The return to the airwaves tonight of the personal makeover series Operation Transformation has been overshadowed by claims that it places a “damaging” emphasis on drastic weight loss.
Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, has expressed concerns over Operation Transformation's emphasis on weight loss. The association says it has contacted the producers of Operation Transformation requesting a "more inclusive" approach.
In a statement, Bodywhys says it has received “a great deal of correspondence and concerns, which we share, regarding the programme”.
“Many of our service users have highlighted that the show has been and continues to be triggering for them, causes them distress and impacts negativity on their mental health,” it says.
Though Operation Transformation has a “positive objective” of encouraging healthier lifestyles, Bodywhys continues, “the considerable emphasis on dieting, body weight and shape … create a community-sanctioned dieting culture that research shows does little to achieve long-lasting weight loss or health promotion”.
The controversy achieved critical mass on Tuesday when campaigners for greater awareness around eating disorders called for the show to be cancelled. Surprise was expressed at the fact that the Department of Health sponsors Operation Transformation to the tune of €278,000. It also featured on Radio One's Liveline.
"I'd like to see it be decommissioned and be taken off the air totally," Daniel O'Boyle, a 25-year-old law graduate who previously talked about his struggle with eating disorders on RTÉ documentary Unspoken, told Liveline. "But failing that, what I'd like to see would be for the focus to be taken away from weight. All we're doing is putting weight as the metric of someone's success."
Since first airing on RTÉ One in 2008, Operation Transformation has promoted weight loss one of the keys to achieving fitness and better health. Participants have often been shown breaking down in tears as they lamented having “let themselves go”.
The Irish Times has contacted RTÉ for comment on the controversy and awaits a response.
The broadcaster has already publicly responded to criticism of the “check-in” segment of Operation Transformation, in which participants until recently faced the cameras in their under-wear. “For the past number of years each Operation Transformation leader has been given a choice of clothing for their health check-in ... For Operation Transformation 2022, all the leaders will wear leisure strobe gym clothing which consists of t-shirts, shorts, strobe leggings and running shoes.”
With social media weighing in on the debate, a petition on the website Unworthy to “decommission” Operation Transformation had nearly 6,000 signatures at time of publication.
“This weight loss entertainment show is promoting unsustainable rapid weight loss, encouraging disordered eating behaviours and perpetuating weight stigma. Please consider decommissioning this programme, it is negatively impacting Ireland’s public health,” the creators of the petition state.
Attitudes towards weight and body positivity have changed since Operation Transformation first aired. And while it is too soon to judge this year's series – presenter Kathryn Thomas may well speak to the criticism in episode one tonight – it is undeniable that RTÉ has failed to keep pace with the times.
Instead, it has fallen into the trap of relying on a formula that may have worked a decade ago but which is no longer fit for purpose. Operation Transformation remains a key part of RTÉ’s new year schedule – but ironically the real transformation that needs to take place is at the national broadcaster, which continues to promote formats that have outlived their best-by date.
Operation Transformation begins on RTÉ One at 9.30pm