Don’t Be Fooled By Oprah’s Newfound Approach to Diet Culture

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I might have been born well after the fact, but I don’t need to have seen Oprah Winfrey’s infamous “fat wagon” segment at the time it aired in 1988 to have felt its repercussions. Regardless of when you were born, you certainly know the one: the moment wherein the talk show host proudly wheeled out a wagon full of raw, butchered animal parts, wrapped up in plastic like they came straight from a serial killer’s lair. It was meant to be a visual representation of the weight she’d recently lost from a liquids-only diet. (“For four solid months, I didn't eat a single morsel of food,” she wrote in a 2005 article for O, The Oprah Magazine.)

It’s one over-the-top example in a list of ways that Winfrey, throughout her decades-long career, has promoted dangerous and unrealistic weight loss and dieting methods that she admits were harmful. As you’ve probably heard by now, she addressed her role in diet culture while hosting a three-hour livestream in partnership with WeightWatchers called Making The Shift: A New Way to Think About Weight, which aired on May 9.

“I want to acknowledge that I have been a steadfast participant in this diet culture through my platforms, through the magazine, through the talk show for 25 years,” Winfrey said in her opening monologue. “I’ve been a major contributor to it. I cannot tell you how many weight loss shows and makeovers I have done, and they have been a staple since I’ve been working in television.” She specifically references the wagon moment as one of her biggest regrets.

Though Winfrey never uttered the words “I’m sorry” or the like, many media outlets framed this acknowledgment as an apology, churning out so many headlines that any other past coverage of Winfrey in relation to weight loss and fat-shaming is now very difficult to locate. Regardless of whether Winfrey herself meant this to be an apology, it’s not one I can accept. And I don’t think anyone should be quick to do so.

For decades, Winfrey has been heralded as a firsthand example that drastic weight loss is a realistic goal that will make a person healthier and happier upon achieving it.

Yes, she was right to acknowledge her part in diet culture. For decades, Winfrey has been heralded by her fans, by the media, and seemingly by herself, not just as a viable source for weight loss advice but as a firsthand example that drastic weight loss is a realistic goal that will make a person healthier and happier upon achieving it.

For example, The Oprah Winfrey Show continually offered people like Dr. Oz (who has been questioned by other medical experts and in Congress about the questionable science surrounding the weight loss supplements he's featured on his show) a platform to promote weight-loss-related products. The show’s weight loss segments depicted body fat with props that could have come straight off the set of a horror movie, like the butchered animal parts and these lumpy yellow scraps, which are allegedly the real omentums—the membrane that separates the abdomen from the organs inside it—of a thin person versus a fat person. (Which they call “good omentum” and “bad omentum.” I’ll let you guess which is which.) During the wagon stunt, after she outlined how she rapidly lost 67 pounds, Winfrey’s tone was jovial when she said she was “glad I did this for my heart” and made reference to “making yourself the best you can be.” She wrapped it all up with, “If you can believe in yourself and believe that this is the most important thing in your life, you can conquer it—if I did it…. You can do it.”

But her contributions to diet culture don’t end with segments on her show; Winfrey famously bought a 10 percent stake in WeightWatchers (the weight loss service that operates on a “points” system) in 2015, joined its board of directors, and has continually promoted the weight-loss service since, despite it earning the same criticisms as many other dieting services such as being too restrictive for many and lacking adequate education about nutrition and fitness—its customers also voice complaints of frequent changes to the program and how it measures “success.”

And I haven’t even gotten to the amount of O, The Oprah Magazine covers that have been devoted not just to weight loss in general but specifically to Winfrey’s personal weight loss successes and failures. There is so much context about Winfrey’s public relationship with weight loss that it would require writing a book to cover it all. But anyway…

Fast forward to 2023. Semaglutide drugs (Ozempic, Wegovy, etc) enter the chat, and Oprah Winfrey has her latest big “aha” moment. That September, she revealed that she’d started using an unnamed weight loss drug as a “maintenance” tool and hosted a conversation about weight stigma and weight loss drugs via Oprah Daily. She announced the following February that she’d left the WeightWatchers board and “donated her financial interest” to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Then, in March, she gave People an exclusive interview about her newfound approach to weight loss, a combination of exercise, the WeightWatchers principles of eating, and a weight loss drug. ("The fact that there's a medically approved prescription for managing weight and staying healthier, in my lifetime, feels like relief, like redemption, like a gift…") That was days before she hosted yet another weight loss special on ABC. And now, Making the Shift.

This rhetoric aligns with a bizarre new format that all perpetrators of diet culture have adopted: They know it’s not OK to shame someone for being fat but still suggest that that fat person would be happier if they just shed those pounds.

There is no denying that Winfrey’s most recent specials about weight are objectively better than those of her past. In Making the Shift, for example, Winfrey facilitates a heartfelt conversation between WeightWatchers CEO Sima Sistani and Katie Sturino, a body-acceptance advocate who went viral for addressing WeightWatchers’s past attitude toward customers who failed to lose weight following Winfrey’s ABC special (in which Sistani took part). The livestream provides an abridged history of ideal body standards throughout recent history. Winfrey even makes direct reference to “unlearning the lie that weight is somehow related to our worth.” These are all things we could not have dreamed of seeing or hearing on Oprah.

