Monday, February 04, 2008

Penn & Teller Weigh In

This weekend, a friend alerted me to the latest season of the Showtime series, Penn & Teller. According to the show's site, in Season 5's premiere, "Obesity":
Penn & Teller reveal truths about the Obesity epidemic. A visit to an Obesity conference exposes the uncomfortably cozy relationships between the medical establishment, the diet companies and the weight loss industry. An advocacy group for overweight people tells us about the hardships and discrimination brought about by their weight. Plus, the first-ever Penn & Teller 'Fat Guy Olympics.'
Penn, a la Paul Campos, introduces the topic quite bluntly: "The obesity epidemic is bullshit." He and Teller (I'm never quite sure how Teller earns his keep, though he does jump on a treadmill at some point during this episode), debunk the obesity myth by visiting "The Annual Meeting of the Obesity Society" in 2006, sponsored by, as they point out, the drug companies that make diet pills, where a bunch of (usually) thin researchers suggest that curbing obesity is simply a matter of controlling diet and exercise. P & T note that if the equation were that simple, none of these researchers would have a job!

P & T actually interview Paul Campos, Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, and author of The Diet Myth. Campos weighs in on the "obesity epidemic," suggesting our nation's collective weight is a sign of economic development instead, and offering three of myths that support the "science" of obesity:

1) Weight is a good proxy for health. (Campos suggests, in fact, that we really don't know anything about a person's health, judging by her weight.)
2) Going from fat to thin can improve your health.
3) We know how to produce long-term weight loss in populations.
P & T go on to tackle the BMI, battling the notion that one need be a certain height and weight (not one's natural weight, of course) in order to be considered healthy. The 6'6", 310-pound Penn suggests, in jest, that, according to the BMI charts, he should weigh 124 pounds and be 5'4". The next thing we know, he's lying prostrate on a table, as a man with a chain saw prepares to remove his lower legs. Comedy aside, the point is well-taken: Asking a man of his size to lose large amounts of weight may be as preposterous as asking him to shrink in height.

P & T interview a Professor Oliver, who suggests that we're wired to be obese (and promiscuous, to boot). Penn then challenges the all-too-common "willpower" argument: "If you have the willpower to overcome several million years of evolution, cool. More for the rest of us."

The show also interviews Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D., author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health. Gaesser suggests the diet industry is notorious for "blaming the victim," suggesting that dieters fail, not the diets themselves (if you just would have stuck with it, you know?). Gaesser goes on to warn, as many of us realize, about the dangers of yo-yo dieting and suggests that fat people who exercise regularly are healthier and have a lower mortality rate than thin people who don't.

As Penn concludes: "Is our knee-jerk 'horror of obesity' out of whack with reality? Fuck, yeah!"


Anonymous said...

I love Penn and Teller. And Teller's contribution is, of course, as co-writer of the show.

Bellesouth said...

I wanted to note this episode originally aired March 22, 2007. And the Fat Guy olympics were great.

Penn & Teller = my future ex-husbands.

I wonder when Season 6 is going to start up!

Alexandra Erin said...

Awesome. I've been looking for a summary of this episode, as I don't get Showtime.

Anonymous said...

It's actually on YT.

carrie said...

Penn's final comment was fabulous. Sums it up quite well. :)

Though, to be honest, I've never heard of them. Or the Fat Guy Olympics. I really do need to read "The Diet Myth," though.

Kaethe said...

I love Penn & Teller.

Reverence Lily said...

I'm ambivalent about Penn & Teller because of their portrayal of animal rights activists as all fucked up PETAphiles (especially since I heard Penn's wife is a vegan.. ? Or is she one of those "pretends to be vegans" where she eats animal products occasionally?)

However, I'd be willing to watch this episode, even though I secretly think that they're being paid by the CCF (which, though anti-obesity scare, are ALSO shills for the food and alcohol industries and are also notably anti-MADD). That doesn't happen a lot, since I generally make it a rule for my continued mental health to NOT watch TV.

Also, the Obesity Society? For, like, screwing up fat people even more than they have already? Talk about Orwellian.

