The Oprah Factor: Stop the Yo-Yo Dieting Messages

beauty-markApril 8, 2009 Young women and their moms have been “under the influence” of Oprah longer than you can say “she’s gotta have it.” From cuddly bathrobes to kids’ book club picks, when the grand dame of daytime speaks, people listen.

Precisely the point that Director Darryl Roberts of America the Beautiful is making in his recent “open letter to Oprah” plea to curb the weight talk and knock off the self-berating.

Unhealthy obsession with beauty and appearance is an ongoing theme that’s literally shaping youth today and leaving a “Beauty Mark” blight on the psyches of young girls, as the new documentary by Diane Israel explains with heart-wrenching clarity. (video and Oprah letter after the jump)

Before I get back to part 3 of the SxTechConference coverage (now it’s ‘STD awareness month’ instead of endometriosis month, how does one keep up with Health 2.0, whew!) I thought I’d go back to some body basics with a quick update on Darryl’s ATB movie crusade.

america-the-beautifulSince my last interview with Darryl, post premiere in San Francisco, he’s lobbied in Washington for insurance to cover eating disorder expenses, screened the film in 112 cities in the United States and several international cities as well in Germany, Austria, South Africa and Canada, and is about to release the film on DVD…huge headway I’d say!

In addition to his open plea to Oprah (see box below) in his hometown of Chicago, he’s busy ramping up his 100,000 newsletter devotees to support a revisit to New York where he claims the film “bombed hard” being home to beauty industry biggies and runway fashionistas…

He’s considering the Big Apple to wind down his film tour in a full circle closure, armed with the credence of a safe cosmetics initiative and high hopes for media support and industry self-rein.

But to me there’s considerable hope…

Condé Nast is NOT totally immune to reporting alternative concerns with the “Dirty Thirty” and acknowledging media’s role in messaging to youth with countless primping products containing toxins that can be a factor in early puberty, cancer issues and more…

After all, our Teens Turning Green friends received grand exposure in Seventeen, for their Project Green Prom campaign…(see our sidebar at right)


Still, TTG, Shaping Youth and Darryl are ALL outgunned by beauty industry mega-bucks and vested interests that veer away from ‘safe cosmetics’ in favor of the almighty profit.

Darryl wrote about how the game is played in this noteworthy blurb on how hard it is to get the DVD distribution scale he’s seeking. (even with insider help in the industry)

Darryl said,

“I’ve been talking to a couple of DVD distributors the last week or so about releasing the film to stores. One of them put in an offer 2 days ago that was so low, I figured he thought he was bidding on a used bicycle. But then one of my industry confidants told me the real reason for the low offer, he’s a big shot in the DVD industry…He told me:

“You have to understand that Walmart accounts for 40% of the retail DVD market. When you figure in Target and the other big box retailers, if you can’t get placement in those stores, then a DVD distributor won’t invest a lot in the title…I have to be honest with you. I have a couple of friends at the retail level and a couple of them confided in me that they can’t put ATB in their stores with that section about the dangerous ingredients in cosmetics in it. They sell cosmetics and the cosmetic industry would have a fit if they carried your film. One of them said they’d carry it if you took that scene out.”

He goes on to write, “I won’t mention which 2 retailers they are just yet, but GEEEEZ!Well of course I’m not taking the scene out, so I guess that means there are at least 2 retailers where you won’t see the film. That doesn’t bother me though, because yesterday 2 MAJOR RETAILERS (that don’t sell cosmetic goods) said they wanted to carry it…”


…”These cosmetic companies just don’t realize that we’re not going to sit back and watch them make billions while women get various diseases and cancers from their products….For the record, I now have 34, 523 “daughters.”

By “daughters,” I mean college women that have joined the “America the Beautiful,” – Action Network and fight the cosmetic companies until they take the toxins out…

On another good note, a major national TV network, told me I could come on and talk about the fight that we’re mounting against the cosmetic industry. I’m going to go on with 2 of my “kids.”

…”We’re in the process of getting the full list of ingredients (450 of them) that were banned from personal care cosmetics in Europe. That’s what we’re going to demand from the companies here. That they conform to the European Union standards of cosmetic safety. I’m sure women in the United States would like to be as protected as the women in Europe. And if reformulating the ingredients hurts their bottom line, then the wealthy shareholders should get second jobs…”

Second jobs, third jobs, it all mushes together for those of us in the mom-n-media youth advocacy sector…


In fact, with all the media literacy Shaping Youth has championed on deconstructing diet ads and discussing ‘how to counter-market thinspiration’ I think Darryl does a good job lifting the veil of vested interests to highlight yet ANOTHER layer…how products even get IN to stores via distribution channels and shelf space.

