There was a time when Channel 4 was considered edgy and dangerous. Despite its Horlicks-fuelled afternoon line up of Countdown and Fifteen To One the station became an altogether different beast after the watershed. At a time when the BBC would blush itself into self-imposed censorship at the merest suggestion of pubic hair Channel 4 deliberately and repeatedly offended the moral majority with programmes such as The Word, The Comic Strip, and Brass Eye.
Then along came digital television and suddenly every broadcaster had a means of airing their soiled laundry without upsetting mainstream viewers. Rather than attempting to compete with the BBC3s of the world Channel 4 decided to quit the race altogether and focus their attention on a fresh avenue: the long neglected Victorian sideshow. British audiences are therefore currently blessed with programmes such as The World’s Strongest Child and Me, 10 Years Younger, and, now in its second season, Supersize vs Superskinny.
Eating Disorders as Entertainment
The premise is suitably simplistic. Take one skeletal waif with barely enough stamina to hack their way through a slice of toast and one wheezing monument to the single-minded pursuit of cholesterol, and then ask them to switch diets. Thus ensues an hour’s worth of dubious entertainment watching ‘supersize’ sob their way through a couple of inches of beetroot salad while ‘superskinny’ sits opposite picking away at an imposing offal burger. The whole sordid affair is book ended with weigh-ins and pep talks and interspersed with supposedly educational investigations into dietary fads.
At some point in the show’s conception and execution its producers must have thought that what they were doing was worthwhile. That perhaps, if they could save just one anorexic or one potential stroke victim, its existence in the schedules would be justified. Unfortunately for them life isn’t that straightforward. Anyone who has eaten enough pies over the years to be pushing thirty stones and beyond – and has done so in the face of continual jibes and advice – is hardly likely to experience a Damascan moment watching television at 8pm on a Tuesday evening.
What makes it even more joyless is that even the two contestants themselves achieve only limited redemption. Having successfully adopted their newly found eating regimes for three months there is a final weigh-in. The results? Usually only a few pounds difference – a stone at the very most. Even the most casual calorie-counting diet could put those figures to shame, but this is a programme that likes to bill itself as being life-changing.
As with the vast majority of Channel 4’s recent output, Supersize vs Superskinny is little more than an unpleasant exercise in voyeurism. If you want to lose weight then take a walk a few times a week; go for the salad rather than the lasagne or just try cutting down on snacks. If you want to gain weight then just force down a little sausage now and again. What you don’t need to do is parade up and down in front of a gawping audience of gluttonous couch potatoes while placing yourself at the mercy of Dr Jessen’s ‘food tubes’.