‘Operation Transformation’ fails to underline that weight is an extremely complex issue

The participants of 'Celebrity Operation Transformation', with presenter Kathryn Thomas

‘Operation Transformation’ is at the more exploitative end of reality TV and the reason it strikes such a chord is that obesity has become a huge issue in Ireland, writes Clodagh Finn.

AM I alone in thinking that there’s something deeply unsettling about RTÉ’s reality show Operation Transformation?

If, as has been put about, the ever-popular reality TV show is helping the nation get fit and healthy, then why does it make me feel like a voyeur every time I watch it (albeit, through laced fingers)?

Maybe it’s witnessing the ritual humiliation of ordinary folk in Lycra. Or hearing the experts give them a dressing down when they fail to “perform”. Then again, it could just be a nagging sense of unease that the national broadcaster has turned people’s struggle with their weight into a form of entertainment? I’m not entirely sure.

However, I do know that replacing the usual suspects with celebrity versions, as RTÉ will do when Celebrity Operation Transformation kicks off on Wednesday, doesn’t make it any better.

Though let’s be clear: The people who have acted as leaders in the show are wonderful, inspiring, brave people and I hope their experience has had lasting benefits. Likewise, anybody else who has watched it and gone on to transform, or even slightly improve, their lives.

The issue is not the show’s participants or indeed its many followers. The problem with Operation Transformation is the show’s format: It plays to the very worst instincts in all of us.

Take the weekly weigh-in, for example. What is helpful, healthful, or dignified about allowing this parade of partially clothed people?

‘Operation Transformation’ fails to underline that weight is an extremely complex issue

The leaders walk the red carpet (“walk the plank” seems more fitting) to be told — in the worst form of mock drama — how many pounds and ounces they have lost for the week. The suspense is racked up with a pantomime pause before presenter Kathryn Thomas, who in fairness is always respectful, slowly and agonisingly announces the results.

Then, it’s over to the experts to pass comment.

Some of those comments have been an “abomination”, to repeat a word that was actually used by one of the panel’s professionals to describe a participant’s week in the last series.

Have we forgotten that this is not Strictly Come Dancing, or some sort of Great Irish Bake-Off, or even The Apprentice? This is not a commentary on how well a person has performed the pas de deux, or a judgment on their sponge cake’s soggy bottom; it is a public commentary on the very core of an individual; how they look, how they behave and how they are perceived.

Every resisted biscuit or refused glass of wine is chalked up as a tiny triumph. The flip side, though, is more severe. If you mess up on portion control or lose the will to exercise, you’re quite possibly letting yourself in for a degrading public affront.

And worse, we, the viewers, are likely to join in. In essence, what Operation Transformation encourages us to do is to gawp at the fat person in the middle of the room and judge them.

There’s no escape either because once the circus rolls into town, there is no avoiding it. You can switch off the box but you’ll be assailed on every media forum with the stories, pictures, and ridiculous controversies that have made the reality TV show such a stonking success.

‘Operation Transformation’ fails to underline that weight is an extremely complex issue

To be fair, there are many who have taken the programme’s exhortations to move more and to eat more healthily and made a (possibly lasting) success of it.

Many more, though, have been driven demented, turning the weekly judgment inward without the support of coaches, dieticians, and personal trainers. I know of one person who put her back out jumping up and down during the ad-break challenge — but you can’t really blame the programme-makers for that.

What is much more troubling is that Operation Transformation fails to underline that weight is an extremely complex issue.

While it acknowledges the underpinning psychological issues, often in heart-rending and too-painful-to-look detail, it can do little more than expose and acknowledge them during its limited run.

What are all the people who have been gleaning hope and inspiration from the programme supposed to do when the series finishes?

Of course, nobody is foolish enough to think that a TV programme is a substitute for a clear and widespread public-health policy on good nutrition, but we have to stop talking about Operation Transformation as if it is a health programme. It is not.

It’s at the more exploitative end of reality TV and the reason it strikes such a chord is that obesity has become a huge issue in Ireland. While the figures vary, the World Health Organisation and a recent study published in the Lancet show that Irish adults have the third highest rate of obesity in the EU.

Would a sugar tax help? Perhaps. There are other measures that have been shown to be effective in tackling obesity too, such as ensuring healthy food is affordable to all, regulating food labelling, better urban planning, and education campaigns in schools.

‘Operation Transformation’ fails to underline that weight is an extremely complex issue

There is also the inconvenient truth that some of those with weight issues are suffering from an eating disorder. And, according to a recent report by Bodywhys, the Irish eating disorder association, almost one in two people with eating disorders have had them for 10 years or more.

For those with binge-eating disorder, an increasingly prevalent condition characterised by periods of overeating, diet routines can actually make the condition worse.

It’s impossible to know who watches Operation Transformation and what they draw from it, but it seems safe to say that the path to health is a lot more complex than television would have us believe.

In TV land, the road to good health is presented as a story of redemption. The plot is a little like this: expose the problem, have a treacherous journey towards redemption and rise about it, triumphant, at the end.

In the real world, though, life is never as neat. Maybe it’s time to put a warning on Operation Transformation and other reality TV shows like it: Any resemblance to real life is purely coincidental.


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