Last week, in Thunder Bay to deliver three media literacy presentations, I was asked by a youth worker about my take on the impact of programs like The Biggest Loser – the NBC reality show that profiles seriously overweight Americans during their boot-camp-like experience trying to lose weight. Although I watched 20 minutes of this show a number of years ago, I had to confess that although I find the reality genre generally exploitive and discomfiting, I hadn’t really thought much about this particular program.
Fortunately for the youth worker, Janice Piper, a nutritionist with the local Health Authority (and one of the sponsors of my visit), had a much better answer. She talked about the emphasis such shows place on willpower and personal responsibility – both relevant to weight loss, of course, but hardly the whole story. She pointed out that reality programs rarely if ever acknowledge or address the complexity of the issues involved – the impact of genetics or poverty, the roles played by culture and neighbourhood, how easy accessibility to fast food and/or distance from a grocery store stocking fresh produce also make a difference.
I would love to see women like Janice writing commentary, providing the kind of context and analysis she gave at my presentation. But many women who work for government agencies or government-funded NGOs are either afraid to engage in such activity, or actively discouraged from doing so. Their voices are seen to be attached to the agency involved and so are expected to be neutral; anything they write or say must be vetted by three layers of bureaucracy first, and they can’t express anything that might be construed as critical of government or business.
I understand this context, but find it deeply unfortunate – for all of us.