CW: Discussion of eating disorders

Four weeks into my first university term, I discovered that ‘the Freshers 15’ was a thing. My clothes were tighter, and perhaps the weekly Dominos wasn’t the healthiest habit to have formed. It’s hard to explain precisely why, but I spent that evening flicking through clips on the Supersize vs Superskinny YouTube channel. 

This Channel 4 favourite ran for seven series until 2014, and despite having surpassed the end of its shelf-life, continues to live on in a new, unmoderated, bite-size format. The most popular clips are compilations of  the show’s ‘best bits’: a week’s worth of food flying down a Perspex, person-sized tube; one participant inconsolable at the thought of eating another takeaway, one devouring an inordinately  large slice of cake. We all know that much of the content spewed out each episode is outdated, and can be extremely damaging. However, the toxic relationship this media promotes between ourselves and food leaves us desperate to consume more – a clip depicting Jade and Julie as they compare diets boasts 20 million views. Why do we continue to make time for shows like Supersize vs Superskinny? And what harm was I doing to myself, when a quick three minutes worth of ‘entertainment’ became four hours spent browsing until the early hours? 

The fragments reborn on YouTube are those mouth-gaping moments characteristic of Supersize vs Superskinny: the ‘Supers’ standing alongside a tightly-shirted Dr Christian, each donning an unforgiving nude ensemble, shocked, along with the audience, by the reality of their eating habits, prompted to change their outlook on food through exposure therapy.  It is this voyeurism that makes the weight-loss reality show so addictive. And reading the comment sections of these compilations, it is no surprise that the show has been criticised as particularly triggering for those suffering from eating disorders. One user aptly describes a clip as ‘eating disorder porn.’

It seems obvious that these clips might be triggering to those suffering from eating disorders. But for a non-suffering viewer, it’s all, supposedly, a bit of harmless entertainment. Yet, what we don’t realise is the subliminal damage watching these shows can do. Research has shown that watching such clips can be harmful even to those who do not have pre-existing disordered relationships with food. Karsay and Schmuck found that watching three two-minute clips of weight-loss reality TV enhanced negative implicit attitudes toward obese individuals amongst all adolescents sampled[1]. The risk of diet show damage threatens us all. 

In its new, easily consumed form, we see the unrelenting shame which makes the show so popular. Removed from the context of TV, the clips make the toxic discourse of Supersize vs Superskinny easily accessible. Shame, humiliation and self-loathing are the active ingredients. The image of ice-cream-for-breakfast Julie lingers in our minds, strengthening either our desire to avoid her fate, or our comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone in our unhealthy attitudes to food and ourselves. When we see food categorised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, feelings of guilt and shame seep into, and distort our own self-image. Shows like Supersize vs Superskinny presume that weight is something we can totally control, but weight is a characteristic, and not a behaviour. It is too easy to be drawn into such an over-simplification of weight-loss; a narrative that is neither helpful nor accurate. 

Regardless of what its creators may argue in its defence, Supersize vs Superskinny, as it exists on YouTube, holds no positive, constructive message. In watching each short clip or full episode, we expose ourselves to harmful content. Such viewing habits become a guilty pleasure. You tell yourself – ‘I’m not like her, I could never eat that, I could never let myself get that way.’ Really, you’re indoctrinating yourself with a toxic teaching: ‘don’t eat that or you’ll look like her’ – ‘you’ll be ‘Super’ too’.

We must do better, for ourselves and for others. One way to start is by making space for positive discourse on food and body image. Luckily, there is no shortage of helpful, educational, platforms available. I haven’t indulged in a Supersize vs Superskinny episode so far this year. Instead, my new years’ resolution was to follow Courtney Black’s (@courtneydblack) training and nutrition programme as best as I could. Her account is a space where food is fuel; having recovered from disordered eating herself, she promotes developing a relationship with one’s body to see exercise as enjoyable, not as a punishment. It has become therapy for me this past term. Deanna Wolfe (@dietitiandeanna), whose bio reads ‘non-diet dietitian’, has a page filled with educational, honest, easily digestible posts that similarly present food as a source of enjoyment, not something we need to be ashamed of. Emilia Thompson (@emiliathompsonphd) is another qualified nutritionist producing free content on a range of issues, centred around the reforming of our relationships with ourselves and our bodies. 

We live in a time where the pressure is greater than ever to achieve one standard of beauty; we still have a long way to go in dismantling these constructs. Do away with the relics of shows like Supersize vs Superskinny. Let’s start listening instead to those who have made it their mission to heal the damage that has been, and continues to be, done.

Some other pages that have amazing content for reforming positive relationships with food and your body, and some delicious foodspo are @lucymountain and @kyliesbakes on Instagram, and @emmamatthewsxx and @mikkzazon on TikTok

UK’s leading eating disorder charity Beat: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/  

Mind UK: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/eating-problems/treatment-support/ 

[1] Karsay, Kathrin, and Desirée Schmuck. “”Weak, Sad, and Lazy Fatties”: Adolescents’ Explicit and Implicit Weight Bias Following Exposure to Weight Loss Reality TV Shows.” Media psychology, vol. 22, no. 1, 2019, pp. 60-81. Taylor and Francis Collection, https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2102/10.1080/15213269.2017.1396903.

Cover image: Dose Juice on Unsplash

Niamh Langton

Outside of her degree, Niamh likes to write on a range of topics, but particularly on issues surrounding popular culture. Having grown up in the northern town of Wigan, she believes in the importance of...