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We need to talk about the f*cked up binfire that was Supersize vs Superskinny.

There was a time in the 2000s when someone, somewhere realised there was a foolproof recipe for successful television. 

All you had to do was take an incredibly complex subject - weight, stigmatised illnesses, drastic cosmetic procedures - and... put them in front of an international audience. With no nuance. Or ongoing support for anyone involved.

That's how we ended up with The Biggest Loser. Extreme Makeover. The Swan. Embarrassing Bodies. And, of course, the enduring cultural stain that is Supersize vs Superskinny.

For the unacquainted, Supersize vs Superskinny was a British TV show that aired from 2008 to 2014, and was hosted by Dr Christian Jessen. 

Please... don't. Image: Channel 4. 

It aired on Australian TV - on Foxtel and free-to-air - and essentially documented overweight and underweight people trying to change their bodies. 

The premise is this: Two individuals are brought into a 'feeding clinic' and made to swap diets. You can imagine what happens. The overweight person is left hungry, and the underweight person is served portions of food they can't finish. Neither individual is in any way qualified to deal with the other's potential issues around food, so they candidly, emotionally, viciously criticise each other for their horrible, destructive choices. 

After several days in the clinic, during which Dr Jessen makes a handful of appearances to tell the participants about the short- and long-term damage their diet is doing to their body, both individuals are given eating plans to follow for the next three months. 

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What's in the eating plan, you might ask? 

No one... knows. It's never... communicated. Just that it's personalised with the aim of that person gaining or losing weight. To clarify: we are shown in great detail the 'wrong' way to eat. But the doctor-endorsed 'right' way to eat is... private?

Heh? 

In order to demonstrate just how problematic this show was, here's a recap of a single episode. Specifically, series 5, episode 1. 

We begin with the tagline: ‘It’s not what you’re eating - it’s what’s eating you,' and I don't mean to be rude but if that's the case, then why is this whole show about what they’re eating?

Dr Christian Jessen travels to a town called Evansville in Indiana, which is allegedly America’s fattest city. We're told he'll be talking to people over the next few weeks about the ‘crisis’ - because 30 per cent of the population are obese. 

He starts at a funeral home, where they make the biggest caskets in the world. We're meant to be shocked by their size. Perhaps that's meant to scare us into... not being overweight? It's unclear.

But what is crystal clear is that at no point will this show be delving into the very real social reasons why a town where 20 per cent of residents live in poverty might have some issues with health. 

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No.

We'll be looking at caskets. 

'I'm glad you approached me for comment first.' Image: Channel 4. 

Back in the UK, the 'supersize' and 'superskinny' participants are lined up opposite each other, in beige underwear. This part of the show is called 'shock therapy,' where individuals are weighed and matched with a person on the other extreme end of the weight spectrum. 

Herein lies one of the many problems: The skinnies are often quite... fatphobic. 

Our first pair is Elaine and Helen, and Elaine reaches out to touch Helen's stomach before saying, "I'm not being horrible but *gestures towards Helen's body*, you know what I mean?"

"You have such a pretty face," she tells the woman standing opposite her. "You'll be lovely when you lose it."

How is this allowed to happen. 

We're shown footage of what Elaine and Helen's lives look like back at home. 

Helen wakes up at 2am and has cornflakes, then brown sauce on toast, then some chocolates, some chips, and an energy drink to wash it down.

She's had five children in four years, and her son describes her as 'chubby' to the camera. 

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Her husband says he's not worried about Helen's looks, he's just worried about her health, and pause

If we're worried about this woman's health, perhaps shaming her repeatedly on a national platform isn't the solution? 

Just a thought. 

But shhh because now we're in Elaine's house, and she's drinking anywhere from 12-20 cups of tea a day. She has a slice of cheese for lunch. 

Elaine explains that she’s always been thin, but she lost her dad last year and is now the thinnest she’s ever been. She says she loses weight when she’s stressed.

Maybe she needs, say, therapy? Instead of a made up feeding clinic? But okay.

Elaine and Helen check in at the feeding clinic for '48 hours of dietary rehabilitation' and what does that mean though. 

These types of shows are very good at using medical-sounding terms to describe entirely non-medical activities. For example, saying 'dietary rehabilitation' when they mean 'swapping diets with a complete stranger for entertainment purposes'.

'I hope it makes you feel supported in your grief.' Image: Channel 4. 

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It's time for the diet swap, and Helen serves Elaine a leftover takeaway from the night before and two cans of red bull. Elaine, on the other hand, serves Helen two cups of tea. 

Elaine tells Helen the portion is "horrendous darling," before adding, "I’m not being horrible darling but you’re going to kill yourself if you carry on like this."

