Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Oprah and Her Body

Written by Alex Alvarez
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Recently, images of a concerned-looking Oprah Winfrey have been making the media rounds, framed with bold block letters reading "Oprah Warns Rihanna!" All Oprah had to do was utter one, tiny phrase—"He will hit you again," in light of a recent news item, Chris Brown's alleged attack on fellow singer Rihanna—and the whole nation listens, almost as if they had been waiting for her take on the subject. One soundbite, one headline, turns into a national conversation. It is this very power, clout, and built-in audience that makes Oprah's discussions so important. The influence that she exercises places Oprah in a relatively unique position, especially when it comes to guiding the discourse on women's bodies and the way women relate to one another. 

Recently, images of a concerned-looking Oprah Winfrey have been making the media rounds, framed with bold block letters reading "Oprah Warns Rihanna!" All Oprah had to do was utter one, tiny phrase—"He will hit you again," in light of a recent news item, Chris Brown's alleged attack on fellow singer Rihanna—and the whole nation listens, almost as if they had been waiting for her take on the subject. One soundbite, one headline, turns into a national conversation. It is this very power, clout, and built-in audience that makes Oprah's discussions so important. The influence that she exercises places Oprah in a relatively unique position, especially when it comes to guiding the discourse on women's bodies and the way women relate to one another. 


That aforementioned soundbite, uttered during the episode of The Oprah Show dedicated to domestic violence, is not the first time something Oprah has said has gone on to form attention-grabbing headlines. The headline was everywhere. “How did I let this happen again?” it read, running beneath an image of a defeated-looking Oprah Winfrey. “Oprah on her battle with weight. A must-read for anyone who’s ever fallen off the wagon.” It was with this headline, this easily marketable snippet and sound bite brimming over with shame, that the January 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine hit newsstands. “I'm mad at myself. I'm embarrassed,” Oprah wrote. Blogs, weekly magazines, and entertainment news shows could not get enough. Everyone and their mother was jumping on this bandwagon, gingerly inviting viewers to tune in, to gossip, to show sympathy, and to revel in the drama of this reality. And people—particularly women—did tune in. Maybe you’re thinking, “Why, who even cares?”

Coming from almost any other, the choice to discuss weight gain could be chalked up to being part of the same white noise that forms a constant nebulous cloud around women. But Oprah, whose media empire has increasingly promoted several platforms for women to speak their minds—Skype testimonials on her show, e-mails about her latest book club selection, show topics focused on national issues and concerns—has also allowed her own, very open, struggles with weight to be a major, if not defining, role in her career and public image. One of the images most commonly associated with Oprah (other than a certain couch-jumping incident) is the image of her, dressed in slim fit jeans and a dark turtleneck, wheeling out a wagon loaded with sixty-seven pounds of fat to represent her own weight loss. It’s a decision the talk-show host has since, perhaps tellingly, come to regret. In a CBS News piece in 2005, Oprah confessed: “I had literally starved myself for four months—not a morsel of food—to get into that pair of size 10 Calvin Klein jeans.”

The stunt was a mistake not only because it set a precedent that Oprah’s weight was open to scrutiny and discussion, but because it molded her role as a self-made, self-help guru and mouthpiece for women’s weight concerns and diet issues. Now, the focus and the pressure were set for Oprah to maintain her weight, not only for her own health and personal fulfillment, but also to continue as a consistent and genuine role model for the women that made up such a large portion of her audience and fan base. To gain weight after the wagon incident, then, would not only have been a personal failure and a public embarrassment, but an act of hypocrisy.

Whether rolling a wagon across a stage or shrugging, defeated, on a magazine cover, Oprah's decisions carry over to the lives of others. So when this influential and successful woman makes the decision to have weight be a worthy discussion for her magazine and talk show, people listen. I listen. I want to know what course this discussion is going to take. By extension, I listen because I want to know whether people are under the impression that they’ve been given an OK to discuss my own body. By deeming weight gain a worthy topic of discussion, Oprah adds legitimacy to the topic of not only her weight and her body, but to women’s weight and women’s bodies.

