The Rising Popularity of Snake Oil

There is always conversation and buzz around the phrase body image, but rarely in today’s media is it ever discussed honestly. With all the constant noise in the health and fitness industry, the message is often confused and almost always presented by people and entities with clear agendas. In my time as a personal trainer the health and fitness industry in Australia was revolutionised and further commercialised and in many ways the changes resulted in fewer genuine offerings in the market.

At some point many years ago someone mentioned subliminal advertising, though not specific to the health and fitness industry, and people began to become more aware of the bias in the messages we are fed by mass media machines eager for our consumer dollar. For some reason most people – the overwhelming majority in fact – still don’t question the information as its presented to them when it comes to body image and weight loss, even though the science was in long ago. The information is there but it is hidden amongst so many mixed messages that its almost impossible to read even if consumers want to hear the truth; that diets don’t work.

But why are we so willing to overlook hard scientific facts when it comes to our own bodies? When someone questions the science behind anti vaccination we consider them to be ill informed at best and a complete loony or unscrupulous profiteer at worst. Yet when the same rigorous scientific process is followed with regards to our diet and exercise choices many of us willingly choose to ignore the facts. Intelligent people subscribe to low calories diets, or diets that cut out entire food groups which are vital for long term health. They do this because a celebrity spokesperson with no credible training tells them to in the face of the science which says that each time you try a diet you will end up fatter than when you started. And with knowledge that major regulatory bodies like the Australian Dieticians Association dismiss such lifestyle choices as ineffective and dangerous. For some reason, even when science is so very clear on the issue of nutrition we believe with blind faith against all knowledge to the contrary. And we hand over piles of money for the privilidge. We have more information at our fingertips than we ever have, and somehow we are more misinformed than ever.


Is it because so many ‘professionals’ have jumped on bandwagons filled with cash? The once science based profession of personal training has become a breeding ground for supplement salesmen and ideologues preaching their faith. Nutritionists, naturopaths and chiropractors often follow suit – do we believe them over scientists that have studies for decades to determine what works and what costs plenty but doesn’t?

Maybe, but I think there is something deeper at play. Similar to the anti vax movement, practitioners often start by creating a problem we didn’t know exists and helpfully provide a solution. For example, ‘Vaccinations cause autism, but if you take this homeopathic supplement your child will be safe.’ In the health and fitness space the media assists by doing half the work on behalf of unscrupulous trainers and diet spruikers; we are constantly bombarded with photoshopped images we can never live up to and made to feel like that is normal. That we indeed have a problem because we are not aesthetically perfect – then snake oil salesmen swoop in with their quick fix solution. moreover, overweight people are usually shown as sad, miserable, hungry and lazy. So much so that for many it is a natural instinct to inwardly criticise anyone that isn’t a size 6 that we see eating a cheeseburger, with no knowledge of the person’s health, fitness or lifestyle.

When will it end? Like the anti vax movement, this will only end once consumer start thinking more critically. In this case it is a tougher ask. Body image is such a personal thing, leaving everyone of us vulnerable and exposed to emotional messages from the media, where we would normally question their veracity. Rarely do the over zealous claims of a TV salesman selling a steam mop require critical thought, but the way we look and feel about our bodies does. Instead of being self critical, its time to release every stereotype we never thought we subscribed to and let go of ideals and unreasonable expectations. Its time to be critical of the message and hold advertisers and snake oil salesman to account. And if we are to be more thoughtful when it comes to matter of science, as individuals we need to consider that if it looks too good to be true, like any snake oil it probably is.


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