Warning: This post discusses diets and weight loss which may be triggering for some readers.
There’s a good chance that most of you reading this have some kind of familiarity with the TV show Friends which was hugely popular throughout the 1990’s, and that you also have some kind of familiarity with diets (or have been on one, or many). Today we’ll be combining those two topics.
Let’s start with the role that television plays in many people’s lives. Maybe you have just one or two TV shows you like, maybe you watch mostly the news, maybe you don’t watch TV but the people you work with are obsessed with the latest reality shows and won’t stop talking about them. Or course, today with the ability to stream your favourite programs through on demand services like Netflix it is less necessary that you own an actual TV. My focus here though is not on whether you own a TV or how you choose to view your programs but the content that is included in them.
Let’s talk about Friends for a moment and why it was such a popular program. Firstly, it was relatable – it was about a group of friends which many of us can identify with, it was also about dating, work and in many ways muddling through your twenties/thirties until you start to feel like an adult. Second, and perhaps most importantly for the current discussion, it used things we were familiar with to make us laugh such as a bad first date, or in this case being on a diet. In this sense television shows are influenced by society, reflecting the patterns that we engage in back to us, often with a funny line that we can laugh along with. But our lives are also influenced by what we see on television, it’s not such a stretch to think that if we see Rachel on TV slacking off at her coffee-shop job by sitting with her friends that maybe we could do the same thing. Or a more subtle and relevant example, if Monica and Joey and many other characters are dieting so that they can lose weight and be skinny that maybe you should do the same thing because obviously being fat is something bad.
The video above has been circulating around the internet a lot lately so it’s possible you’ve already seen it. It shows the ‘seven stages of dieting’ through short snippets from Friends episodes. To my knowledge, these are not official stages of dieting but they do depict the cycle that many people experience. Of course, these snippets come from a range of characters and episodes but would be easily identifiable by anyone watching the episodes as something that happens while on a diet. So let’s unpack them a little bit.
- We see Monica very excitedly dancing around moving, this is indicative of the start of a diet, you’re excited and so sure that this time you’ll lose all the weight and keep it off and it will be great, you’re exercising and eating ‘right’ and you’re happy. This stage is indicative of what we have been taught about dieting through television shows like this, through advertisements, magazines, doctors and everyone in between: If you diet to lose weight and adhere to society’s beauty standards then you will be happy and all the bad things in your life will be fixed.
- Here Monica is shown trying out a fake version of chocolate which presumably has less calories and will not interfere with her diet. Again, this is a result mostly of advertising. The aisles in our supermarkets are filled with fat free yoghurt or low calorie snack bars, meal replacements and so on. Using these products to make your body smaller is seen as a normal part of dieting.
- Phoebe is shown spitting out something (possibly the mockolate?) indicating that it does not taste good. The low calorie versions of our favourite ‘off-limits’ products are always touted as tasting as good as the original but nobody wants to admit to themselves that they don’t taste as good as the original because the diet has to work, you have to get skinny so all your problems will go away, if you can just keep knuckling through a bit longer.
- Will is then shown searching for something ‘off-limits’ to eat (often off-limits foods contain a lot of refined sugar like chocolate or cookies), but then talks himself out of it. Again, you just have to knuckle through a bit longer until you’re skinny and your life is fixed.
- Again, Will is shown, this time he’s begging for yams and his friends remind him how far he’s come. There’s often a perception that by eating just one thing that’s perceived as ‘bad’ that you will ‘ruin’ all of your progress.
- This time it is Joey proclaiming that he’s curvy and he likes it when someone asks if he’s going to eat his pizza. This one is a little more complicated. Ignoring the actions of the person on the diet, here we see someone else choosing to comment on Joey’s food choices something that has become all too common, particularly if someone has previously proclaimed that they are on a diet (this was also present in the previous snippet).
- Finally, we see Joey taking just one bite of brownie before bingeing on the entire plate and being happy and fulfilled. This is also indicative of many people’s experiences with diets, which is why it is so effective within the TV show as it’s identifiable.
Taking a brief look back at the themes which make it easy for us to follow and sympathise with this snippet we have: advertising and other media which tells us being fat is bad and we’ll be happy and fulfilled if we go on X diet and lose weight. The beauty standards which influence the actors/actresses we see on our TV shows as well as the standard we should be striving for. Restriction of food followed by bingeing and finally other people commenting on both our food choices and in some cases our weight.
Taking another step back: advertising is highly influenced by capitalism in the sense that companies putting out the advertisements encouraging us to buy their products are out to make a profit. We are also living in a time where there is an abundance of food in many places, something which until recently was unheard of, this has played a huge part on how we think about food and subsequently bodies, taking a look back at the past it was a sign of wealth for someone to have a larger body because they could afford to have enough food even during times of shortage. Now it has become a sign of wealth to have a smaller body because you can afford to hire a trainer and buy ‘healthy’ food. Even in the last 20 years since these episodes aired there has been a huge shift, from the 90’s where women were expected to be thin and demure to the rise of sports like boxing and crossfit where women are told they should be ‘muscular’ and have six-pack.
The question then becomes if dieting is a product of capitalism then why do so many women (and men) dedicate so much of their time and energy to going on diet after diet trying to lose weight particularly when it is so common to regain the weight they have lost (and more). Of course this leads to the entire cycle starting again with either the same or a different diet, ultimately with the same result, all the time pumping more and more money into a capitalist economy which is out to sell you a product not to sell you health (if they sold you health then you would stop pouring money in because your ‘problem’ would be solved).
Let me leave you with the following thought: Are our bodies actually the problem here?