Operation humiliation

An Cailín Rua

OUTDATED The Operation Transformation expert panel have repeatedly scolded, humiliated and infantilised participants who have not met weight-loss targets.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – fresh beginnings, great intentions, a relentless onslaught of diet and fitness ads and a whole lot of self-flagellation. It’s also that time when something appears on the screens of our national broadcaster combining all of the above and claiming to be good for us.
Operation Transformation is a series where participants (‘leaders’) try to lose weight and improve their fitness, aided by a panel of dieticians, psychologists and fitness instructors. With weekly check-ins – sorry, weigh-ins – it follows the progress of the participants over the course of several weeks, with their ‘success’ measured in terms of weight loss.
It’s a programme that badly needs its own transformation.
In theory, it is a positive initiative. There are lots of good bits; practical tips to increase fitness, easy-to-prepare healthy meals and the fantastic community walks. All of which can contribute to a healthier, happier lifestyle.
However, with the main metric for progress being weight loss, and with sometimes drastic weekly targets set, the programme now stands accused promoting a harmful diet culture that ultimately sets people up for failure.
Operation Transformation is undeniably a weight-loss show; its logo is a weighing scale. Members of the Operation Transformation expert panel have repeatedly scolded, humiliated and infantilised participants who have not met weight-loss targets, contributing to an overall culture of weight stigma and anti-fat bias.
A growing body of academic and medical research suggests that diets do not work in the long term for most people – in fact, they can and frequently do lead to long-term weight gain.
Dieting is also the strongest predictor for development of eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. Indeed, there has been a recent drastic increase in hospital admissions in Ireland for eating disorders, combined with a chronic shortage of services (just three adult beds in total in the country) and a lack of trained staff and psychological support, meaning those affected must often seek help overseas.
Yet our Department of Health deemed it appropriate in 2021 to spend over €350,000 in sponsorship and advertising around Operation Transformation, a programme that has barely evolved in 16 years.
In response to criticism, RTÉ claims that this series will focus on health in a more holistic way, looking at indicators like blood pressure, cholesterol, hydration, sleep quality and psychological wellbeing. But while the centring of participants’ bodies for critique and their level of weight loss as measures of success remain, this is tokenism.
Thousands of people watching the show are essentially being told that bodies like theirs are unhealthy and undesirable. This cruelty does not just affect leaders but reinforces damaging societal narratives that our value is based upon how we look, that thin is better and healthier, that ‘fat’ is negative, and that if you’re not thin, then you are somehow lazy, or less attractive, or less worthy. That participation by leaders is voluntary does not excuse the decision by RTÉ to platform this messaging, which contributes to harm caused to people with bigger bodies.
Objections to Operation Transformation are not simply a result of over sensitivity, offence seeking or snowflake culture; they are based on the logical assumption that as time passes, new evidence emerges to which we should respond and adapt. Just because something may not have seemed harmful in the past, does not mean we cannot do better in the present.
RTÉ and the Department of Health both have a responsibility to lead by delivering responsible, sustainable health promotion initiatives that change harmful cultures and deliver better outcomes.
Many of us treat January as an opportunity to create healthier lifestyle and create new habits or fire up dormant ones. Wanting to lose weight is not a bad thing; but basing our self-image, our self-esteem and perceived healthiness on it is not a good thing.
Our bodies are incredible works of science, of engineering – of art! – and all our various shapes and sizes are unique to us. Instead of looking in the mirror and criticising what we see, let’s instead cast an appreciative eye on our bodies, and if we really want to change them, let’s do so in a compassionate, sensible and sustainable way that prioritises our overall wellbeing, instead of the number on the scales.