Were Oprah’s Weight Loss Comments Really Problematic?

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At the top of 2016, it was hard to avoid Oprah’s Weight Watchers commercials. And as they were airing, Melissa Harris Perry, who was working for MSNBC at the time, wanted to discuss it, particularly the line where Oprah said:

“Inside every overweight woman, is the woman she knows she can be.”

Harris Perry’s argument was that for all that Oprah had accomplished with her career, her outreach and her life, it was a shame to put so much focus on her weight, being that she, and all of us, are so much more than that.

Harris Perry said: “I’m thinking to myself ‘But O! You are already precisely the woman so many are striving to be. Who you are, what you have accomplished, how you have influenced and altered the world is all so much more important than your dress size. There is not one thing that you have done that would have been more extraordinary if you had done it with a 25 inch waist.I worry as a mom and as a woman about the messages our daughters receive if they think a woman as phenomenal as you is still not enough unless she is thin.”

When I first heard her segment, I agreed with Melissa Harris Perry wholeheartedly. I completely understand wanting to live healthy and feeling like your quality of life could be better if you were carrying around less physical weight. But I also believe that our country is obsessed with weight loss, to the point that the process of getting healthy can become counterproductive. Not to mention the thousands of corporations who are heavily invested in people, particularly women, feeling like their bodies aren’t good enough. But speaking with a couple of other people who were on weight loss journeys of their own, I realized maybe I didn’t have the experience to speak intelligently on the subject. At this point in my life, I can’t relate to the psychological affects of being heavier than I felt I should be, not in any significant way.

Still, I argued about personhood and soul being much deeper than body size. And in the time since those commercials have aired, I find myself thinking about both Oprah and Melissa’s comments often, wondering about who was right or if the truth lies somewhere in between their two schools of thought.
Today the conversation was resurrected in my consciousness as Oprah shared her thoughts about her weight loss journey and the body positivity movement with New York Times Magazine.

The entire article is about the shifting American attitude toward dieting and weight. Today, people are more likely to want to be healthy and fit. Wellness over weight loss. More specifically, the piece explores how Weight Watchers changed their strategy, redirecting the focus from goal weights to more cognitive-behavioral strategies. They asked participants to examine emotions and respond with reason instead of turning to “food or despair.”

Naturally, they needed someone to sell it. And that someone, was Oprah.

After speaking about the origins of the fat positivity and body positivity movements, they get to Oprah and the quote that’s been circulating the internet. From the headlines, it would seem that Oprah is not about body positivity and acceptance. And knowing what we know of Oprah and her brand, it seems more than a little bit counter intuitive.

But before we get there, it was important that I read the whole thing.

I know how headlines work. They’re intended to get people to click and I wanted to make sure Oprah’s words weren’t taken out of context. After reading, one could easily argue that they were. She says, she “doesn’t care if she’s never skinny again. She cares that she feels as if she has control. For her whole life, she said, her only goal has been to find a higher level of consciousness, to remain more in the moment than she has ever been in any other moment.”

Oprah also said that just accepting yourself and moving on, or just seeking fitness, strength and general health were “a prison.”

And then, the quote. The way people are reporting it, they’re making it seem like she said one before the other, but in actuality, she said she agrees with body positivity first.

“This whole P.C. about accepting yourself as you are — you should, 100 percent,”

She said what Weight Watchers does for her is keep her conscious and mindful.

‘‘It’s a mechanism to keep myself on track that brings a level of consciousness and awareness to my eating. It actually is, for me, mindful eating, because the points are so ingrained now.’’

‘‘In the particular moment in time that I got the call,’’ she told me, ‘‘I was desperate: What’s going to work? I’ve tried all of the green juices and protein shakes, and let’s do a cleanse, and all that stuff. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t last. What is going to be consistent, keep me conscious and mindful?’’

Still, as far as accepting her body heavier, Oprah couldn’t do that.

‘For your heart to pump, pump, pump, pump, it needs the least amount of weight possible to do that,’’ she said. “So all of the people who are saying, ‘Oh, I need to accept myself as I am’ — I can’t accept myself if I’m over 200 pounds, because it’s too much work on my heart. It causes high blood pressure for me. It puts me at risk for diabetes, because I have diabetes in my family.’’

But y’all Oprah is wise, chile and words she left the author of this piece with are more profound than the one that’s been splattered all over the headlines.

‘‘Oh, my God, Taffy,’’ Oprah said. ‘‘I have to have a talk with you. I used to say this to my producers all the time. We are never going to win with this show looking back to see what other people are doing on their shows. The only way you win is to keep looking forward for yourself. What’s best for you?’’

And perhaps that simple bit of cliche advice should be what’s making the headlines this morning. There’s a lot going on out there. But you have to tune out the noise of others–and when it comes to weight loss there’s a lot of it– and do you boo, boo. And doing you can be accepting your body in all of its phases or working to get it to look like something with which you’re more comfortable. Motivation and inspiration will look different for every individual. If you read the entire article, the take away really is that there’s no right way.

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Were Oprah’s Weight Loss Comments Really Problematic?

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