“With great power comes great responsibility,” Uncle Ben famously said to Peter Parker. Indeed, this fictional wisdom rings true in the real world, too. We may not have Spiderman, but we have Oprah, a superhero of her own variety, a strong, resilient, self-made success story and inspiration to many. As a result, Oprah possesses enormous power, and with it comes responsibility. Everything she does and says has a ripple effect and massive influence on her fans and followers, who are swift to adopt her ideas. Which is why women everywhere are kicking off 2016 digging for the thin woman hiding inside them.
Oprah’s Weight Watchers campaign left viewers with what might be heard as words of hope and encouragement, the push they need to shed that extra weight. But underneath the “You-can-do-it!” is the implication that you absolutely have to. Whether Oprah’s words come from a place of physical insecurity or profit-incentive, Oprah’s message reinforces beauty standards that serve only to hold women back. Women are disproportionately targeted regarding weight. Oprah singles women out. She addresses us directly, “Inside every overweight woman is the woman she knows she can be.” Men are simply not addressed, as if to suggest men are immune to body fat. They’re not. As many men are overweight as women. The only distinction is, where men have weight, women have weight problems. Men are not exempt from body fat; they’re exempt from the stigma attached to it, to which women remain disproportionately bound. Oprah’s message is the glue that binds us.
Not to say Oprah is single-handedly responsible for society’s long-standing double-standards. Not in the least. If anything, she is the victim of this pressure. But Oprah is a singular source of enormous influence, and after a year of enormous progress toward the cause of body positivity, in the space of sixty seconds, Oprah’s ad undoes the cause’s effort. After empowering so many women, especially women of color, to achieve, aspire and succeed; Oprah disempowers us by suggesting a woman’s success is conditional on her physical appearance.
In an open letter to Oprah regarding her Weight Watchers campaign, Melissa Harris-Perry calls Oprah out on her bullshit by kindly reminding her and the rest of the world, “There is not one thing that you have done that would have been more extraordinary if you had done it with a 25-inch waist.” Perry goes on to say, “I worry, as a mom, about the messages our daughters receive if they think a woman as phenomenal as you is still not enough unless she is thin.” So when Oprah describes women as “Lost [and] buried in the weight that [we] carry,” she’s blaming the weight of our bodies for holding us back, when in fact, the same women are lost, buried and held back by the weight of social pressure to be fit and beautiful.
This means women everywhere are focusing on slimming down instead of focusing on coming up. The time we could be spending studying, creating, discovering, pursuing, aspiring, achieving will instead be spent exercising, dieting, perspiring, mirror-gazing, criticizing, measuring, counting calories and inches.
I don’t think sending this negative message was Oprah’s intention. I don’t blame Oprah for succumbing to the pressure of our superficial world. It’s not Oprah’s fault her fans are so receptive to celebrity endorsements. And although I think Oprah should be mindful of her fan’s blind trust in her stamp of approval, we can’t hold Oprah accountable for the actions of thousands of fans. The success of her campaign reflects our reluctance to think for ourselves.
Just because Oprah decides to lose weight doesn’t mean that you should too. When Oprah says, “I feel that way, and I know billions of other people feel that way,” too, that has nothing to do with you. If Oprah felt like plummeting to her death off the edge of a cliff, would you do that, too? When Oprah says, “If not now, when?” maybe the question you should really be asking is “Why? If not for me, for who?” And don’t let Oprah be your answer. If you want to do something, do it for you.