Do you have weird feelings about Oprah? So do we, and so does our guest! Kimberly Springer, co-editor of "Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture," joins us to talk about the rise of Oprah Winfrey and her infamous "wagon of fat" weight loss episode.
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[Maintenance Phase theme]
Mike: Hello, and welcome to Maintenance Phase. The podcast where you get complicated feelings and you get complicated feelings, and everyone gets complicated feelings.
Aubrey: [laughs] Wait, Mike, can I tell you what I wrote in my notes, in case you asked me to do the tagline?
Mike: What do you have?
Aubrey: I wrote, “Hello, and welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast where you don't get a car, and you don’t get a car, nobody gets a car. We don't have cars to give away.”
Mike: The problem is there's too many Oprah memes to choose from.
Aubrey: Yeah, that's right.
Aubrey: I'm Aubrey Gordon. I'm an author, a columnist and a podcaster. And I'm here with my cohost-
Mike: Michael Hobbes.
Aubrey: If you would like to support the show, you can do that at patreon.com/maintenancephase. Fun update, we now have bonus episodes. So, you can check out more of Mike and I talking about extremely consequential and inconsequential things. The most inconsequential of which is our first episode, which is, Aubrey explains The Bachelor and The Bachelorette to Michael.
Mike: Yes, there's so many clips and it was so stressful.
Aubrey: We also have t-shirts, notebooks, mugs, totes at TeePublic. And you can find both of those links in the show notes for this episode or at maintenancephase.com.
Mike: Today we have a special guest.
Aubrey: We sure do.
Mike: Kimberly Springer is a adjunct professor at Barnard College and the editor of a volume called The Oprahfication of American Culture. She got in touch with us a couple of months ago and was like, “I have weird feelings about Oprah. And I feel like you have weird feelings about Oprah too.”
Mike: “And let's all talk about them.”
Kimberly: After repeated mentions of Oprah, “Ah, I need to get in touch.”
Mike: So, that's what we're going to do in this episode, we're going to talk about Oprah as a cultural force. We're going to talk about her biography. And then because Oprah, like all of us, contains multitudes. We couldn't cover her entire career in one show. So, this episode, we're going to talk about her infamous Wagon of Fat episode. And then we're going to do some sequels on other sort of iconic Oprah episodes over the years.
Aubrey: I would just add to that introduction that like, Oprah, like all of us has a great deal of goodwill amongst the public and rightfully so. Also, she is someone who does things with a great deal of good intention. Sometimes that good intention leads to harm. We're going to try and talk about all of those things all at once, like incredible intentions, the incredible work that she's able to do, and the harm, and try and hold all of those things all at the same time.
Mike: Yes. I think that Oprah has done very good things for America, and I think that she has done very bad things for America. Both are true at the same time.
Kimberly: I think it's interesting that we have to issue a disclaimer. [laughs]
Mike: Yes, right. What are-- what are your weird feelings on Oprah, Kimberly?
Kimberly: My weird feelings are that, I think everyone assumes that everyone loves Oprah. But I have not experienced that is necessarily being true-
Kimberly: -in black communities. I use black communities plural, because of course, there are people who love her and they love her capitalism and her entrepreneurship. But I know that there are also people who are very critical of Oprah as a person, and what she has or hasn't done for the black community. And I think that's where it gets very interesting.
Mike: Well, let's dive in. Do you want to start by telling us like the story of Oprah?
Kimberly: Sure. Even this gets complicated, because I think there's Oprah's own myth making about herself that has just become fact. It's almost as if she sprung fully forth from her own forehead.
Kimberly: She's born in 1954. in Kosciusko, Attala County in Mississippi. She talks about being a bookish child and how she was literate very early. She said she was able to read by age two and a half, and she was reading Scripture by the age of three, and she's giving oratory in church. She is raised by her grandparents in Mississippi until she's eight. For that era of her life, it's interesting that all of the biographies of her will talk about her being raised on a pig farm. And I think that's really interesting, because I think it to a particular, maybe Yankee imagination implies a squalor, but actually, for the 1950s, for black people to still own their own land and to own their own farm means that there was a kind of self-sufficiency that gets erased by just calling it [unintelligible [00:04:38] it as a pig farm.
There was an interview, it was actually in the National Enquirer, a second cousin, she had this quote, she said, “There was a family rule that no Winfrey women were allowed to work in the homes of white families. They could work in the fields, but it was a point of honor that they didn't do maid work.” I think that's really interesting to think about black woman in a community, but also her family making this unspoken rule, which speaks to a determination and self-determination that might get overshadowed when we think about how Oprah tells her own story of individual achievement.
Aubrey: Yeah, I mean, it's also interesting to think about this question about what were the supports that existed in Oprah's life that are maybe made invisible in her self-narrative. And how that links to what we see sort of later on, when she starts talking about the secret and getting into this almost like prosperity gospel. One of the things that I came across in my research was a quote from her from the late 80s, where she starts talking about the deep spiritual meaning of money.
Aubrey: We’re in some gnarly territory, Oprah.
