So there’s this show. The Biggest Loser. Maybe you watch it? I know I’ve mentioned it a few times in the past, but I’ve never really written at length about how I feel about it. I’d love to know how you feel.
Let’s start with the basics: TBL follows a simple formula: Two groups of obese men and women are split into teams and compete to see who can lose the most weight. Most episodes have some sort of novelty challenge (a nutrition quiz or test of will) and a physical challenge (some kind of race or test of stamina) where the winners receive cash and prizes. Between the challenges, the contestants are shown working out vigorously — sometimes to the point of passing out or vomiting — while being coached by drill sergeant-like trainers (namely, Jillian Michaels). At the end of the episode, everyone weighs-in and whoever lost the lowest percentage of their body weight is sent home. The last person standing wins $250,000.
When The Biggest Loser premiered in the fall of 2004, I weighed about 250 pounds. As someone who struggled with weight loss and yo-yo dieting for my entire life, I was drawn to a reality series that pitted obese contestants against each other in a quest to lose the most weight. When I saw the numbers on the scale at the first weigh-in, I was in complete awe as many of the contestants lost ten pounds, twenty pounds even, in the first week. I was inspired to give weight loss another go. Eventually, though, when the results I saw on my own scale paled in comparison to those of TBL contestants, my will power wavered. I gained the weight back but continued to watch the show — often on the couch, often with chips, often planning to start over tomorrow.
What The Biggest Loser does well is get people thinking about health, weight loss, and an active lifestyle. Thinking about it, talking about it, sometimes pursuing it. You could absolutely argue that it goes too far, that it’s touting its list of high-paying sponsors (Subway, Yoplait, etc.) more than balanced nutrition, or that it doesn’t display an appropriate amount of activity (contestants are often exercising 8 hours per day), but one thing is for sure: it has sparked a massive conversation. The show has even spawned many “biggest loser” competitions among friends and co-workers. The trouble with these types of small group competitions (or big group, for that matter) is that trying to improve your health for the sake of a competition or prizes is ultimately insufficient for those people whose struggle with weight is due to serious underlying psychological problems.
If you got all your information regarding weight reduction from the show, you would likely think you need to quit your job and work out for 8-10 hours a day in order to lose weight. They put way too large an emphasis on exercise, and don’t deal nearly enough with nutrition, or the psychology of weight loss — or at least, we don’t see that emotional/therapeutic aspect on television. And that’s hugely problematic for me. There is a reason that all of these people are hundreds of pounds overweight. Of course they will see results when you isolate them from their lives and force them to work out all day, but what about the deeper work? The producers don’t show the contestants learning the tools to cope with reintegrating into their old lives. And as a result, many contestants have regained a significant amount of weight. Or, they develop very real, very traumatizing eating disorders. I doubt many leave the show without some kind of psychological/emotional baggage.
I realize TBL is an entertainment program, and sadly, that it is far more captivating for the masses to watch obese people running to the point of vomiting than it is to see them learning about the psychology of obesity, but the show would do well to acknowledge its limitations for the good of people trying to play along at home and change their lives in positive ways. It would do well to put a focus on real, honest health rather than the goal of weight loss at any cost.
What do you think? Do you watch The Biggest Loser? What did you think of the finale?
*I wrote the above post before this season’s finale. I hadn’t watched the season, but of course I’ve heard the uproar about this season’s winner, and her supposedly “skeletal” appearance. Here are my quick thoughts: We cannot shame her for her body — especially not when we (and I’m speaking generally as a society and a culture) shamed her for her obesity — and we shouldn’t have shamed her then. The uproar makes me want to shout at America through a megaphone: Perhaps she appears too thin to you now — is this not what we wanted from her?! Didn’t we want her to lose weight? Didn’t we tune in?
As someone who has lost a significant amount of weight, I can still feel that pain of “Is this the right weight for you (society)? Am I just right yet?” And I fear that she’s feeling angst that now. I swung from very, very big to, at a time, very, very small — and neither end of the spectrum was without significant scrutiny. I only hope that this young woman can find peace in her body, and a lifestyle that works for her now that she’s out of the extreme “weight loss at any cost” world of TBL.