According to an editorial in the latest edition of the Medical Journal of Australia, reality TV programs, such as The Biggest Loser, which focus on extreme weight loss and drastic changes to a person’s appearance, may be an important driving force behind the increase in aesthetic and bariatric surgery.

In 2007, The Biggest Loser Australia averaged more than 1 million viewers per episode, with the finale drawing nearly 2 million viewers. The series winner lost 70 kg or 47% of his starting weight.

The winner of the 2004 US series of The Swan underwent 13 facial, dental and body procedures, including brow, eye, and mid-face lifts, liposuction, fat transfer to the lips, and abdominoplasty.

Professor Keith Petrie and his co-authors, from the University of Auckland’s Department of Psychological Medicine, say the portrayal of aesthetic and weight loss procedures on television typically distort the speed and difficulty of these physical changes creating unrealistic expectations for viewers and have been shown to lower viewers’ self esteem.

Petrie says ethical safeguards need to be put in place for participants in these programs, as well as more research into the effects on viewers and participants.

"Both [measures] would help improve participant selection procedures and ensure that vulnerable individuals are not placed in potentially damaging situations," he says.

One study shows that four out of five patients who were seeking first-time aesthetic surgery reported that they were influenced by plastic surgery reality television.

Data also reveals that more people were having aesthetic and weight-reduction surgery than ever before in the UK—with the surge not limited to women. The greatest increase was in anti-aging procedures, such as facelifts. Increases in aesthetic procedures have also been reported in the US, and Australian figures seem to be on the rise.

Petrie says that most of these programs focus on the few individuals who have had the most dramatic results and exaggerate the likelihood of positive outcomes. He says the rate of weight loss and other appearance changes also seem extremely fast due to time being condensed into a television program format.

"Complications, infections, and failed procedures are barely mentioned, giving the impression that negative outcomes are rare," says Petrie. "Given the dissatisfaction that participants typically express about themselves and their lives at the programs’ commencement, the extreme psychological pressure that is created during filming, and the difficulty of maintaining rapid weight loss, it would be surprising if all participants and their families walked away unscathed."

[Medical News Today, August 31, 2008]