Kimberly: Yeah, that’s how she's able to make living your best life becomes the mantra, but before that, it requires her to transcend any kind of racial or gender barriers. The way she talks about Mississippi is always about leaving the place. And she often will refer to Mississippi as like a place where there's nothing there. In about 60 to 67, she goes to live with her mother in Milwaukee. This period, pretty much is characterized by her as the time when she was sexually abused. She is sexually abused from about the age of 10 to 14.
Mike: Jesus Christ.
Kimberly: Actually, at age nine, she says, my cousin at age nine, my uncle, and also by a family friend. It's interesting, because the narrative that she then creates on her show, like with things like the child, predator watchlist, is all about stranger danger, as opposed to families as the sign of abuse, which is where a lot of her abuse happened.
Mike: Does she talk about the effect of all of this abuse on her as a person? It must have been a really hard thing to hold on to?
Kimberly: The research in the book shows that she didn't talk about the abuse until she spontaneously confessed it on her show, which was about survivors of incest.
Mike: Oh, wow. She wasn't she didn't like plan it out, like, “I'm breaking my silence.” It was just like it came up.
Kimberly: Maybe it's just the changing way that she thinks about it, because there was a book that just came out, where she's talking about abuse at the hands of her grandmother being in an abusive household. It's a narrative around her abuse that keeps changing. I think it would be worth looking at how it tracks with how we talk about abuse in each different time period.
Mike: That's true, because these things are framed so differently. Also, she's been a public figure for so long, that she can ride the waves of different societal understandings of abuse. Also, processing what happened to her, you would just do that differently at different times.
Aubrey: Yeah. I will say that also came up in the research that I did, where I was like, oh, the way that Oprah talks about her body, and particularly her size, is just a direct reflection of like, “This is how we're talking about this thing at this time.” I was like, “Oh, interesting. I didn't really think of her as being a little bit of pop culture cipher.”
Mike: It's also a fascinating, like palimpsest, because she's also creating these societal understandings at the same time. She's been so influential, that if she does a bunch of episodes on Stranger Danger, like she's helping to spread and reinforce that at the same time that she's also reflecting it in her own experience.
Kimberly: In 68, she gives birth to a premature baby, and that baby dies a few weeks later. I think that's the point at which she chose to live with her father in Nashville. So, this is where we started to have her, her trajectory into speech of communications and drama. She’s eventually sent to elite suburban high school with white students. That's about 25 miles away from what she calls the ghetto. Here's where we gain momentum. [chuckles] It's 1971, she's a senior high school, she wins the Miss National Pageant, and also the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant.
Mike: She was a beauty queen?
Aubrey: Oh, 100%.
Mike: I have no idea.
Aubrey: Yeah, this also came up just in like I did some Google Image searching, and there is a picture of Oprah holding a bouquet of flowers, having a crown placed on her head, baby Oprah. It's really something.
Mike: What was her talent?
Kimberly: I don't know. I'm going to guess oratory.
Mike: Or maybe giving away cars?
Mike: She has an aptitude for that at the young age.
Aubrey: Fun surprise, she's really good at close-up magic.
Kimberly: She's beauty queen. She was runner up for the Miss Black America Pageant. Based on her beauty queen winnings, she is scouted by, interestingly reported. In some places it says a local radio station to be a part time newsreader. But it was actually like a new soul radio station. So, this is a radio station with black DJs and programmers. It's interesting to me when the fact that it was a black run station gets erased from that narrative. She's working at the station as part time newsreader. She's also attending college at Tennessee State University, which is an all-black college. This is from People Weekly. They're describing how Oprah [unintelligible [00:10:44] college. She says, “College is trying for a young black girl uninterested in the compelling black issues of the day.” Oprah says she retains neither fond memories nor good friends from college. “They all hated me. No, they resented me. I refuse to conform to the militant thinking of the time. I hated, hated, hated college. Everybody was angry for four years. It was an all-black college and it was in to be angry.”
Mike: One of the things that this says to me, the sort of the tractor beam into the white mainstream is plucking out people like Oprah. There are people that are more palatable to white America.
Kimberly: Right. I think it's really dependent on that context, because I think it's pretty easy to just be in our present-day context and think, “Well, everybody was radical back then.” But no, those are not the people who capitalism has embraced.
Aubrey: There's also a quote that came up in 1989 profile of Oprah in the New York Times, “When Winfrey was hired for AM Chicago, the station manager was, according to her executive producer, Deborah Dimaio, delighted that he had managed to find someone who wasn't,” Angela Davis type who'd pick at the station with a gun in her hair. There is like an active reward for not aligning herself with almost any kind of racialized politics. It just was staggering moment to be like, “Oh, right. It is the early 80s.” And a station manager would totally go to the press and be like, “We got a black woman who's not Angela Davis, hurray.”
Aubrey: We’re like, “Oh, Jesus.”
Kimberly: But yet she has an afro. She anchors the news in Nashville, and then she moves to Baltimore, and she's anchoring the news there. And you can see clips on YouTube. She has a beautiful afro, front surface like a halo. And then, she cohosts her first talk show, People Are Talking. She does that for [unintelligible [00:12:47] Chicago. I think there's an element of, she knows she's black, she accepts that. And she's just black enough to be palatable for white people who are running these institutions.
