Take a Good Look at What Dr. Oz Is Selling Us Now
It’s perhaps an understatement to say that Americans have a difficult and contradictory relationship with our bodies.
Every decade or so there is a new optimal way to feed ourselves, along with increasingly outlandish weight-loss regimens and whole categories of foods to champion or fear. We revel in the sophistication of medical science while widely distrusting it, and our politicians refuse to support a health care system in which everyone has access to basic, compassionate care. We are overly sedentary, but when we exercise we value strenuous over relaxing movement, strain over ease, striving over acceptance.
No one embodies these obsessions better than Mehmet Oz, known as Dr. Oz to American daytime television viewers. Dr. Oz, who has styled himself as a kind of high priest in the church of American wellness, recently announced his candidacy in the Republican primary for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania — a race that could decide control of the chamber.
As Dr. Oz pursues this pivotal position, he should be seen as more than a celebrity turned politician. He’s rightly understood as a kind of quasi-religious leader, one who has set up his revival tent between a yoga studio and an urgent-care clinic, with the television cameras rolling. And many Americans are primed and ready to commit to his doctrine, which promises boundless possibility so long as we invest in individual responsibility — for our health and for everything else.
This is worrying. As we collectively face yet another surge of coronavirus infections, leaders who extol individualism aren’t simply ineffective — they’re dangerous. If there’s anything we should be taking away from the past two years, it’s that autonomy and self-reliance are inadequate for 21st-century problems such as climate change, structural racism and the pandemic.
The son of Turkish immigrants, born in Cleveland, and by all accounts a gifted surgeon, Dr. Oz gained notice as a frequent guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,”appearances that earned him the tag “America’s doctor” and led to introduction of “The Dr. Oz Show” in 2009. Over 13 seasons, the frequent topics of the show, which at its height regularly drew over a million viewers per week, could also be a list of Americans’ biggest bodily anxieties: weight loss, cancer, weight loss, aging, weight loss, sleep problems, poop problems and oh, weight loss.
Dr. Oz often describes his path from cardiothoracic surgeon to TV health expert with missionary zeal: “As I performed thousands of surgeries on patients whose hearts had been ravaged by obesity, I realized we needed to better educate people on how to take part in their own care,” he explained in testimony before a Senate committee in 2014. “And for that reason I went into the public life, in an effort to teach.”
And his announcement that he is now making the leap from daytime television to national politics took on a downright rapturous tone: “I’m running for the Senate to empower you to control your destiny,” he wrote in an essay in The Washington Examiner, “to reinvigorate our great nation, and to reignite the divine spark that we should always be seeing in each other.”
The thousands of on-air hours Dr. Oz has spent ministering to Americans’ health concerns have made him a multimillionaire, and also a controversial figure. He has praised unproven supplements such as sage leaf tea, green coffee bean extract and raspberry ketones as “miracles” for weight loss and was chastised by senators for doing so. He was part of a team at Columbia University that patented a device to strengthen damaged heart valves, and also was the target of a letter of protest by physicians who asked why the university kept him on the faculty since he had shown “an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.”
On Covid-19, Dr. Oz has been particularly contradictory. He has promoted the safety and efficacy of vaccines and masks, but also initially recommended the use of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid, based on a small and soon-discredited study. And his bid to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate is based on his promise to free Americans from some of the mask and vaccine mandates that his medical colleagues widely support.
“We are Americans, and we can do anything we want,” he tweeted recently, alongside a Fox News clip of himself criticizing the Biden administration’s Covid-19 policies. “It’s time we get back to normal.”
If there’s one consistent strain in Dr. Oz’s trajectory, it’s his belief in the power and responsibility of individuals to take control of their health and well being. Strikingly, in his essay announcing his candidacy, Dr. Oz doesn’t speak of unity or community, as many politicians do. Instead he identifies himself as a doctor who is “trained to tell it like it is because you deserve to hear our best advice and make your own decisions.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that this messianic diet guru would offer to cure us of all that ails us, physically and spiritually. The bigger question is why so many are ready to believe that organic, cold-pressed snake oil could stop us from aging, cure cancer, make us lose weight and end a pandemic?
There’s something deeply American in Dr. Oz’s quest to reach a higher state via the improvement of the body. Its roots can be found, arguably, in the spiritual strivings of the Transcendentalists, the group of 19th-century nature-obsessed New England philosophers.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of an “original relationship to the universe,” and his belief that there is a divine spirit in nature and in the human soul that does not require the doctrines and laws of organized Christianity, was radical in its time, but became foundational to the American concepts of individualism and self-reliance. These threads have been woven into everything from the prosperity gospel to my yoga teacher’s instructions to lift our arms over our heads and send our intentions “from Earth to sky through you.”
The same ideas, filtered through the 21st-century preoccupation with wellness, quickly arrives at the idea that we shortchange ourselves by accepting what we are told by society — by doctors, scientists or government health officials — if it contradicts our individual instincts or opinions.
It’s this American idea that health is a personal responsibility that gives rise to figures like Dr. Oz. In his individualist doctrine, when we get sick it’s generally at least partly our fault — there was probably a supplement we should have taken, a superfood we could have eaten more of or a junk food we should have eaten less of, a specialist we should have consulted.
This American predilection for individualism is itself a public health risk in a pandemic, Ed Yong has argued in The Atlantic — one that has led to bad policy that puts everyone, especially the most vulnerable people, at risk. When reducing the spread of an infectious disease requires collective and individual action, “no one’s health is fully in their own hands,” Mr. Yong explains.
And yet the idea that your health is in your own hands is key to Dr. Oz’s worldview. Despite what appears to be an earnest desire to help people, “The Dr. Oz Show” is not a public health effort. It’s a business. And by recommending products and services, Dr. Oz offers us opportunities to buy things — a very American way to feel empowered. He helps us find the perfect alchemy of diet, exercise and açaí berries to keep us spry, thin, and disease-free forever, as long as we can pay for it all out of pocket. In our individualist, consumerist society, wealth is health.
This perhaps is the deeper, more primal appeal of what Dr. Oz is selling — the idea that if we can find the right guru, buy the right products and strive hard enough to manifest our best selves, we might just cheat death.
Which of course we can’t. In this moment, when so much hangs in the balance, it’s a dangerous delusion.
Annaliese Griffin is a journalist who covers culture, lifestyle and health.
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