The huge hit U.K. medical show Embarrassing Bodies has treated armpit abscesses, fungal infections, and much worse. Plus, watch clips of 11 nasty TV shows, from CSI to Hoarders.
“You see, look at that guy there.” Stephanie Harris, executive producer of Channel 4’s hit show Embarrassing Bodies, points to a young man ambling along on the other side of the street, blissfully unaware that we’re now wondering what horrors could be lurking inside his Calvin Kleins.
“He looks perfectly fit and healthy, but you don’t know what’s festering in his pants,” Harris says. “That’s the whole ethos of the show.”
I don’t particularly want to think about what’s festering in his nether regions: I’m still recovering from coming face to face with a man’s hairy, hemorrhoid-ridden, prolapsed anus on a recent episode of Embarrassing Bodies.
The show’s concept is simple: It follows three doctors assessing patients of all ages, shapes, and sizes in the “Embarrassing Bodies” clinic. The patients are then given whatever treatment is needed, from pioneering surgery to simple antibiotics thanks to various private and public clinics. Participants are not paid—only treatment is offered. No ailment is too gruesome—and never has the expression “warts and all” been more apt. Over the three years, Embarrassing Bodies has been running—it began life 10 years ago as a documentary, then became a half-hour show, before growing to the current hour-long medical extravaganza with its own spinoffs and specials in 2007—we’ve seen at least 140 different conditions to date, including missing nipples, anal warts, misshapen vulvas, crippling armpit abscesses, uncontrollable farting and dribbling, and various fungal infections of unrecognizable body parts.
Nothing is pixelated or blurred, as this would “imply shame,” says Harris, and of course goes against the Embarrassing Bodies motto: “No shame, we’re all the same.” The show aims to raise awareness of different ailments, Harris says. “It’s about demystifying any worry or anxiety people have about anything to do with medicine and surgery.”
Embarrassing Bodies is the most-watched show on Channel 4 this year, consistently winning audiences of up to 4 million—double the U.K. average ratings for its Friday time slot. The show is multi-platform: 70 million have visited their BAFTA-winning website to check out the vulva, penis, and breast galleries, to ask questions, watch extended versions of medical examinations or to use the site’s interactive tools and surveys: More than 1 million people have used the “STI tracker” (the sexually transmitted disease tool) and 150,000 have taken the autism test. When it’s on, the show is often the top trending topic on Twitter. Next up is a four-part special, Embarrassing Fat Bodies (according to Harris, “jaw-dropping and more extreme than anything we’ve seen before”) and then a new 18-part regular series will begin early next year.
How do they plan on keeping the public’s attention?
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“We make it fun. We’ve got the Embarrassing Bodies truck we take out on the road. We get people jumping on trampolines to talk about their pelvic floor muscles, or rugby teams measuring their penises. It’s about spreading health messages. Even getting people to sit on the toilet and show them how to wipe their bum... The fun aspects mean there’s an entry point for everyone—children, teenagers, adults.”
But gimmicks aside, why would someone too embarrassed to visit their doctor want to whip out the offending body part on national television in front of millions in the first place?
Dr. Christian Jessen, the chiselled face of Embarrassing Bodies, cites a number of reasons.
“Some haven’t got anywhere with their own doctors… others genuinely want to raise awareness and help other people.”
Take David, a young man who appeared on the show with such severe abscesses and boils in his armpit that he could barely lift his arm. How someone in their twenties could be so debilitated by something so easy to treat is hard to understand—but then it emerged that he had been on a National Health Service waiting list for months and finally came on the show as a last resort. Appearing on Embarrassing Bodies is perhaps the quickest way of shifting those chronic, non-life-threatening conditions that our health service can’t quite seem to get treated in a timely manner. But Harris is quick to state that the team “can’t fast track through TV, but we can place people with the right consultant.”
Perhaps the most shocking case to date is that of Charlotte Wilson, a 9-year-old whose feet were covered in layer upon layer of verrucas—a common viral condition that causes warts on the sole of the foot that most people are able to easily get rid of, but that Charlotte had endured for two years. Her mother had seen countless doctors but to no avail. On seeing Charlotte’s feet, Dr. Jessen was briefly speechless, but was soon sending her off to test her immune system. She was quickly referred to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, and now, two years after she first appeared on the show, is recovering after having had a bone-marrow transplant.
Charlotte’s story has shifted public opinion of the show—where once it was seen by some as sensationalistic and arguably exploitative, it will now always be the program that saved a 9-year-old girl’s life and led to thousands joining the Bone Marrow Register, and has even been described as a “national treasure” by the Observer.
Ultimately, Dr. Jessen and the producers of the show want to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health—to show extreme examples in the hope that people will seek treatment early rather than waiting until it gets so bad they become a candidate for Embarrassing Bodies.
Dr. Jessen sums it up as a payoff: “I will entertain you, I’ll show you willies and vaginas, but I promise you, you will have also learnt something by the end of the show.” (Like not to watch the show while eating.)
Now, after six months of tough negotiations, the U.K.’s national treasure could be heading to the United States. But are Americans too prudish for the show’s checklist of “male genitals, female genitals, full frontal nudity and extreme versions of common problems?”
Harris tells me that “hopefully we’ll be doing a deal quite soon. I think it just took one broadcaster to take the risk and see that the show could be channel defining. It’s been tough because of how explicit Embarrassing Bodies is… That doesn’t go down very well on American television… I mean obviously there will have to be less genitals and stuff.”
Venetia Thompson is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Spectator. Her memoir Gross Misconduct was published in April by Simon and Schuster UK. She lives in London.