regular exercise and grip strength are better indicators of health than weight?

What would the show look like if it emphatically rejected diet culture and looked to the Health At Every Size movement (an approach to health that attempts to reduce stigma towards fat people) as a way forward? What impact would that have on every man, woman, and child watching?

Louise Says:

Read: Intuitive Eating: An Anti-Diet Revolutionary Approach by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Trioble. This book will change your life.

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