Oprah helped build diet culture. Now she really wants you to forgive her.


It's a name that has always been synonymous with god-like qualities. Across her 51-year career the journalist-cum-media-mogul has become a beloved, adored and, quite frankly, worshipped figure in the entertainment world. 

But, by her own admission, Oprah wants everyone to know she is less than perfect.

In fact, last Thursday she came forward with a public apology of sorts when she appeared at the Weight Watchers annual event. During the three-hour presentation it was clear she had something she wanted to get off her chest.

"I want to acknowledge that I have been a steadfast participant in this diet culture," she told the audience.

"I’ve been a major contributor to it. I cannot tell you how many weight-loss shows and makeovers I’ve done."

For the first time it felt like the 70-year-old was taking some responsibility for how she has promoted and often glorified diet culture. From her weight-loss specials on The Oprah Winfrey Show right through until her most recent special Shame, Blame and the Weight Loss Revolution, her willingness to champion diet culture has often come under fire.

To criticise Oprah's journey with her body would be to criticise ourselves because let's be honest, we've all had ups and downs when it comes to how we treat our bodies. But the stark difference is that Oprah, one of the most famous and televised women in the world, has always done it under the sharp lens of the public eye.

In 1988 the talk show host proudly appeared on stage during a taped recording and jubilantly told audience members she had lost close to 30kg through a liquid diet and exercise. Her grand prize was fitting into a pair of Australia Size 12 Calvin Klein jeans. Later on she would recall that she "literally starved" herself for four months without eating. 


During the taping of that infamous show, she wheeled out a 'wagon of fat' to represent that amount of weight she had lost. Millions of people around the world watched on and listened to her sermon on weight loss.

Oprah Winfrey with her "fat wagon". Image: OWN.


As is so often the case with unhealthy crash dieting, in 1990 Oprah said she had gained back the weight she had lost and declared to never diet again. Then in 1996 she announced that her focus on losing weight would now be controlled through daily workouts with trainer to the stars Bob Greene coming on board to guide her.

Bob Greene and Oprah Winfrey. Image: Getty.

Throughout the 90s she aired various weight loss specials and placed great hoopla on shows where she brought out men and women who had dropped weight by glorifying their "makeover" journeys.


In 2008 she opened up about her frustrations about gaining weight while writing in her 'O' Magazine. "I was so frustrated I started eating whatever I wanted — and that's never good," she wrote. 

It was clear she was still battling body image and disordered eating.

Still to this day on Oprah's website, there are still various editorials spruiking weight loss including one titled "Oprah's Weight Loss Journey Update" proving that not only is it an important talking point for her but it's a popular selling point for her brand as well.

Then last year the mogul said that she had been using weight-loss medication to control her weight. She declined to say whether she had been using drugs like Ozempic, Mounjaro, or Wegovy which have commonly been used to treat diabetes but have now spawned a new diet culture renaissance. 

"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, and not something to hide behind and once again be ridiculed for," Oprah proclaimed.

Over the decades we've watched as this woman grappled with her image. And to give her grace, that can't have been easy in the spotlight. As a trailblazer in every sense, Oprah became the first black woman to host a talk show in U.S history and that show went on to be the most popular in television history.


But being a woman of colour stepping into the history books on prime-time TV meant that all eyes were on her. Even though she was fast becoming one of the most powerful figures in the entertainment industry, tabloid media couldn't help but pick apart her appearance. 

Listen to The Spill hosts explain what really happened after Oprah's apology. 

As Oprah felt the flames of problematic media coverage fueling her desire to look a certain way, those shockwaves flowed through to her audience. Therin lies the Oprah effect — her power to inform and encourage her audience.

Women would hang off her every word -- if she said "jump", they'd say "how high." Make no mistake she was and remains a powerful entity. Her relationship with her body, food, weight loss and exercise directly fed into a multi-billion dollar diet industry (driven by companies like WeightWatchers and Jenny Craig) that was making bank by teaching people to hate their bodies.

Oprah's role in the machine was subtle and insidious. Every time she stepped onto her talk show stage and prophesied about how wonderful your life could be if you just lost that weight you were hanging on to, she directly added to the diet culture that seeped into the living rooms of women across the world.

I remember one day when I was young I had to stay home from school with a stomach bug. I couldn't hold down any food for a few days as gastro had me in its grips. Laying on the couch my mum had on The Oprah Winfrey Show and I distinctly remember it being an episode centred around weight loss of some description.


I didn't know it then but my mother was in the grips of this diet culture. Weight loss books littered the kitchen, Weight Watchers magazines were splayed out across the coffee table and Lite'n'Easy filled the fridge with portion-controlled snacks to eat throughout the day. It was all around her, coming from every angle and I subconsciously learned that, as a female in this world, that's the way I had to operate too. 

Hate my body, buy into diet culture and perpetuate the cycle.

Thankfully over the years, after debilitating bouts of disordered eating and body dysmorphia I have been able break that cycle. Buoyed by a generation of other women who grew up in homes with Oprah weight-loss specials and mothers who had a military focus on crash diets. Together we were able to come out of the fog and realise a different reality for the relationships we have with our bodies.

But I mourn for our mothers. Those same diet books line the shelves at my parents' house and every now and then I see a Lite'n'Easy box at the front door when I visit. It breaks my heart. I wish these women could see beyond the diet culture message that has been burnt into their brains but I worry that Oprah's apology has come too late and without enough true commitment to changing the narrative.

After all, she stood in front of an audience at a WeightWatchers event. An organisation that has not been without its fair share of controversy over the years and in particular playing a huge part in promoting and profiteering from diet culture. If she was so intent on truly dismantling diet culture why not step away from the very masterminds that built this house? 


One could argue that as much as Oprah has always been a voice to many she is also a very savvy businesswoman. While she may have stepped away from the WeightWatchers board she is still making money from this corporation.

"Okay, so then what’s the point of WeightWatchers now?" she coyly asked during last Thursday's event.

Oprah Winfrey at the 2024 WeightWatchers event. Image: YouTube, WeightWatchers.


What is the point of WeightWatchers now? It can rebrand and "evolve" all it wants to suit a more palatable narrative but at its core, it is a business making money from promoting diet culture. And it has a legacy that can't be erased.

It's two-steps forward and now ten steps back as we fall into the trappings of being fed a narrative that 'skinny is best' again after working so hard to brandish it.

Much like I'd like to believe Oprah's legacy is more than just some problematic promotion of weight-loss and diet culture, it's hard to see past the damage that has been caused. Her apology feels far too shrouded in a money grab rather than an intent to atone.

Of course Oprah's body and what she does with it is nobody's business but hers. After years of having her body picked apart by the media, this is the autonomy she deserves. 

But if she really is invested in apologising and being a spokesperson for real change then perhaps a good place to start would be cutting all ties with any weight loss companies as this will always create a link to painful memories of diet culture.

Admission of the part she played in the history of diet culture is one thing but taking true, actionable responsibility towards healing a generation of women who she sold that dream to would really be the stuff worthy of icon status.

Feature Image: OWN, Youtube WeightWatchers.

Love watching TV and movies? Take our survey now to go in the running to win a $50 gift voucher.