Okay, firstly. Elaine. You just want a tea. And you're taking it out on Helen. And secondly, NEITHER OF THESE PEOPLE ARE EQUIPPED TO TALK TO EACH OTHER ABOUT THEIR FOOD CHOICES.

In the only helpful part of this entire episode, Dr Christian Jessen speaks to Elaine about what her tea intake could be doing to her body, and says tea can affect the absorption of iron. 

Fun fact. Perhaps that could be your show, Mr Christian. Fun and helpful medical facts that most people don't know.

But no, we're back to the feeding clinic (WHY), and Helen gets soup and Elaine gets a pizza.

Off you go. Image: Channel 4. 

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Helen is frustrated because she's convinced Elaine isn't trying hard enough and trying hard at what. Can you be accused of not taking a task seriously if that task has no discernable outcome?

Now, we suddenly turn into a documentary about anorexia. We learn that this season, we'll be following the stories of a number of people recovering from the rare eating disorder, and THIS SHOW NEEDS TO DECIDE WHAT IT IS.

We're shown extremely vivid imagery of anorexic bodies, which is actively discouraged in guidelines for media coverage about eating disorders. We meet a young woman named Ellen and we hear about how her anorexia started, what triggered it, and exactly how much she weighs - a detail organisations like The Butterfly Foundation explicitly ask media not to state. 

Back at the eating clinic, it's time for Elaine and Helen to be sent back home with their eating plans. Despite being shown their 'unhealthy' eating habits in great detail, we're not shown anything about their 'healthy' plans. 

They return a few months later, and yes, Elaine has gained weight, and Helen has lost it. Will they maintain this long term? Will this have any long-term benefit to their health? Unclear.

BYEEEE. Image: Channel 4. 

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One hallmark that was missing from this particular episode of Supersize vs Superskinny was the 'feeding tube' - a clear tube Dr Jessen fills with the weekly contents of an individual's diet. 

The intention of the tube was always, always to shame the participant into seeing either how little or how much they were eating. But literally no one's diet would look good in a tube?? When you pour cereal and then coffee into a plastic receptacle it's going to look disgusting?? Because that's not how food works?

Bizarrely, like the anorexia documentary in Elaine and Helen's episode, Supersize vs Superskinny had a tendency to shoe-horn strange side series into the show. 

One memorable 'experiment' involved host Anna Richardson trying out weight loss tactics she'd found on the internet. Each week, Richardson - who was a smaller than average woman, incessantly complaining about her 'excess weight' - would try a diet, or exercise regime, or celebrity-endorsed tip to obtain the perfect body.

Listen to Cancelled on Supersize vs Superskinny. Post continues after audio.


Another 'experiment' featured the same woman starting a club called 'Flabfighters,' where she recruited a group of 'failed dieters' to try to help them lose weight. At the forefront of this approach was the idea that you had to 'earn your food,' with constant messages about what an exercise session 'meant' in terms of food intake. 

Then, of course, there was Gillian McKeith's mission to 'ban big bums.' Was it only women's bums she wanted to ban? Of course. Did she approach random people in the street with a megaphone and yell at them about the size of their bottoms? Yep.

'And that's why I'm here'. Image: Channel 4. 

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A description of McKeith's work on the show, published on her website, reads:

"There isn’t a woman out there who doesn’t want a firmer, smaller, tinier bottom – so what can you do to stop yours growing out of control? In this cross-series strand Gillian McKeith takes on Britain’s Biggest Bottoms – over 100 of the very largest – and teaches us everything we need to know to achieve the perfect slim bum."

Okay. So a bum can't... physically grow out of control. That's not... a thing. Gillian.

Ultimately, what made Supersize vs Superskinny so incredibly confusing was its relentless, contradictory messages about health and weight. How on earth can you have one storyline about how we 'all want a smaller bum,' and another that essentially says, 'but this woman over here who wants a smaller bum has an eating disorder and that’s bad, why on earth won’t she just eat more?'

For seven seasons, the show simply demonstrated that eating too much and eating too little is a problem, without making any attempt to teach the audience healthy behaviours. 

Of course, Supersize vs Superskinny was a product of its time. An era where acknowledging that under-eating can have a negative impact on your health felt quite... radical.

But at best, the show did a lot to confuse audiences about the relationships between eating and exercise and health and weight. At worst, it put its audience at risk of the vast manifestations of disordered eating that can emerge from distorted beliefs around eating, shape and weight.

That impact, unfortunately, is impossible to measure.

For more from Clare Stephens, you can follow her on Instagram, or listen to Cancelled on Apple or Spotify.

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