Of course, this obsession with discussing women’s weight didn’t begin with Oprah. This is one way that we, as women, have been socially conditioned to relate to one another for centuries. This is how we relate to someone like Oprah, whose life experience, traumatic childhood, and privileged, very public adulthood is so markedly different from our own. The way I see it, Oprah is such a popular and beloved media figure not despite her struggles with weight—but because of them—and, of course, because of her willingness to discuss them openly with her viewers and fans.

Oprah is a mirror image of the everywoman, a figure with whom people can relate to in terms of her personal struggles. She is fallible. Oprah can’t stick to diets. Neither can lots of women. Oprah cries over her dogs; Oprah laughs with her close friend Gale; Oprah loves good food; Oprah can be duped by charismatic liars (for shame, James Frey!); and Oprah is concerned about the education of young girls in Africa. Celebrities: At least one, to borrow a common refrain from tabloid weeklies, really is just like us and is thus worthy of being celebrated.

But in stressing that fallibility of women—the failure to maintain their weight—Oprah’s openness worked to bring down a barrier between a media personality and her female audience at the expense of constructing a maze of fun house mirrors around those same women. We don’t need to play up our struggles or emphasize our bodies to create a discussion or alliance between one another. Or, do we?

In a climate where the general public—symbiotically with the media that creates and distributes celebrity gossip as news—is increasingly concerned with seeing that “celebrities” are “just like us,” following a successful woman’s relatable weight issues makes for excellent ratings. It wasn’t heart disease or educational opportunities or war or peace or scientific research or an impetus to social service that captured the public’s attention in January of this year—it was a discussion of one woman’s diet failures.

Later, Oprah went on to share that part of her weight gain was due to a thyroid condition. But the chance to talk about a serious health issue took the backseat to a sensationalistic headline and cover image concerning weight precisely because this is how women have been conditioned to speak to one another. We have been taught, generation after generation, to remain in the “inner sphere,” to swap recipes and beauty tips, to make idle chat about the weather or our neighbors’ personal business, to form links to one another built on gossip and a united struggle against our own bodies. As women, we need to make a decision about whether or not we want to add to the legitimization of weight issues and one’s body as a means of bonding. We can make the decision to say, “Yes, health is important. Yes, it is important to understand how to maintain a healthy weight, how to understand our bodies. But is that all there is?” And really, is it?

Talk centering around Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton this past election season inevitably took a turn beyond the public sphere their political careers occupied, to their roles within the domestic sphere as mothers and wives, and further inward to their clothing choices, makeup techniques, legs, smiles, hairstyles, and age spots. Their bodies were treated as legitimate topics for public discussion as if their laugh lines or body shape would somehow dictate their political decisions or potential to govern. These topics appeared in major newspapers and personal blogs alike. And it seemed like the public, particularly women, were expected to join. “What did you think about Sarah Palin’s outfit?” “Haha, what was with Hillary’s hair, amiright?” Jesus, I don’t know. Can’t we talk about whether they’re going to help me finally afford health care or not?

It is true that gossip is a time-honored form of bonding. It sets us up in teams against a foe, be it a celebrity, political figure, or personal acquaintance. But the constant, ever-present barrage of magazine articles, commercials, and morning talk show segments dedicated to bra size and belly fat and wrinkles and cellulite and hair color and tooth brightness, does nothing but reduce us more and more each time we are bombarded with them. As a result, we become acutely aware of all the different problem areas we can dissect, discuss, and improve upon.

We can change this if we choose to. We can walk by magazines clamoring on about bodies that are “Hot or Not.” We can turn away from commercials telling us that we can lose 182 pounds in three weeks. We can stop buying diet shakes and mainstream women’s magazines. We can stop being consumers of ideas and products that tell us that we can only relate to other women by focusing on the external. And we can listen, politely, when Oprah shares her embarrassment. And then we can ask, “Isn’t there anything else we can talk about?”

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