Mike: What year is this when she moves to Chicago?
Kimberly: She moves to Chicago in-- I think it's 1984.
Kimberly: She takes over as host of AM Chicago, and after just a month, her rating surpassed Donahue’s because his show was also on the same time.
Mike: Oh, wow.
Kimberly: So, it only takes a month. After in less than a year, it goes to an hour and they rename it The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Mike: Is it a local show? Or is it national at this point?
Kimberly: The Oprah Winfrey Show was local until 1986, when it goes into national syndication.
Kimberly: Her estimated earnings for 91-92 were $88 million.
Mike: In 1990s money?
Aubrey: And, by like, isn't it 87 or 88 when she buys her own show and creates her own studio, that's when she starts Harpo?
Kimberly: Mm-hmm. In 1988.
Aubrey: She fully now owns the means of production. She's all the way in on it.
Mike: That was very, very smart for her to do that.
Kimberly: It's incredibly savvy.
Mike: Yeah. I guess she's now on the track of becoming the Oprah that we know. So, is it just a steady rise from then on?
Kimberly: Just some marker, she's in the color purple in 1985, and she gets Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. She also had started dating Stedman in 1986.
Mike: Okay. I'm sorry, you have to explain this Stedman thing to me. I don't know anything about Stedman. He's one of those words that comes up in like refrigerator magnet ways, like he's just associated with Oprah, but I don't know what his deal is or who he is.
Kimberly: I love it to he's just Stedman now, like Oprah.
Mike: Is that his first name or his last name?
Kimberly: That's his first.
Kimberly: Stedman Graham.
Kimberly: I think it's interesting that they are engaged in 1992 when she's 38. And People Magazine, it was like-- wow. Y'all are wowing. People Magazine in the story about her engagement, I think it was on the cover. They said, “For as long as Winfrey has been famous, she's been dogged by two questions. How much does she weigh? And when is she getting married?”
Mike: Oh. What the fuck?
Aubrey: [chuckles] Yeah.
Kimberly: The first answer, alas, has been offered time and again, though it is currently a well-guarded secret. The second response was six years in coming. Can a sister celebrate?
Mike: I know.
Kimberly: Can't she just have a moment?
Aubrey: [laughs] It's so gross.
Mike: And can women not be reduced to these two fucking irrelevant pieces of information?
Kimberly: Yeah, it's pretty gross.
Mike: What is Stedman’s deal? What does he do for a living and stuff?
Kimberly: He's an athlete, and he was a sportswear model.
Mike: Are they still married? I honestly did not know this.
Kimberly: They never got married.
Mike: Oh, okay.
Kimberly: They call off the ceremony in the 1993. She wrote about this in the Oprah Magazine. “In 1993, the moment after I said yes to his proposal, I had doubts. I realized I didn't actually want a marriage. I wanted to be asked, I wanted to know he felt I was worthy of being his missus, but I didn't want the sacrifices, the compromises, the day in day out commitment required to make a marriage work. My life with the show was my priority, and we both knew it.” So, now they say they have a spiritual partnership.
Mike: So, they stayed together, but they're not married.
Kimberly: Right. The Book Club launches in 1996. Do you know what the first title for the Oprah Book Club was?
Mike: Oh, Is it The Lovely Bones?
Aubrey: It's Toni Morrison, right?
Aubrey: Wait, what just happened?
Kimberly: No and no. [laughs]
Aubrey: No and no.
Mike: Wait, really?
Kimberly: It's Jacquelyn Mitchard’s book, The Deep End of the Ocean.
Aubrey: I don't know this book.
Mike: I got nothing.
Kimberly: Yeah, it's about kidnapped child who turns up to mow his family's lawn after being missing for several years.
Mike: But that's also, I feel, like that moment marked the sort of realization of what a cultural force Oprah was, because it became this thing that every single time she would have a book club book, it would be like, “Oh, it sells like 200 billion copies, like the day after she announces it.” It just was an illustration of this woman is creating culture and the amount of power that Oprah has that she can say anything, like, “I like crocs,” or something and then all of a sudden, it'll be like a $10 million market.
Aubrey: It's an algorithm before an algorithm.
Mike: Yeah. And the earliest example of like, what we would call now an influencer.
Kimberly: Yeah. With the Book Club, there's the Jonathan Franzen controversy over the corrections being a selection or her Book Club.
Mike: We are not talking about this at all, because I want to do the episode so bad.
Mike: That dude sucks. That dude sucks so much ass.
Aubrey: Listen, here's my new concept for the show, everybody. It's changing starting now. We just read names of people who've appeared on Oprah to Mike and he--[crosstalk]
Kimberly: In 2000, her first magazine is launched, O, The Oprah Magazine.
Mike: Oh, yeah.
Kimberly: In 2008, she and Discovery announced the creation of the OWN Network, which goes on the air in 2011. In 2015, joining the board for Weight Watchers.
Aubrey: Well, also somewhere in there was she did the Lance Armstrong interview. She just got a bunch of humungous culture-shifting major, major interviews, and has become the source for, “Oh, one of the most famous or notorious or whatever people in the world wants to tell their story. They're going to do that with Oprah.”
