Don’t Be Fooled By Oprah’s Newfound Approach to Diet Culture

I might have been born well after the fact, but I don’t need to have seen Oprah Winfrey’s infamous “fat wagon” segment at the time it aired in 1988 to have felt its repercussions. Regardless of when you were born, you certainly know the one: the moment wherein the talk show host proudly wheeled out a wagon full of raw, butchered animal parts, wrapped up in plastic like they came straight from a serial killer’s lair. It was meant to be a visual representation of the weight she’d recently lost from a liquids-only diet. (“For four solid months, I didn’t eat a single morsel of food,” she wrote in a 2005 article for O, The Oprah Magazine.)

It’s one over-the-top example in a list of ways that Winfrey, throughout her decades-long career, has promoted dangerous and unrealistic weight loss and dieting methods that she admits were harmful. As you’ve probably heard by now, she addressed her role in diet culture while hosting a three-hour livestream in partnership with WeightWatchers called Making The Shift: A New Way to Think About Weight, which aired on May 9.

“I want to acknowledge that I have been a steadfast participant in this diet culture through my platforms, through the magazine, through the talk show for 25 years,” Winfrey said in her opening monologue. “I’ve been a major contributor to it. I cannot tell you how many weight loss shows and makeovers I have done, and they have been a staple since I’ve been working in television.” She specifically references the wagon moment as one of her biggest regrets.

Though Winfrey never uttered the words “I’m sorry” or the like, many media outlets framed this acknowledgment as an apology, churning out so many headlines that any other past coverage of Winfrey in relation to weight loss and fat-shaming is now very difficult to locate. Regardless of whether Winfrey herself meant this to be an apology, it’s not one I can accept. And I don’t think anyone should be quick to do so.

Yes, she was right to acknowledge her part in diet culture. For decades, Winfrey has been heralded by her fans, by the media, and seemingly by herself, not just as a viable source for weight loss advice but as a firsthand example that drastic weight loss is a realistic goal that will make a person healthier and happier upon achieving it.

For example, The Oprah Winfrey Show continually offered people like Dr. Oz (who has been questioned by other medical experts and in Congress about the questionable science surrounding the weight loss supplements he’s featured on his show) a platform to promote weight-loss-related products. The show’s weight loss segments depicted body fat with props that could have come straight off the set of a horror movie, like the butchered animal parts and these lumpy yellow scraps, which are allegedly the real omentums—the membrane that separates the abdomen from the organs inside it—of a thin person versus a fat person. (Which they call “good omentum” and “bad omentum.” I’ll let you guess which is which.) During the wagon stunt, after she outlined how she rapidly lost 67 pounds, Winfrey’s tone was jovial when she said she was “glad I did this for my heart” and made reference to “making yourself the best you can be.” She wrapped it all up with, “If you can believe in yourself and believe that this is the most important thing in your life, you can conquer it—if I did it…. You can do it.”

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