And yet, this rhetoric aligns in a lot of ways with this bizarre new format that all perpetrators of diet culture have adopted in the age where body-positivity and Ozempic frenzy converge: They know that it’s not OK to outright shame someone for being fat but still suggest that that fat person would be happier if they just shed those pounds. Winfrey says that a person’s weight doesn’t determine their value as a person. She wants to reframe obesity as “a disease” and “not a failure of willpower.” But she also warns against “settling for whatever you could get and not what you deserve.” She says you don’t have to choose to do anything with your body if you don’t want to, including losing weight, but uses words such as “relief” and “redemption” to describe her own experience with weight loss drugs in the press.

When I look past the seemingly body-positive rhetoric and mission statements about quelling body consciousness in all of Winfrey’s new specials and interviews, it doesn’t feel like the point is actually to erase societal stigma people face because of their weight—it feels more like it’s about erasing the stigma of wanting to lose weight and failing to do so by dieting and exercising. To me, it all feels like a very elaborate way for Winfrey to justify her use of weight loss drugs to the public, which wouldn’t feel necessary were it not for her aforementioned history. Whether intentional or not, Winfrey’s discussions about weight loss and weight loss drugs still come with the underlying message that losing weight would be beneficial for anyone who classifies as “overweight” or “obese.” They still imply that losing weight is equivalent to becoming healthier. They still imply that weight loss is a key to happiness.

Oprah Winfrey has made a fortune by encouraging people to lose weight. While Winfrey may no longer be a board member or stakeholder in WeightWatchers, she still shares a long and mutually beneficial relationship with it. When Winfrey initially announced that she’d bought stock in WeightWatchers, its share value doubled in a single day and continued rising throughout her period of involvement with the company. WeightWatchers shares increased from $6.79 in 2015 to $101 in 2018, at which point Winfrey began selling her stock, which reportedly made her a net total of $221 million between 2018 and 2021.

It doesn’t feel like the point is actually to erase stigma people face because of their weight—it feels more like it’s about erasing the stigma of wanting to lose weight and failing to do so by dieting and exercising.

And don’t forget that this special served as a big promotional platform for the company, which has been on its own “rebranding” spree (even changing its name to WW in 2018 before quietly changing it back in 2022) for nearly a decade amid the rise of body positivity. The “free interactive virtual event” aired on the WeightWatchers YouTube channel, and its title on that platform is “Oprah and WeightWatchers Host ‘Making the Shift.’” That aforementioned conversation between Sturino and Sistani, while certainly progressive for a weight-loss special, still served to offer WeightWatchers a sympathetic podium to atone for its longstanding role in weight-shaming and explain how its outlook on weight loss has evolved, which could encourage customers who’ve had bad experiences with the program in the past to return. (Conveniently, WeightWatchers is now offering plans that include semaglutide drugs, the same ones Winfrey says she’s currently relying on, to select clients.)

Oprah Winfrey says in Making the Shift that she’s making an effort to “do better” when it comes to her role in diet culture, but shifting the topic from diets to weight loss drugs under the guise of erasing stigma still contributes to it, just in a different way. One that’s just as harmful if it provides people incentive to lean on weight loss drugs rather than develop a healthy relationship with food and exercise regardless of whether or not that impacts their appearance. (To be clear, it’s not inherently bad to use semaglutide drugs—but choosing to use one is a conversation that should be happening directly between doctors and patients.)

People—women especially—who’ve spent their entire lives being told they’re too fat are the ones who face the consequences over and over again.

If Oprah Winfrey actually wanted to erase weight stigma, that would require going about this whole thing in a way that wouldn’t be nearly as profitable as hosting these updated weight-loss specials. As a billionaire and beloved pop cultural figure, Oprah Winfrey has near-limitless power and influence. She could fund independent research on nutrition, fitness, and weight’s overall relation to health (if you aren’t aware, much of the research we have on these topics is funded by corporations, increasing the chance for a biased interpretation of the study results). Instead of discussing her never-ending desire to lose weight with Dr. Oz (which she did two months ago) or giving WeightWatchers yet another chance to hop on the mic, she could bring awareness to the Health at Every Size initiative (led by the Association for Size Diversity and Health, a nonprofit) by interviewing its leading medical experts. She could speak out against media outlets that continually publish headlines about her “tiny waist” and help to force a shift in the way media observes celebrity weight loss. Once again, the list goes on.

Still, I feel a lot of empathy and even a little sorrow for Oprah Winfrey. She is, at the end of the day, a victim of public humiliation that for decades was centered around her gender, her race, and what her body looks like (they’re all connected). In a way, I do revel in the idea of Winfrey giving her body-shamers the biggest middle finger of all time by proving she could look the way they wanted and become a billionaire in the process.

But while there’s a brilliance to the way she figured out how to game this weight-loss system to help build an empire, the repercussions of that are the same as those of the “fat wagon.” And people—women especially—who’ve spent their entire lives being told they’re too fat are the ones who face the consequences over and over again. The people who shell out big portions of their paychecks to participate in the weight loss program she promotes only to return years later because they gained the weight back are the ones who face the consequences. The people who are mistreated and under- or misdiagnosed at the doctor’s office due to weight bias are the ones who face the consequences. And now, the diabetic people who are facing shortages of the medication they need because it’s been swept up by desperate dieters on a mission to be thin are the ones who face the consequences.

So if the narrative I’m being fed now is that Oprah Winfrey has really changed her tune when it comes to weight loss, I’m spitting it right back out.

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Originally Appeared on Allure