Mike: Tom Cruise, jumping on the couch, I feel like it's another big Oprah moment, too.
Aubrey: Oh, my God.
Mike: That was America being like, “This person is kind of unwell.”
Kimberly: So, that's my timeline.
Aubrey: [laughs] Nailed it.
Mike: That's it.
Aubrey: That is lot of things I did not know about Oprah. I feel as you were talking about it, I was like, “Oh, right. All we do really have about Oprah is her own narrative. And she is extraordinarily savvy.” That was genuinely a thing I had not thought about it. No, that seems like a foundational insight.
Mike: I feel the trick is to just literally never believe billionaires when they tell their life stories. Nobody gets that rich without some like severe shenanigans.
Kimberly: Capitalism does not allow that.
Mike: Yeah. [laughs] Aubrey, do you want to rewind us to the episode of The Oprah Show that you're going to walk us through? I'm so excited.
Aubrey: Totally. So, I did it the whole thing where I was like, I'm going to write out my notes and I'm going to write it in a way that's like, surprise, we're talking about The Wagon of Fat. Dun-dun-dun. And I was like, “No, why? Everyone knows.”
Mike: We know. We were emailing about this, Aubrey, we know.
Aubrey: No, I mean, like the audience.
Mike: Oh, you meant us.
Aubrey: Not like you. [laughs]
Mike: I'm like, “We did a whole email about this, Aubrey.”
Aubrey: [laughs] We're going to talk about The Wagon of Fat episode, Oprah's big weight loss episode from 1988. I will say this, at this point done a fair amount of research for this show. A lot of it hard to stomach or really unpleasant or whatever. None has made me as sad as looking at press coverage of Oprah in 1988.
The number of headlines that came up from that late 80s coverage with specific numbers about Oprah's weight in the headline. The number of headlines and stories about whether or not Stedman is just using her for her money because he couldn't possibly be in love with a fat woman. Every aspect of Oprah's identity and experience is up for this really ruthless and heartless debate. “She's this fat, how fat should she be? I liked her better when she was fat, now she's thin.” Everyone is having all of their garbage feelings and opinions out in print and on TV about her all the time.
Mike: But I don't know if I actually am familiar with this episode, The Wagon of Fat episode.
Aubrey: Oh, my God, Mike. There are times when I really do have to remind myself that you are not in fact, just like a bizarro mirror image of me.
Aubrey: Well, you weren't a fat teenage girl. Sorry.
Mike: I'm on the gay internet. It's all shirtless men in there. I don't know what [crosstalk] Oprah episodes. I don't get those recommended to me.
Aubrey: As we mentioned earlier, Oprah is incredibly successful. She's been on the air with her show for just a couple of years. While she's buying Harpo, while all these other things are happening, Oprah has been losing weight. And she's been losing a lot of weight, at the points are that this episode is filmed, she has lost 67 pounds.
Aubrey: And she has done it on something called Optifast. Is that something that either of you have heard of before?
Kimberly: Yes, I remember that era.
Mike: Yeah, I don't know if I know that specific one, but I know the genre of crash diet where you're drinking these awful milkshakes, these weird powdered. They have flavors chocolate or caramel, but it's just brown choc or like slightly less brown choc.
Aubrey: Yeah, that’s right. It is a kind of diet that we've talked about on the show before VLCD, which is a very low-calorie diet. I will just flag for the next couple of minutes. I'm going to mention some calorie numbers and some weight numbers. It's hard not to. This diet, Optifast, is referred to at the time as a “medically supervised liquid fast.” So, you're working with doctors is the idea. They're keeping an eye on it, but you are consuming 400 calories a day.
Mike: Oh, fuck.
Mike: That's like prisoner of war rations.
Aubrey: Yep. Each of these shakes is 160 calories. They're still for sale today. It is less than 25% of your recommended daily allowance you're pouring to, sort of the food pyramid and all that kind of stuff. There is a piece in the Buffalo News at the time that says, “Optifast is made of egg white and milk, supplemented with vitamins and minerals to prevent cardiac irregularity. Its formulation differs from controversial liquid protein diets of the past. 40 dieters died on that mix made of collagen, protein, hoofs, hives, horns, connective tissue of cattle. It was not life supporting, Optifast is.”
Mike: I love it when fad diets are like, “We're not like those other fad diets. Those ones that are bad for you.”
Aubrey: “We aren't made of ground up cattle hoofs.” What? A little fun fact about this diet. Like many diets of that era, it has the initial phase to “kickstart weight loss.” That is the 400 calories a day phase. By the time you get to the end, you get to a luxurious 1000 calories a day. That's your forever after this diet.
Mike: I mean, no wonder Oprah lost hella fucking weight.
Mike: Like, this isn't enough food to live.
Aubrey: Yes, absolutely. She talks about that later. She's like, “After I did the show, I started eating again to celebrate just like eating some solid foods.” She's on it for four months at 400 calories a day and she makes this big deal on the episode about like, “I'm back in my size 10 Calvin Klein jeans that I wore 10 years ago.” She was like, “I started eating solid foods, and within two days, those jeans didn't fit anymore.” I was like, “Yeah. There's the actual food in your actual stomach.” [laughs]
The cost of the diet at the time was between $3,000 and $5,000 a year according to The New York Times. In today's dollar that is between $7,000 and $11,000.
