Until quite recently I rarely thought about the noughties. It was just a warehouse decade for my childhood, an apolitical sink hole of low rise jeans and foreign wars on terrestrial television. Nothing happened then- or, more correctly, nothing happened to me, which, when you’re 13, is the same thing. Of late, however, I have begun to think about the decade in which, to my utter horror, more and more people seem to have been born. Perhaps it’s that Fianna Fail are back in power, or perhaps it’s the unlikely resurgence of Jedward, late noughties shit-pop icons and perma-cover stars for Kiss Magazine (Ireland’s Premier Magazine for Teen Girls, last print issue in 2014). Certainly, I’m not the only one reflecting more intensely on this period of late, as the momentary discourse domination of “The Blair Show”, Jason Okundaye’s recent dive into the televisual mores of the aughts proved. Things are coming clear in the rear view mirror.
Okundaye’s run through drew some grumbles from contemporary historians – can one draw so direct a line between the X Factor and the Iraq War? – but drawing grumbles from contemporary historians is like shooting fish with BL cards in a barrel. The Blair Show takes in a wide sweep of unkind light entertainment, but reading it I discovered a renewed fascination with just one variety of late 00s and early 10s programming
Can you really call them that? Programmes like “Secret Eaters” and “Three Fat Brides and One Thin Dress” (“who could resist tuning into a programme called Three Fat Brides and One Thin Dress?”) asked Lucy Mangan winsomely in her 2007 Guardian review and “Honey We’re Killing the Kids” (with its memorable trick of making parents watch as images of their kids are digitally aged to predict what awful fate bad diets will wreak on their future children- the answer often having as much to do with mullets and bad piercings as weight) and “You Are What You Eat”, the main vehicle for Scottish non-doctor Gillian McKeith, famous for demanding to look at people’s shit. These programmes were not, of course, about promoting healthy diets or better nutrition. They were about the way people should look and how they should eat, and about apportioning requisite shame and blame on those who failed to meet the standard. They were about class and gender and conformity in a way that was obvious even to 10 year olds.
The true king of the genre, of course, was “Supersize vs Superskinny”, a programme that seemed made in a lab to give its audience eating disorders. I loved it. As its name might suggest, each episode of the show pitted an overweight person against an underweight person. The pair would spend a week living in a house together and, crucially, would swap diets. Cue scenes of them dining together, the overweight person having finished a single baked potato to spend the remainder of the meal gazing mournfully at the underweight person as they visibly struggle to finish a large curry, or similar. The show’s most famous gimmick was to pile an approximation of what the contestants (what is the fair word? Contestants? Subjects? Participants?) ate in an average week into a large see-through tube while taut faced, dead eyed experts (et tu, Dr Christian Jessen) asked them how they felt about what they saw. The contestants also, as was inevitable in these programmes, spent a lot of time in their pants, arms clinging to exposed sections (see also, Trinny and Susannah forcing people into small mirrored rooms in What Not to Wear to gaze at themselves in their underwear so they can- what? grow as people? fuck off).
In Mark Greif’s 2006 essay The Afternoon of the Sex Children, Greif argues that we possess a cultural paradigm- the sex child- who is fetishized youth incarnate. Probably “18-21”, they are not actually children, but “their sexual value points backwards, to the status of a child, not forward to the adult”. Think Britney Spears in a schoolgirl outfit singing that she is “not that innocent”. The fascinating thing about the sex child is that its existence is predicated on its wafer thin proximity to our greatest cultural taboo – sex with children – something we consider both morally and physically revolting. Supersize Vs Superskinny has a little of the logic of the sex child. Greif writes of his paradigm that “the dream belongs to 16, or those who can starve themselves there”. For all their nutritional pretence, it was always fairly clear that Gillian McKeith (who spends one episode of SS Vs SS campaigning to “ban big bums”) and her ilk were in fairly wholehearted agreement with this statement. Pursuit of the dream is what all these programmes are about, after all- even my 10-year-old self could tell as much.
What makes Supersize Vs Superskinny special even amongst the pantheon of cruel dieting television is its admission that the dream will shatter just as surely on the lower limit and on the upper limit. The acceptable bodily ideal is as fine as the line cut for the girl whose parents will be picking her up at midnight. Eat too much- don’t fit the wedding dress, stool sample comes back wanting, eating secretly, eating publically, doesn’t look good naked- and you’re both fucked and doomed to be sexless, and plastinated Tory Dr Christian Jessen will look at all the food you eat in a week sat there in the big transparent tube on national television and look back at you with pitying eyes. Eat too little- starve past the dream ‘til your arms go flat and you’re telling the camera that your hair and nails won’t grow- and you’re both fucked and doomed to be sexless, and plastinated Tory Dr Christian Jensen will look at all the food you eat in a week sat there in the big transparent tube on national television and look back at you with pitying eyes. While Supersize Vs Superskinny featured both men and women, as I recall it now I can see only women, because to me it was a programme about the full extent of what I could do wrong to my body. It was about all the ways you- I- them, there, in their pants on Channel 4- could fail.
Supersize Vs Superskinny was a horrible programme, of course, and as with much 00s television and the , we can see that now. We can see that it’s voyeuristic and de-humanising and actively harmful to anyone who might chance upon it, nestled there in the listings, and we can see that Gillian McKeith and Christian Jessen should be put out to sea on some kind of raft. Now that we see this it’s easy to shrug and say, hey, it was the Blair years, it was the Brown years, it was the Celtic Tiger, it was all portable DVD players and war crimes and it was a different time. It’s easy to say this, and it’s lazy. The past may be a foreign country, but it’s the one we’re all from.
Trinny and Susannah grabbing at flesh and talking about the importance of clothes being flattering- above all flattering- and normal people near tears in flesh coloured pants under studio halogens; that’s the soup my friends and I swam up out of while Katy Perry sang about living the teenage dream (how do you get there, again?) and inciting us to be Daisy Dukes (bikinis on top), toned, tanned, fit and ready, and now we notice how pencil skirts cling on stomachs and at work events we watch other women’s hands fluttering over plates of pastries like nervous birds. We skip lunch (we don’t eat breakfast) and we read Sally Rooney novels where the characters re-assure themselves that they will always be thin enough to be interesting and we help popularise barre and joke about those bitches on the Red Scare podcast- glad we aren’t like that- and say we just want to build “strength” and we do the Marie Kondo method because all aspects of life must be pared down.
If you are reading this and you do not know me, I imagine that last paragraph will have set a particular picture of me in your mind- that I drink green juices and count calories and that you can see the shadow of my inner Gillian McKeith behind my eyes when I speak. If this is how you pictured me- I can see my ersatz self now- you would probably be quite surprised to meet me and find I am not like that at all. I am laidback and a bit scruffy, and something of a blue stocking. You probably wouldn’t be able to guess that I had mainlined all that noxious culture, watched all that food drop into see-through tubes, and now a small part of my brain looks at the world like a dietary Patrick Bateman. I’m nice and I try, but you are what you watch, and I know to whom the dream belongs. I am just like other girls.