It also helps people understand why Shaping Youth remains underfunded to be beholden to none… (Want to keep this blog going? See the donor button at right)

Darryl gives a snapshot of the branding hypocrisy when corporate interests bump up against poignant real life issues in the ‘campaign for real beauty’:

…”I was at Notre Dame screening the film and met a woman who told me one of the Dove models was there 3 days prior. She was supposed to be on a panel with her discussing eating disorders, but Dove had her removed saying that they didn’t want anyone talking about eating disorders while their products were being discussed.  OH BOY! Mind you, the woman and the Dove model were there because it was Eating Disorder Awareness Week! (Feb 22-28) Let the fight begin! “

Fight indeed.You can see why Darryl’s homespun candor and outreach methods resonate with me…Very raw and real.

He averages a couple hundred letters a month from young women impacted by this beauty ideal, plus educators, reformists, and even runway wannabes that have reversed course midstream…

slim-hopesJean Kilbourne, Ed.D. has been singing this song for ages with her Media Education Foundation (MEF) films like Slim Hopes, Killing Us Softly, all without a ‘retail distribution model’ …so just think if she could get the exposure of mainstream media clout!

Ultimately, we all need to blend our educational nonprofit sector with corporate social responsibility if we want to reach critical mass rather than talking to ourselves…The new documentary called Beauty Mark that focuses on women in athletics that have pounded their bodies relentlessly in the name of obsessive beauty and performance standards will have this battle as well.

In the video below, runner Diane Israel’s personal struggle comes to life in her own documentary trailer as the Media Education Foundation description sums:

How do our families influence our relationship with our own bodies?

How do American pop culture’s standards of beauty get inside our hearts and heads?

In what ways can sport and the drive for fitness actually make us sick rather than healthy?

MEF describes,

“Israel, a Boulder-based psychotherapist and former champion triathlete, talks candidly about her own struggle with eating disorders and obsessive exercising, fearlessly confronting her own painful past as she attempts to come to terms with American culture’s unhealthy fixation on self-destructive ideals of beauty and competitiveness.

This educational version of the film lends context to Israel’s personal odyssey with fascinating insights from athletes, body builders, fashion models, and inner-city teens, as well as prominent cultural critics and authors such as Eve Ensler, Paul Campos, and Naomi Wolf. In a special bonus feature, Israel talks in greater detail about her recovery.”

Say what? She’s a psychotherapist and former champion triathlete and SHE’s been duped into this mindset TOO? Ack!

media-noiseHow loud does the cacophony of media noise need to be before the backlash begins where women of all ages put their headphones on and tune out the harmful ideals?

I say we start with Oprah.

If you’re one of the most powerful role models in the world, and still sinking the ship with lousy self-talk, then we’re just ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic’ as the saying goes.

C’mon Oprah, listen to your fans. Darryl makes solid sense here in his letter below.

Ditch the diet-driven body chatter…

It’s time for a massive media mindshift, where youth take back their self-worth from brandwashing of ‘not good enough’ commodification. It’s a lousy obsession that’s literally Consuming Kids.

Think of all the mindshare youth could have to actually contribute to society instead of wasting it on narcissistic pursuits damaging their psyches by being ‘rewarded’ for ‘how they look’ rather than who they are.

Just ask the Teens Turning Green crew…

Naturally you really CAN look good, feel good and be healthy AND focus on the bigger issues facing our planet. The teens do it well…Say, maybe Oprah needs to have the green teens on her show to demo how it’s done!

Here’s ATB Director Darryl Roberts’ Open Letter to Oprah:

Dear Oprah,

Maybe Dear Oprah is too formal.

Hello Oprah,

I’m writing this open letter to you because I’ve run across thousands of women that love you. This is tough for me to write because you are doing so many awesome things for people all over the world.

I’m the director of a documentary called “America the Beautiful,” which deals with our unhealthy obsession with beauty. I’ve interviewed 2000 women over a 6 year period about how they feel about themselves and as I’m sure you know, the results weren’t pretty.

All of that being said, here goes. Oprah, I’m not exaggerating when I say this, everywhere I go, womens’ groups, teenage girls and the heads of eating disorder clinics ask me “Why does Oprah have such a problem with her body?”

Of course, I can’t answer the question, because I don’t know you like that, but I can say it seems to be a problem for a lot of women. With your influence, you have a prime opportunity to be a role model for millions of women that don’t “fit the ideal.”

What if, instead of engaging in yo-yo diets, you simply said on one of your shows, “I’m beautiful, exactly the way I am.”  You would instantly raise the self-esteems of millions of women.

