Within the sphere of television, especially weight-loss makeover shows portray the fat body as inappropriate, inacceptable, and in need of change. Makeover shows are popular all over the world; the arguably most well-known one regarding weight loss is The Biggest Loser, which has been airing in the US since 2004 and has been reproduced in close to 40 countries, highlighting its appeal to the general population. Makeover shows transmit the imperative of improvement: improving one’s body, in the logic of the makeover, directly translates to an improvement of one’s life; if one works hard enough, anything is possible. The makeover narrative thus reflects a neoliberal notion of personal responsibility, which used to be prominent especially in the US but has become increasingly prominent also in Finnish society.
Finland as an example has been chosen because it is highly influenced by the US, which is reflected by the sheer amount of TV shows and programmes but is visible also on a societal level. Finland has been nicknamed “the most American of the European countries,” which shows the apparent influence of US-American culture on the Finnish society. Finnish society has traditionally focused on equality and the benefit of teamwork, making it a point to create an equal starting point for everyone in order to guarantee equality. This is a big contrast to the US, in which society is based on the myth of the America Dream – if you work hard enough you can make it in life, regardless of where you started off. While ideas of teamwork and equality that traditionally have been important in Finnish society are also visible in Finnish makeover shows, the shows nevertheless reproduce neoliberal ideas of self-improvement, self-discipline, and self-responsibility.
The Finnish makeover shows Jutta ja Superdieetit (Jutta and the Super Diet) and Jutta ja Puolen Vuoden Superdieetit (Jutta and the Half-Year Super Diet), which aired in 2011 and 2013-2015, respectively, are prime examples of the idea of improving life through the improvement of the body. In the shows, the expert Jutta, who gained popularity through her participation in the Finnish reality show Suuri Seikkailu (The Big Adventure) helps ‘ordinary Finnish men and women’ lose weight and achieve their dream body (in the logic of the shows, this means a slim one, of course).
Jutta and the Super Diet follows the lives of six participants and Jutta while they are losing weight and/or training for a bodybuilding competition. The voiceover in the beginning tells us that Jutta has the goal of participating in a competition in Serbia and is also coaching six “normal women and men” to a “tighter body and lighter life”; “taistelu läskiä vastaan” (the battle against the fat) is never easy, but in Jutta’s super supportive company it is at least more fun. Jutta, in this case, has the role of the expert and of a participant, since she is trying to lose weight and get into shape at the same time as the others, which is rather atypical for classical makeover narratives. In makeover shows from the US – such as Extreme Makeover – Weight Loss Edition or Revenge Body with Khloé Kardashian – the experts appear to be much more distant, constructed as flawless idols, instead of empathizing with the participants.
Jutta being both participant and expert creates an interesting dynamic regarding control and discipline. On the one hand, Jutta is close to the participants and ‘one of them’, which is expressed for example by her talking about the food she misses while she is on a diet, and her having to go through the bodily assessment that also the other participants are subject to. On the other hand, Jutta serves as a reminder that it is possible to lose weight and change one’s body. As the show likes to remind the viewer, if a ‘regular’ person like Jutta can make it, also the ‘regular’ participants should be able to lose weight and achieve their goals. Of course, the show disregards the fact that Jutta is not at all a ‘regular’ person regarding her body and fitness; she had participated in several bikini fitness competitions and been coached by different fitness and bodybuilding coaches before her time on the show.
In the second season of the show, then called Jutta and the Half-Year Super Diet, Jutta has ‘graduated’ from a participant to a full-on coach; however, she stays in close contact to the participants and empathizes with them and their weight-loss journey. According to the show’s logic, her own weight loss in the previous season has enabled her to move up the ladder from participant to coach; her weight loss has granted her the power and expertise to coach the participants. She serves as the agent of control in the show, visiting the participants at home or at work with a scale to find out what their weight is and if they had any slip-ups. The participants must explain their behaviour to her, she is the one who judges them and who decides how to move forward – imposing sanctions on them through stricter diets or more exercise, in case they do slip up. Although Jutta is constructed as a very friendly source of help and advice, she nevertheless enacts control and surveillance. This setup obscures the power relations; disciplinary power is enacted by Jutta, the expert, despite her caring behaviour. Through what Weber calls “affective domination,” power relations are not only obscured, but also legitimized, since they happen in the name of care.
Making entertainment out of fat bodies and fat individual’s lives has become (and remains) an acceptable, light-hearted form of entertainment, which negates relations of power and discrimination of fat individuals. As I have discussed above, this becomes especially visible in shows that construct the expert as benevolent and caring, such as in the aforementioned Finnish shows. The disciplinary practices of control and surveillance that were enacted by expert are constructed to be acceptable (and accepted) if they lead to a new body and, subsequently, a new life – which is the goal of the makeover. If that goal is achieved it was all worth it – at least in the dominant, powerful narrative of the shows.