Mike: Wait, that's almost $1,000 a month. That's like people's rent.
Aubrey: Uh-huh. There are also some media coverage around a little some cautionary notes about Optifast. But those are mostly about how the diet is too drastic if you're just trying to lose 10 or 15 pounds. The idea is, it's not safe for thin people, but fat people need to do it for their health. It's also worth knowing that Optifast is owned by Nestlé.
Mike: Of course.
Aubrey: Of course.
Kimberly: They're probably selling Optifast in other countries as baby formula.
Aubrey: I'm sure, they are. Oprah loses 67 pounds, and the way that she decides to reveal it is at the opening of her show. She pulls out this red classic like radio flyer wagon, with a clear plastic bag full of 67 pounds of animal fat. So, it's like pork fat and beef fat. With that, we're going to watch two little actual clips of this actual episode.
Mike: I fucking hate what you have done to my recommendation algorithm, Aubrey.
Aubrey: Oh, my God.
Mike: I hate what you done to my right-hand bar.
Aubrey: I realized I need to do all of this in incognito.
Mike: Mine is all like fucking diet ads now in the right-hand stuff. It's like, “How to get 10,000 steps?”
Aubrey: It's such a dense garbage.
Oprah: At the time, I felt it was important to show it in that way, because I'd starved. I'd literally starved for four months or four and a half months, and thought everybody's going to want to know how you lost the weight. So, you might as well tell them.”
“67 pounds since July 7th, 67 pounds, and 30 inches from my bust, my waist and my hips. And this is what 67 pounds of fat looks like.” I can't lift it. Now, when you talk about, Jimmy, is this gross or what?”
“It is amazing to me that I can't lift it, but I used to carry it around every day. And when you talk about making yourself the best you can be, I'm glad I did this from my heart, because my poor heart that had to send blood to all of this. All of this, it's shocking to me that it is this-- I saw it yesterday, I said, “I'm going to live on broccoli now.”
“I want you to know that whatever diet you choose and this audience is filled with people who've had great successes. You can do with the help of your family doctor. And if you can believe in yourself and believe that this is the most important thing in your life is, Scott said to us earlier, you can conquer it. Because if I did it, if Scott did it, if Billy did it, you can do it. Thank you very much.”
Mike: Oh, this is such Aubrey bait.
Aubrey: It is. [laughs]
Mike: I know exactly the parts that piss you off, Aubrey.
Aubrey: The thing that bothers me the most about that clip in particular is just the intense, like, weirdly salacious camerawork. So much of it is just pushing in on close ups of like, discarded animal fat.
Kimberly: I forgot how much she will slip into, like she switches.
Mike: Dude, yes, I noticed that too.
Kimberly: There's just a tone that she starts to take. And I'm like, “Oh, please don't sister girl me right now.”
Mike: I'm 100% projecting, but she looks so miserable in these clips.
Aubrey: Maybe hungry? Maybe she seems like a very hungry person. [laughs]
Mike: That's what I think, is after four months, [crosstalk] exactly the same thing, three meals a day, and just being hungry all the time, that you can't run your life feeling like that. And it feels palpable to me. Although again, I'm probably projecting.
Aubrey: Yeah, I mean, that part stands out to me. The other part that stands out to me is just the like, if I can do it, you can do it. I'm like, “Oh, Oprah. That is not a one to one, ma'am.”
Mike: Yeah, you made $88 million last year. I didn't make $88 million dollars.
Aubrey: Totally. This is an extraordinarily expensive diet. It's an extraordinarily restrictive diet. What she says at different points on the show, she says what, six weeks of the media at the time, they cite a four months number, to lose 67 pounds in six weeks, it's alarming to lose that much in four months. It is deeply upsetting/maybe physically impossible to lose that much in six weeks. Like, whoa.
Mike: I am stealing this point from a lady I know named Aubrey Gordon. But also, Oprah didn't do it. Like she gained the weight back, like 99% of people who lose this much weight this fast do. What this really is a story of is, even Oprah with her $88 million a year isn't able to keep the weight off, because nobody can continue living like this. Nobody can eat 1000 calories a day for the rest of their life. It's extremely bad for your health. It's extremely bad for your mental health. This was never going to work for her in the long term.
Aubrey: I will say the other thing that feels really fascinating to me about this clip that is not often mentioned, is that this show airs during sweeps.
Aubrey: This single episode has her largest ratings to date. And some of the media that I found claimed that even in the 25-year run of the show, this was still the highest rated episode ever.
Kimberly: No way.
Aubrey: This episode got 18.4% of all households with television.
Kimberly: Holy shit. That's like Super Bowl numbers, dude.
Aubrey: Uh-huh. The makers of Optifast say that they got over 200,000 calls.