Or if you wanted to take a different approach, what if you said, “I know that I’m beautiful the way that I am, but I went to the doctor the other day and because of the extra pounds that I have, my blood pressure is a little high, so even though I’m beautiful, I need to lose 15 pounds for health reasons.”

PRESTO – Millions of women would run to the doctor to make sure they were healthy.

In spending 6 years with “America the Beautiful,” I’ve come to that definition of beauty myself. Beauty = optimal health.

Oprah, I know we’re all victims to the images that advertisers put into our heads with the utmost of repetition, that say if you’re not stick thin, then you have no value. Because you live in America with the rest of us, I would imagine you’re not immune to the bombardment of media images either.

I wish you could make yourself invisible and travel with me. You’d get a chance to hear thousands of women speaking of how you’re beautiful, exactly the way that you are. Your millions of fans don’t care if you’re a size 4 or a size 10, they care about what’s coming from your heart.

Times are tough and women need you. We’re in the middle of a recession so fierce that people are losing their jobs faster than the speed of light. And when you can’t pay your bills and are facing insurmountable challenges like putting food on the table, the one thing that you should have is a healthy self-esteem.

I had the president of one of the biggest women’s groups in Philadelphia complain to me 2 weeks ago about an episode of one of your shows.  This is the one where you talked about being in a picture with Cher and some other celebrity. You said “standing next to them, you felt like a fat cow.”

Oprah, NOOOOOO!    You shouldn’t say things like that on your show, even if you feel it.  One of the things hurting young girls today is their parents (you are a like a mom to a lot of women) criticizing their bodies. When you said that, imagine how women felt that are your size.

Then some woman told me you came out on your show carrying a red wagon full of fat, that represented massive weight loss.

With love, I’m telling you that type of talk and behavior is tantamount to being reckless and it does a lot of women a lot of harm.

In an era where advertisers get 20,000 impressions a week over a teenage girls mind compared to her parents 2,000 impressions, we need you to be a role model to women when it comes to body size and self-esteem.

I met a 17 year old girl in Fargo, North Dakota that told me she had gained weight, lost weight, gained weight, lost weight and she’ll get it right one day. When I told her doing that was unhealthy, she said “What do you mean? Oprah does it.”  That was sad.

As I write this, I’m sitting here with a woman that just shared another story with me. She said she was in a supermarket and saw on some magazine where you were “upset that you’d gained your weight back.”

She said her first thought is that’s why we like her. She’s just like us. Then she said a few minutes later she thought, “with Oprah’s resources she should be able to live a healthier lifestyle to set a better example for us.”

Oprah, when I look at your various accomplishments, it’s more than clear to me that you have the wisdom and resolve to overcome this issue and set women on the right path. I’m personally begging you to do it. Keep in mind that I normally don’t beg. It’s just that I’ve become something like an activist for women after doing this film.  I don’t have nearly the reach that you have, but I’m willing to do what I can.

I know you may read this and tell me to jump in the lake and I can understand that. Just remember, I’m writing this to you as a human being, not a billionaire, not a mega talk show host, just a human being.  On a level where we all must learn to exist.

Oprah, if you’d like for me to share with you the countless stories of devastation wreaking havoc on young girls across the country, that have been shared with me, I would be glad to. I live in Chicago. I will meet with you at any time.

But for now, please, for all of our sake, stop the dieting on your show. It tells way too many women that it’s okay to go on unhealthy yo-yo diets.  Thanks for listening!

–Darryl Roberts, Director of ATB

Diane Israel’s Trailer for Beauty Mark:

Body Image & the Race for Perfection MEF’s 1:43 clip



  1. More updates from Darryl re: when the dvd releases:

    “THE DVD: Our latest plan (which seems solid) is for the Collector’s Edition of the DVD to come out the 2nd week of September. You will be able to order this version of the DVD for $19.99 exactly one month before it’s released as a result of being on this blog’s email list.

    The film won’t go on sale at, Netflix, etc. until the end of October, so you’ll be able to get it 6 weeks before the general public.”

    Amy Jussel’s last blog post..“Consuming Kids” Is Now Available For YOU To Host A Screening!

  2. More:


    We’ve been invited to screen “America the Beautiful,” at the biggest kids festival in Europe called Zlin International Film Festival. Zlin is a small city located in the Czech Republic. I hear it’s a 90 minute drive to Prague from Zlin.

    The festival starts May 31st and will have thousands of teens in attendance. If I can make it, I’m going to go to drive over to Prague for a day or two. Of course, I’ll have my trusty red camera with me, which means that you get to go to Prague as well.”

