The Dangers of Diet Culture in the Media

The mixed messages sent by Jenna Bush Hager and Hoda Kotb when they weighed themselves on their morning talk show are emblematic of the unhealthy diet culture in the media. Two women weighing themselves on live television became a news event, proving the unhealthy pressure on women to regulate their appearance.

Hager and Kotb, hosts of “Today with Hoda and Jenna,” announced they were weighing themselves before they started intermittent fasting, a trending diet where participants eat within a certain number of hours in the day. 

“We call it intermittent gorging,” Kotb said. Hager interrupted her, protesting her comment.

“No, we’re not going to do that,” Hager said, “We’re doing it to be healthy, remember?”

Despite this claim that their goal in this segment was to focus on health, the conduct of the two hosts sent a completely conflicting message. The way the two proceeded to talk about their weight and their diet could be both triggering to those who have experienced an eating disorder and dangerous to viewers.

Hager and Kotb walked over to the scales, kicked off their shoes and held hands. “Don’t look down,” Kotb said.

“It’s like jumping off a cliff,” Hager responded.

The camera then zoomed in on the scale numbers, and the two switched scales after Kotb claimed the scales were off. Laughter and exclamations could be heard in the studio. 

“Whoa, I weight 20 pounds more than you,” Hager said to Kotb.

“Fine, fine, fine,” Kotb said, and the studio applauded. “I feel 158,” she said, when Hager asked how she felt.

“I think I weigh twice as much as my sister,” Hager said. 

Kotb began to eat the food they had in front of them, claiming she had been “starving.” 

“Me too,” Hager said, “But now I don’t even want to eat!”

The cultural norms around dieting that were reinforced in this televised moment are far from healthy. It was clear that the two had sincere intentions, as they mentioned health goals and brought on a doctor to answer questions about intermittent fasting. 

However, the self- deprecation, casual mentions of not wanting to eat and comparisons of weight the women made absolutely contradicted any positive motives behind the segment.

Common eating disorders include two symptoms: either binging, eating large quantities of food in a short period of time, or restricting, consuming little or no food. 

Kotb jokingly described the diet they were trying out as “gorging,” and Hager made a lighthearted comment about not wanting to eat. Kotb also joked that she had not eaten for a day and a half before they stepped onto the scales.

Making light of such a serious issue is not healthy for viewers. A study from the American Psychological Association in 2015 found that the internalization of ideals depicted in media promotes social comparison, which in turn “predicts body dissatisfaction.” 

The findings “are important given the critical role of body dissatisfaction in the development of eating disorders among older adolescents.”

With media outlets routinely treating women’s weight as a taboo, embarrassing and validating measure, it is no wonder that 56 percent of women “say they are dissatisfied with their overall appearance.” 

CNN, Women’s Health and People, amongst other publications, covered the event. Hager asked the doctor that they brought on the show why she made a face when she stepped on the scale. 

The doctor responded “because I can’t believe you guys did that on national TV.” 

Weighing themselves, which should be an objective way for people to track their medical health, has become an embarrassing, public spectacle. Had the women weighed themselves on television but changed their language and behavior, the outcome could have been constructive. 

Watching the women perpetuate the stereotype of feminine obsession with weight and appearance felt like a step back. There is plenty of toxic content and misinformation about dieting already present in the media, which is statistically harming the mental health of young people. 

It is in the hands of the media to flip the script and positively impact viewers’ mental health by changing the language around dieting and body image.

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