Aubrey: It's this really tricky thing, where you're like, “Oh, my God, Oprah is getting all of this horrific negative media coverage about her size and these public debates about her body, and about her life and about everything.” She's working all that out. Like many of us, she thinks maybe weight loss is the thing that will take care of it. She does that. But everything she does is on TV, including this. So, it also sort of sets off this kind of, it's like a butterfly flapping its wings, leading to a tsunami. Where you're like, “Oh, this is a deeply human thing to do, but you're doing it during sweeps on an immensely popular TV show.”
Mike: Also, it's just awful to think about going through the extremely normal cycle of a crash diet, feeling good, there's this sense of euphoria and then this general disappointment in yourself and self-loathing as you inevitably gain the weight back. That's hard enough, but doing it in front of the entire country and having people commenting on it and speculating on it. And like, “What's wrong with her? She's gaining the weight back. Why can't she do it?” That's just this extra level of, basically abuse.
Kimberly: “It does make me sad. I did not expect that.”
Aubrey: I'm so sorry. There are two more clips and both of them will also make you sad. I apologize. Okay, so I dropped a link to you guys.
Mike: Oh, no. It's maintenance phase nemesis, Johnny Carson.
Aubrey: It sure is.
Mike: The trash man of Maintenance Phase.
Aubrey: Oh, buddy. You will be surprised by where the trash comes from this particular interview.
Mike: Oh, no.
Johnny: Let's go back. What age were you when you first started to find out you were a little larger than you wanted to be?
Oprah: This is what I learned. I've always been one of those people-- Thank you, Johnny for being delicate.
Oprah: Speaking of that, I happened to look at some tapes the other day of the first time I was on this show, why didn’t you tell me?
Johnny: Well, I mean.
Oprah: I look like Shamu.
Johnny: No, you didn’t. No, you don’t.
Oprah: Well, actually, it's very interesting. I was--
Johnny: I’ll bet you some people-- I'm taking a guess. I'll bet you some people said, “I'd liked you better the other way.” Did that happen?
Oprah: Yes. They have said that, but they're lying.
Johnny: Do they lie?
Oprah: They are lying. The interesting thing about it is, I was one of those people who always said, “Oh, I carried my weight well. I carried well. I know I'm overweight but I carried well.” Then I look back at pictures, I carried exactly where it was.
Oprah: Yeah. My best friend said to me the other day, “I see those pictures of you, and, Gee, I don't think of you that way, Moby.”
Aubrey: Yeah, tell me what you guys are thinking and feeling.
Kimberly: Ugh. I'm still nauseating. [laughs]
Aubrey: This is a 10-minute clip that I watched in 92nd intervals because I was like, “I need a break.” I think part of what landed so hard is watching someone who sometime between four months or a year or whatever, however long before was fatter, so aggressively divorce their current self from their past self. She's like divorcing herself from her previous fat self, but she's also divorcing herself from fat people. She's buying into all of this logic that's like, “Oh, if people tell you they carry it well, they're lying.” If they tell you that they like the way you look, they're lying.”
Mike: She's congratulating her friends for saying mean shit to her, too. Your friends should not be calling you a fucking whale, dude. Like, you shouldn't be like, “LOL, my friends said this awful thing to me.” That's just normalizing the idea that we're supposed to confront our fat friends. Fuck that.
Aubrey: Also, just like, “Why didn't you tell me?” Her question to Johnny Carson, “Why didn't you tell me?”
Mike: I know.
Kimberly: Oh my gosh.
Aubrey: Jesus Christ. Never in my life have I heard a fat person be like, “You know what? I actually don't hear from thin people enough what they think of how I look.” That’s just not a thing that I have experienced ever.
Mike: Make sure to tell me about this thing that I'm acutely aware of at all times.
Aubrey: Make me feel bad in my closest relationships, too.
Mike: To me, it's the sad thing of like, it's this woman who looks fine and seems happy and unbelievably successful. And then it's like she still feels like a failure because of this one extremely superficial, trivial thing. Also, the whole culture, of course, is telling her that she's a failure because of this one thing, that nothing counts because of this one thing. First of all, this is not a standard that we apply to men at all. There are many men in public life who have just been, like, fat dudes and no one gives a shit.
Kimberly: And it really feels a firm move and do a white assimilationist individualistic stance for her. The idea that if somebody says they're comfortable, they're lying. It just feels like a direct attack on black women who are larger.
Mike: Aubrey. Kimberly, do you think Oprah was able eventually to just come to peace with the way that she looks? Or is she still in this cycle?
Aubrey: I mean, I think this is where we get into a little bit of like, the things that we know about Oprah's mindset or the things that she decides to tell us. There's a question about her individual mindset as a human, which we can't know. It feels to me, like, as I was looking through media for this, like she's done media work, since, I think, it's like 2009, maybe where she starts talking about, “How healthy is the new skinny,” and she doesn't want to just be thin, she wants to be strong and healthy by what she means thin. It just feels very conflicted in a way that feels like a reflection to me of like, the way that like many, many, many people, and particularly women feel about their bodies. Kimberly, I'm curious about if you have thoughts or experience to share on this one?
Kimberly: I was going to take us into it. I kept getting distracted by her hair, and I don’t know-- [laughs]
Aubrey: Right. [crosstalk] [laughs]
Kimberly: [crosstalk] Because I'm like, “What is this Tina Turner wig that’s happening?
