The problem with reality TV

This advice column was written for, published 2 January 2018

More reality programmes on television seem to be focusing on how we look. Some just feature heaps of people in swimsuits with six packs (The Bachelor, Ex on the Beach), others are a blatant judgement of how a person looks based on their body (Naked Attraction). In your experience, what kind of message is this sending to us, to our children about how we look? Or is it motivation for us to work on our physique in 2018?

We’re such a superficial culture, aren’t we? We’re fed a constant stream of images in media and advertising that objectifies bodies and tells us how we should look.

Of course, we’re always going to judge people based on physical appearance, we’re visual creatures, after all. However, reality shows take it a step further, promoting the sexual objectification of people as entertainment. Openly judging a person according to their body, placing a value on them solely because of their appearance and deciding on this basis if they are worthy of further attention is totally acceptable according to these shows.

I’ve come across some reviews approving of Naked Attraction because it sends messages of self-love, body confidence and celebrates different body types.

Fair enough, but it misses the point – we are more than just bodies and we are more than just how we look. And while we’re seeing more varieties of bodies, we’re still just judging them according to how they look.

Body positive and body acceptance messages are widespread, partly a response to the self-esteem issues resulting from relentless exposure to stereotypical idealised bodies in the media every day. The body positive movement promotes messages about ‘embracing your flaws’, ‘loving your cellulite’ and ‘celebrating your curves’.

And again, this positive body image stuff is all well and good. We’re entitled to feel good in our bodies. But we should remember we are more than just bodies and we should be appreciated as such. Inside these bodies are actual people, with feelings, thoughts and values.

When we reduce people to how they look and treat them as an object to be assessed, we perpetuate a message that how we look is more important than how we feel, who we are, or what we can do.  Research also shows that objectification (of women in particular) changes how we relate to ourselves and each other, and not in a good way.

If seeing TV programmes placing importance on how bodies look gets you motivated to ‘work on your physique’, that’s ok, but know that having the perfect physique is not necessarily going to make you feel better about yourself, land you the perfect partner or make you happier.

Health is more than how you look. When setting health and fitness goals, consider why you want what you want, and whether an answer like “I want to lose weight because I want to feel better about myself” is actually going to hold true.

Focusing on how you feel (measured by things like energy levels, stress, mood, digestion, sleep and mental clarity) or what you can do (like improving strength, endurance, mobility, flexibility, balance or ease of movement, or learning new motor skills) impacts more on your opinion of self, how you present at work, in relationships and life in general than getting those 6 pack abs or losing 5kg.

Reality TV turns the objectification of people into entertainment and reinforces the concept that how we look is the most important thing above all else.  Is this how we want our kids to value themselves?