The more things change, the more things stay the same. And unfortunately, it seems like certain entities, like The Biggest Loser, never learn from their mistakes.
I guess the lure of money is just too strong, go figure.
The show should have slunk off four years ago to some dark corner of the universe with its tail between its legs, never to be heard from again.
But here we are.
What is The Biggest Loser?
As I’m sure you can recall, The Biggest Loser is a weight loss show that got a ton of bad press for its brutal ‘tough love’ tactics of forcing people to work out until they almost drop. Screaming at them. Working them four hours a day, often until they vomited. Making them run with donuts in their mouths. All to lose huge amounts of weight and win a cash prize.
Besides treating fat people like horrible freaks of nature who deserved to be punished, The Biggest Loser ended up being horrible for the contestants’ health.
What Happened to The Biggest Loser’s Contestants?
Kai Hibbard, a participant from a past season, said “There were blown-up photos of our arms and stomachs and thighs decorating our house to show how ‘gross’ we were.”
Contestants from past seasons have later said they were given caffeine and ephedra pills, subjected to severe calorie restriction, forced to work out while injured, and shamed continuously, all for the benefit of good TV.
Most of the participants in past shows have gained the weight back, and many of them ended up with metabolisms that were permanently slowed (called ‘metabolic adaptation). Rachel Frederickson, the winner of the last season, admitted that she had developed unhealthy eating and exercise habits after the show ended. And really, losing this much weight at such a rapid rate is really never a good idea, mostly because the tactics it requires are never healthy. In the premiere episode last night, every contestant with the exception of one, lost 10 or more pounds in the first week. One guy lost 22 pounds. Those aren’t normal or realistic numbers, yet they’re cheered as though they are.
According to the press release for the show, The Biggest Loser is being ‘re-imagined,’ “providing a new holistic, 360-degree look at wellness, while retaining the franchise’s competition format and legendary jaw-dropping moments.”
By ‘holistic,’ they mean that the show now includes ‘nutritionists’ (which it did before) who do individual meal plans for the contestants. It addresses the emotional side of their weight, and is more ‘careful’ in terms of monitoring the participants.
In an article on the USA Network’s site, Steve Cook, one of the trainers on the show, said that each contestant had a minimum daily calorie requirement. They couldn’t shortchange themselves for the contest. “They all needed to hit a certain amount of calories, and then also, each week we all sat down, the dietician and the doctor….we were very big on this really being about self-love.”
But this isn’t a self-love competition, and it isn’t a competition about lifestyle change. Once off the ranch, it’s anyone’s guess how these contestants are going to be able to sustain the extreme workouts and diet that they’ve been subjected to. It’s a weight-loss competition, the weigh-ins – shirtless, for the men – are in front of the entire world, and the measure of ‘success’ is most weight lost.
Conversely, the premise of the show implies that not losing enough weight constitutes ‘failure,’ since the person who in that position each week gets eliminated. But they’re not done: the eliminated contestants still vie for a $25,000 at-home prize, given to the person who loses the most weight after being sent home. I can only imagine the (lack of) oversight these participants have at their homes, while they try to lose enough to cash in on that prize.
The trailer shows one of the trainers (who used to be overweight herself) yelling, ‘stay strong!’ into a person’s face as they struggle to do a workout. It’s the same old way of thinking: quitting equals weakness. In the first episode, one contestant stumbles out of a tough workout to throw up into a bucket. Contestants are made to run a mile, which is a really long way – without any prior training. We get to sit and enjoy the spectacle.
The Problem with The Biggest Loser
The problems with this type of show is that it perpetuates the following myths about weight:
Fat people are lazy and love donuts (obviously untrue)
Exercising hard enough to vomit is a great way to lose weight (actually, hard exercise can often backfire)
Our weight is entirely within our control (some is, a lot isn’t)
Fat people need to be fixed with diet and exercise (please god no)
Being thin is possible if you ‘stay strong’ (meaning: if you don’t, you’re fat and weak)
Fat shaming is a great way to ‘motivate’ people to lose weight. (research says shaming people about their weight actually makes them fatter) and look at this: there’s even a research study suggesting that non-obese people have increased anti-fat bias after watching weight loss shows like The Biggest Loser. That is fucking brutal.
It’s okay to suffer if the end result is that you’re thin (nothing is further from the truth)
And the kicker:
Watching fat people run around until they pass out, and get kicked off a show because they didn’t lose enough weight, is okay.
But it’s not. It’s not okay, and it never will be, so The Biggest Loser needs to go back to the trash where it belongs.
Being fat doesn’t mean that a person just loves donuts too much. Fatness is the result of a myriad of factors, including environment, genetics, emotional issues, physical issues, and maybe even gut bacteria. Sure, we have free will, but what influences our relationship with food, our lifestyle, and our choices can be an vast ocean of underlying factors. We often fail as a society to acknowledge these, preferring instead of just scowl at fat people and tell them to ‘eat less and move more.’
And even though the show has support groups, the entire ‘lifestyle change,’ including giving contestants counselling, is overshadowed by the fact that they’re still in it to win it. It’s a game, and there are winners and losers. Everyone wants to win.
No matter how many calories contestants eat a day, how many support groups they have to attend, or what ‘safeguards’ the hosts say the show has, the fact remains is that these contestants are pawns in a game that reflects our society’s view of fat people: take that weight off, no matter what it costs you, and win the BIG PRIZE. Watching fat people lose weight from the comfort of your couch isn’t inspiring, it’s sad. And, it’s a level of voyeurism that shows how comfortable we are as a culture, shaming and mistreating others because of the way they look.
And that until they ‘stay strong’ and achieve weight loss, they’re still just entertainment for the rest of us.
Want to read more? Here are 8 Common Diet and Nutrition Promises to Ignore and my review on the Dr. Oz Diet.