Mike: I know.
Kimberly: Like her wig speak to me of a particular kind of class achievement, so that she's [crosstalk] everybody knows Oprah has money, we assume she has more money than God. And so she's able to make herself look a particular way and indulge in particular products. Her skin is always glowing. So, it seems like she's able to move away from conversations about her body, and move into more of a class of like, “This is what my wealth affords me, so I look and feel exactly how I want to feel.” But I think the attention to body has fallen away.
Aubrey: We're going to watch one more clip of a pop culture response, and then we're actually going to hear from Oprah. What we're about to watch is MADtv.
Mike: I used to love this show, and it's so problematic.
Aubrey: They do a series of sketches about Oprah. There's quite a few of them. And this one is about Oprah being fat and it is super-duper intense.
Debra [As Oprah]: Okay, girlfriend, what's the topic for today's show? Please tell me I don't have to deal with a bunch of crybabies.
Assistant: Sorry, today's show is about breathing.
Debra: That’s okay, girlfriend. I'm just going to smile and think about the money. All right, let's make the loss of a loved one fun. Okay, here we go.
Oh, yes. Come to mama. Hmm.
Debra: Who the hell is that on the monitor? Is that Cedric the Entertainer?
Assistant: No, Oprah, that’s you.
Debra: [spits out] Oh, girlfriend, look, I had a rough weekend, okay? I gained over 180 pounds. I told you to take me only with the thinning camera.
Assistant: It's okay. It's okay. It is out there right now. Your thinning camera is camera number two. It's out there. It's guaranteed to make you 200 pounds lighter.
Debra: Good. Then, I can keep eating.
Aubrey: Yeah, we're going to stop it there. That's the opening. The sketch ends with Oprah mistaking herself for Forrest Whitaker on the monitor and welcoming him to the show and then realizing that the images of her, and getting so angry that she hoax out and explodes fat onto everyone.
Mike: Jesus Christ.
Kimberly: Oh, my God.
Aubrey: So, you just get these shots of people being soaked in slimy, gooey fat.
Mike: When is this from, Aubrey?
Aubrey: This one's from 2002.
Mike: Oh, it's that late.
Aubrey: It's that late.
Mike: Also, Oprah doesn't even say girlfriend that much. That was like the central joke of this sketch, and she doesn't even say girlfriend.
Aubrey: You can see the ways at which her womanhood is an issue, that she calls herself Cedric the Entertainer and she calls herself Forrest Whitaker. You can see the ways in which she is getting painted in this as an angry black woman, that she's got this false front. The entire conceit of the sketch is just like, “Look at this gross fat lady.”
Mike: They also made her significantly fatter than the actual Oprah. They made a huge fat suit.
Aubrey: Right. They made her about my size, which she has not ever been. It's really truly wild, how hard they are leaning into like, what a grotesque body this is.
Kimberly: It's a racialized sexism that is reacting to-- I think, it's reacting to just the idea that like a larger black woman is supposed to be nurturing and like your big mama and taking care of you, cooking for you, but a black woman who tries to do anything other than that, deserves this kind of viscousness.
Aubrey: There were many more comedy examples of stuff like this. I think they would have said at the time, like, “We're just calling it like we see it.” It was like that sort of era of comedy where it was just like, offense is comedy. Just hurting people is fun thing inherently.
The last clip I wanted to show you all is of Oprah talking about this in 2011, around the same time she does an interview with Entertainment Tonight. And they asked her what the biggest mistake she made on the show was. This is around the time that the show is wrapping up. She says it is this episode. Elle Magazine quotes her saying, “Present day Oprah considers the episode “hard to watch” because, ‘You can see that my ego is on flamboyant display. I've had to pay the price for that moment over and over. I literally handed to the world on a fat wagon platter of the story of, is she fat? Is she thin?’” We're going to hear from Oprah directly about sort of like what were the kind of pressures that she was navigating.
Oprah: Four months, not a morsel of food. I got to tell you, during that time, I planned a vacation to the south of France. I gave that vacation away to friends, anything that involve being around food at all, I just cancelled, anything that was going to put me any place where I could smell or come in contact with food. Some people thought I did that for Stedman.
There is, as I said, a lot of rumors which make me ill that I did this because of Stedman. I love Stedman very much. And he cares about me and has been very supportive of me fat and thin. I did not do this for Stedman. And anybody who is overweight, and whose spouses or friends are telling you to do it, you know you cannot do it for anybody, but yourself.
There was certainly a part of me that felt that I didn't match what he was in his physical stature. He's a very good-looking guy. And I knew that when people would see us together, that the first thing they were thinking, I certainly thought for myself, but what they were thinking is, “What's he doing with that fat girl?”
Aubrey: Right? [laughs]
Kimberly: This is very interesting to hear her talk about to be self-reflected like that, because I asked my mom, I was telling her, I was going to be on this podcast, and she was like, “What's a podcast?”