And as a last note on the show, I think that the word "willpower" shouldn't even be breathed concerning food and weight. It's notable, and I wrote a post on this on my own blog but decided not to post it because I thought it was too political just yet, that food intake has this weird moral/immoral status - and effing a, it's naturally amoral, you know? Like peeing or sleeping. It's a bodily function. If we said, "I wish I could stop peeing so much. I'm dehydrating myself!" we'd get them to a hospital, not give them support. And yet this is what we do for fat people. Ugh.

As a finishing statement, I'll note that this blog has inspired me to do my own (radical-feminist-mindset-tinged) eating disorder/size/fat acceptance blog called Cherish Her: A Blog. :)

Lady Jaye said...

yeah it's on youtube. The whole thing in 3 parts (it's a half-hour video, right?)

Anonymous said...

I've seen links to your blog several times but have never clicked. The name turned me off. I thought it was going to be something much different. Now that I read, this is a fantastic place, and I'll be adding you to my blogroll. Keep on.. being awesome.

cggirl said...

i watched it, that was great. thanks for pointing it out, i wouldn't have known they had an episode like this if u hadn't written about it, and i dont normally watch that show.

drstaceyny said...


bs--thanks for the clarification. Why are they you future ex's?

ae--looks like you can catch in on line!

anon--it took me 5 min to figure out what YT stood for. ; )

carrie--it's a great book. The Fat Guy Olympics was an event that P & T hosted on the show, not a real event (as far as I know).

kaethe--they're pretty funny. There's a funny episode on colonics, too!

rl--wonderful points. It seems they were inspired to do the show after making a number of negative comments abt fat ppl in previous episodes (at least that's what they said). I like your blog title (and can't help but think of Madonna ; ))--enjoy it!

lj--yep. Thanks.

yb--thanks. The name is off-putting to many. I'm glad you came to visit!

cg--you're welcome.

hotsauce said...

i love penn and teller, and now i'm going to go watch this episode on youtube. thanks! i don't have a TV, so the only episodes i've ever seen were when my little bro got the first season DVD for christmas several years ago.

reverence lily - i know what you mean about not being totally warm to them. i felt the same way watching the animal rights thing, and *especially* watching the global warming episode. it seems that they go into filming a show already having an opinion on the topic. with the global warming one, they were doing little but parroting the beliefs of the ultraconservative D.C. thinktanks and "science" organizations and dismissing as hippies the multitudes of scientists who say otherwise. and they also tried to make a point about them being hippies by interviewing some poorly educated "activists" at a protest rally, when (in my experience) a large portion of the people who go to those things are looking for a party and little more. it's not a reflection on the majority. what's sad is that a lot of people watch these things and believe that everything is true just because P&T seem so antiestablishment and therefore unbiased.

Anonymous said...

Ditto to what reverence lily said. I am very suspicious of their true motives--they pose as anti-establishment but take the stance of some very powerful industries. I can't stand that, a lot of people buy into what they say without questioning where it's really coming from. Doesn't mean they can't ever be right, but they are not by any means on "the people"'s side.

Anonymous said...

I think obesity most certainly Does either create and/or co-exist with health problems like diabetes, back pain, arthritis, sleep apnea, heart disease and so forth. Fat Acceptance groups deny any idea that obesity could be unhealthy. They go to the *other* extreme which makes them look foolish, extremely ignorant and decidely rigid. Unfortunately, the message that Obesity Kills! is So emphasized to Such an extreme in this world, that any Other information (that might actually help fat people) all too easily gets drowned out, such as: if you eat as heathfully as you can and exercise on a daily basis, your health Will improve, even if you are obese. I definately think that obesity rates Are rising, as well, and we need to explore all the reasons this is happening and not shut out that information. Still, I would like to see the Penn&Teller series on obesity, because I also think that Big Pharma has a Big stake in making money off of obesity.

Anonymous said...

I got a chance to view this show; it was hilarious! Truly funny stuff, and I agreed with much of the commentary. I do, however, still think that obesity carries real risks. It's a question of what - if anything - one can do to improve health. I don't think weight-loss of a drastic sort is realistic for people. And, to assume that all thin people are healthy is equally incorrect.

Kazriko said...

Anonymous: They don't POSE as anti-establishment. They pose as, and are rationally thinking libertarians. If the establishment is rational and libertarian, then they support it.

They wouldn't change their mind on their principles if everyone else started to embrace them like a pansy anti-establishment person, they would rejoice that others are coming around to a more rational frame of mind.