Health

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Fasting, abstinence and penance... now where did we hear that before?

Psychologist Marie Murray on how shows like this are the new religion in secular Ireland

Smile, you’re on TV: The six ‘Operation Transformation’ contestants this year are Marc and Deirdre, back row; Paudie, Sarah, Siobhan and Jennifer, front
Operation Transformation
Marie Murray

There is a new religion to which growing numbers are attending if the listening and viewing figures of Operation Transformation are to be believed. It brings the promise of most faith forms, which is to transform you in body and spirit, to redeem your life and set you on a new path. It leads you to acknowledge the error of your ways and to recognise and remove all sources of temptation so that you will not go back to the bad habits that brought you to this sorry state. Penance and pain bring transformation.

Operation Transformation demands fasting and abstinence, the avoidance of alcohol and cigarettes, turning away from the sins of sweets, chocolates and cholesterol-inducing substances, proper nourishment of body and psyche, a firm commitment on the part of the 'chosen ones', the leaders, and their followers, all overseen by the high priest experts who have the right to reprimand and demand renewed commitment on pain of public humiliation or dismissal from the programme.

There is no doubt that the phenomenal success of the Operation Transformation formula has drawn important national attention to the personal, psychological and practical health risks of overeating, lack of exercise, smoking and excess alcohol. We learn how high-fat foods leave us at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancers, high cholesterol, blood pressure and risk of stroke. The fall-out of being overweight is huge for children and adults.

So, of course, anything that can save us from the damnation of overeating is to be savoured and recommended. Or is it? What are the costs of social surgery and for whom?

There has been an extraordinary shift in the relationship between Irish people and media in recent decades. We have moved from the closed to the confessional age. A time when a farmer would not admit how many acres he had, personal income was nobody's business but your own, family difficulties remained behind closed doors, relationships were personal, personal distress was private and public confession was unheard of.

While a secret nosiness is an inherent part of human nature, in pre-media times those who took it upon themselves to broadcast the 'doings' of others were seen as gossips, the butt of jokes, characters who would instantly convey what was said to them 'in strictest confidence', pre-Twitter instagrammers of the salacious, the scandalous and the secret.

The shifting curtains and 'squinting windows' of former times confirm that we are psychologically hot-wired to want to know about other people's lives, the good, the bad and the ugly as reference points and for reassurance about ourselves. We watch to know that we are not alone in our struggles and in our experiences of life.

Reality TV has given us what we always wanted, the fly-on-the-wall experience of snooping into other people's lives. And who has not watched in mesmerised horror at some of the public displays of private information by celebrities and ordinary people in communications without boundaries of any kind. Reality TV makes celebrities of ourselves, our role models become ourselves, our heroes and heroines are us, we watch ourselves, rate ourselves, expose ourselves in order to understand ourselves.

But there can be casualties, too, and the ethics of reality TV, of who signs up for what, under what circumstances, with what real emotional and psychological levels of consent, with what short-term and long-term consequences, all require consideration.

We have witnessed meltdowns on Operation Transformation in the past, callous critique that caused national outrage, vulnerability that left us all feeling a little uncomfortable sitting on our couches, eating our crisps, scoffing our Chinese take-aways, quaffing our favourite tipple, watching others doing what we could not do, victims of our voyeurism and the need to make everything emotional or maudlin, entertaining and confessional these days.

It appears that it is not enough for participants on Operation Transformation to simply lose weight. Public humiliation is required, to be psychologically exposed, physically stripped down, publicly weighed with the tension of hesitation and a psychological drum roll before the new weight is revealed, the weighee either questioned, admonished, praised and absolved, hugged, brought to tears of disappointment or delight in a gladiatorial display for public viewing. It is not enough to enter the arena alone.

The back story is significant others, partners and children are made visible and cameras pursue participants into their lives, record their tears, note their distress and broadcast their pain.

We may say, and it is probably true, that we are more mentally healthy now that we can talk about what has happened to us and what matters to us, that we can share our secrets and express our hurt but the encouragement to do so in a public forum, eternally inerasable, visibly commercialised, instantly communicable, syndicated for profit, retained for posterity and beyond is another issue, and there are ethical considerations when people at vulnerable times in their lives are being encouraged to expose themselves on reality programmes in a public way.

Dr Marie Murray is a registered clinical psychologist, family therapist, broadcaster and author

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