Kimberly: But I was asking her how she feels about Oprah. And she's like, “I don't really care for her because she always seems like she's doing stuff for the culture.” I was like, “Whoa, I didn't expect this answer. What do you mean?” And she said, “She doesn't seem like she's doing stuff for herself. It feels like she's doing stuff for show.” It's interesting to see this clip and to see her saying almost exactly the same thing that my mom said.
Mike: She's aware of herself as a visual symbol?
Kimberly: Right? But yet, all of the rhetoric around the weight loss that she put out was about doing it herself.
Mike: Yeah, there's a dissonance where in the clip from 1988, she's saying, “I did this for me.” And then in a clip from now, she's like, “Oh, I did it for Stedman.”
Aubrey: Yeah. And not even, “I did it for Stedman.” That's another part of what I think is so fascinating about this clip, is that she's saying, “People were saying I was doing it for Stedman. I wasn't doing it for Stedman. I was doing it because I felt like people were looking at me as the part that didn't fit in this relationship,” which is different than, like a 1988 narrative of like, “My boyfriend made me do it.” Which is what they're talking about. And actually, what she's talking about here feels to me like, a pretty clear-cut case of deeply internalized anti fat sort of attitudes. But it's just like, “People won't trust my relationship. They won't like me--” You know what I mean, like all of that sort of stuff.
Mike: Or, “My weight emasculates my boyfriend, in this weird way that even if he's fine with the way that I look, there's something about the public facing nature of us, that invalidates our relationship in some way, even if we internally are happy.”
Aubrey: Yeah. There were also those rumors for years and years and years about both her and Stedman being gay.
Mike: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: Part of what lends credence to those sorts of rumors is this kind of perceived physical mismatch. He's too handsome and too well-groomed to be a straight man. She's too like fat, basically, to be a straight woman because we all know how the mechanics of heterosexual attraction work. And this doesn't make sense in that very simplistic kind of calculation. That also bears no resemblance to how people are actually drawn to other people. Like a cultural set of rules that we've agreed upon.
Mike: That's the rumors for years that Jake Gyllenhaal was gay, basically, because he's attractive.
Mike: Well, there was like no actual evidence. It was like, “He's hot, so he's probably hiding gayness.” I don’t know. He's one of ours, guys.
Kimberly: Can I make one note about the clip and the images--?
Kimberly: They picked the worst images of her.
Mike: The worst images.
Kimberly: I was looking at some really cute pictures where they looked happy and really supportive, but they picked these pictures were, like her foundation, the skin match, the tone match, it was off. I guess the choice makes sense in what she was talking about.
Aubrey: No, totally. But they also have found a bunch of pictures of her, definitely at her fattest at least that I have seen. Again, she is a bajillionaire. They have plenty of really nice staged photos of the two of them. And what they have picked is these vacation shots that look like when you had a disposable camera, these might be the ones that you would like to throw away.
Mike: Yes. That's what I was going to say like, they look like the photos you're tagged in on Facebook of someone else's camera and you're like half in the background. You're like, “Oh.”
Aubrey: Hard untag.
Aubrey: The other thing that I will say that is related to the Stedman stuff, is that this comes up in that New York Times profile from 1989. “When Winfrey was fat, she hugged and touched her studio guests a lot. She practically cuddled. Now that she is slim and awfully glamorous, she maintains a far greater distance. A touch of a woman with a perceived sexual allure is scarier, more charged, dangerous. Paradoxically, her body seemed more loose, her movements more flowing when she was fat. When she is with Stedman, her body regains its comfortable eloquence.”
Mike: I guess, there's something about a fat lady not being as threatening, I guess desexualized, so you feel comfortable with them touching you and you touching them.
Aubrey: I think that's part of it. I also think that's part of like, Oprah is stepping away from a very, like Hattie McDaniel sort of like body type. But she has been able to be cast in this role of like a nurturing fat black woman that people can rely on. And now that she's like, you're like, more aware of her thinness, which also makes you more aware of her wealth, which also makes you more aware of her beauty, all of those things start to become a threat. I will say, just as a person who's gone through major weight loss and major weight gain, both, there is this hint at, but they don't really get into the ways in which that kind of dramatic change can really alienate you from your own body. Really, there's this narrative about weight loss that is like, it only gets better, and you only like yourself more. And really, and truly, it can be extremely alarming to see how differently people treat you, to figure out how to just move and be in the world. Really, that profile and our cultural logic at the time doesn't really allow us to go there.
The last thing I will say, just to bring this one to a close is, in 2018, the National Museum of African American History and Culture had an exhibit on Oprah. The Washington Post did a piece that was like, “These are the five things you have to see in the Oprah exhibit.” One of the five things was the size 10 Calvin Klein jeans from the Wagon of Fat episode. Even now, this was in 2018, even within the last few years, this remains one of the biggest touchstones of her show, and it's really complicated. And she is still saying, “One of my biggest mistakes and I really don't like it,” and she's also still owning Weight Watchers. It's all unresolved.
Kimberly: Of all the things she's done, how in the Black History Month is that the thing that you want to have in the Blacksonian, I still don’t understand.
Mike: When they should have done the 40-foot-long foam colon that Dr. Oz used in his introduction episode.
Mike: He's going to crawl through it.
Aubrey: Mike, I'm host-divorcing you.