    Zlin International Film Fest

    Amy Jussel’s last blog post..“Consuming Kids” Is Now Available For YOU To Host A Screening!

  3. Great post! Just wanted to let you know you have a new subscriber- me!

  4. Darryl’s latest newsletter just came in and I’m about to do a new post on his upcoming Bay Area benefit for our friends at About!! woohoo!!

    Here’s his commentary:


    “Okay. Hopefully this is the last time that I write about Oprah. I received an email three days ago and it was so egregious that I just felt compelled.

    As you know, I wrote an “Open Letter to Oprah,” four weeks ago that has been published in 124 newspapers around the world.

    It was even the lead story in the Montreal Gazette, the largest daily paper in Montreal. It reaches some 4 million people. The headline read “Oprah, Watch your Language.”

    You can read it here:
    Montreal Gazette Oprah Story

    Well, everyone has been emailing me asking what’s Oprah’s take on things. Based on the email that I received, she’s going to continue to promote diets, weight loss, and everything else.

    I didn’t see the show myself, but if it’s true that Oprah is promoting brain surgery on her show as a way to lose weight, then throw in the towel. Game’s over.

    If that did happen, then Oprah is at the top of the list of people/things that are very bad for women, only as it pertains to healthy body image.

    I have to be clear that I’m being very specific here, because as we all know, Oprah does many wonderful things for women and society in general outside of the body image realm.

    Four national women’s organizations wrote me and asked if I would help them organize a boycott of Oprah’s show. They felt that 1 million women could be galvanized within 3 weeks and the boycott would last until Oprah acknowledged what she was doing on her show and pledged to stop doing it and get help.

    As you know, after spending 5 years with “America the Beautiful,” and meeting thousands of suffering teenage girls in the process, I am super committed to advancing any woman’s cause that has to do with positive self-esteem. Especially if said cause will help a teenage girl.

    But, after carefully thinking about it, I don’t think boycotting her show is the right thing to do. My position is that Oprah has worked very hard to create her show and since this is America, she can basically do whatever she wants to on “The Oprah Show.”

    I personally haven’t seen the show in 15 years and I would think if someone had a real problem with the messages that she was putting out there, then you’d just not watch the show.

    Maybe one of the things that we should take a close look at is how we’re looking to a celebrity to help us with our self-esteem. As powerful as Oprah is, I for sure don’t look to her for any guidance what so ever in life.

    Let’s start a dialogue of how we (meaning the masses) can come up with programs or parenting tips or whatever to help our young girls with their self-esteem. Now that I will get behind 100%.

    As of this writing, I’m putting Oprah in the same category that I put the fashion magazines. They make billions of dollars doing what they do and they’re not going to stop. Change is only going to happen amongst us and you know what, I sincerely believe that we can rise to the challenge. Our young girls are counting on us.

    Without further ado, here are the 2 emails that drove me nuts the other day:


    I loved your letter to Oprah. A lot of the reader comments were great also. I especially liked the one that mentioned how Oprah is always “making over” people; like they weren’t good enough until they were made over by her.

    Just last week, one of her shows mentioned brain surgery for losing weight. Can you imagine going through brain surgery to lose weight? It’s a last resort, after dieting, gastric bypass and the like have all been exhausted. It makes you think Oprah is considering it.

    On another note, whatever happened to Oprah’s Angel Network? Remember that? When she awarded people for doing good things for other people? Her show is just not the same anymore.

    Respectfully your fan,


    I read your open letter to Oprah and was amazed. Thank you for giving a voice to what many people struggle with every day. The subtle and not so subtle messages that people encounter in every direction are almost impossible to deal with; these messages permeate every aspect
    of our culture and too often we fall victim to those messages.

    I felt such sadness when I read Oprah’s comments on the photo shoot and then again when she wrote the cover piece for O magazine upon hitting the dreaded 200 lbs. I wept because I knew that if she could not manage these feelings of self loathing with all that she has and all the power she wields then what chance did I have? I struggle against the media, my culture and my own self loathing every day and
    while I have not conquered these things I continue to try.

    Again, I cried when I first read your letter but not out of despair; I cried out of relief and a sense of renewed hope. Thank you for giving a voice to our daughters, sisters, mothers and friends. Thank you for the six years you gave to study this issue. Thank you for taking your understanding of this issue to arguably one of the most influential women in the world. I truly hope Oprah hears you for there is so much to gain with her influence behind the message you convey.

    You may never know all the lives you have touched by your work. I re-read your letter often and each time thank God for your voice and pray for your success.



    Amy Jussel’s last blog post..Teen Webby Winners Talk About Old vs. New Media

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