I watched The Biggest Loser in its infancy. I remember Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper personal training the shit out of contestants, but pre-Jillian Michaels making 500 fitness DVDs. I might also note that I watched The Biggest Loser in the worst of my eating disorder. Watching a TV show centered on weight loss seemed like a natural outflow of systematically starving myself. In recovery, I was told that it wouldn’t be a good idea to watch something like that anymore. So I stopped. In fact, I stopped engaging in any pro weight-loss media. Much to my shock, I did not miss reading about what Nicole Ritchie ate for breakfast every day. Because, all those articles are basically the same when it comes down to it anyway. Frankly, I haven’t thought much about The Biggest Loser for several years.
… until yesterday. The internet has been blowing up with controversy about the last Biggest Loser winner, Rachel Frederickson, who went too far in her quest for weight loss. Not only did she win but she became unhealthily thin. People have been freaking out left and right. OMG this person on The Biggest Loser is too thin. She might even be anorexic. Has this gone too far?
I don’t disagree. Competitive dieting can for sure lead to anorexia. I know first hand. My own attempt at dieting resulted in a life-threatening eating disorder. I think that other articles that friends have posted (e.g. this one) have expressed that well. And yes, it is a horrible show. More on that later. I am not disputing any of this.
However, my response is more of a broader commentary on our culture, more along the lines of Carrie Arnold and my friend Lauren.
Why is this the first public outcry we’ve had about this show? Oh sure, let’s starve, shame, and publicly humiliate FIFTEEN SEASONS worth of people, and then when someone is considered too thin, “Oh, maybe that was a little too much.”
Does anybody else find this insanely ironic? Shaming public weigh in’s, people working out until they vomit or pass out, and verbal abuse by the hand of personal trainers for goodness knows how many people, and someone who wins gets too thin… and now it’s too far? The whole freaking point of the show is to lose as much weight as possible. Maybe there is not something wrong with Rachel and maybe something more wrong with the show, and more importantly, our culture.
It reminds me of tabloids. I see these things as I check out at the grocery store, and the stories are always the same: this person is too fat. They are overweight! Let’s have 20 unflattering pictures of them going to the grocery store. Then, actresses who might meet the criteria of anorexia have pregnancy rumors spreading because they drank some water or ate a piece of pizza. There is a very narrow window of pop culture satisfaction with a woman’s body. For the most part, all fat is a matter of repulsion to our modern media. BUT, when someone gets too thin, there is this surprising amount of mock alarm. This person is too thin, mass chaos ahhhhhh.
Our culture has a phobia of fatness. Anyone who is overweight is considered disgusting. That’s why we’ve created a reality TV show that gives them money for becoming “less lazy and more self-controlled” (note: public sentiment, not my own). When someone who is 350 pounds is publicly shamed, yelled at, and forced to vomit to get through a workout, that is acceptable to our modern American consciousness. So much so that it has been picked up for 15 seasons because of popular appeal of the show.
And yet someone who ends up losing too much weight has gone too far, which is no longer appropriate, and the news story is so popular that is on the trending section of my Facebook page? It is such a weird double-standard. Once you get thin, you don’t deserve mockery and shaming anymore? That is too far. But if you’re “fat,” let the games begin. Vomit during your work out, if that’s what you need to do.
It is interesting how our culture legitimizes and makes value judgments about certain eating/ weight struggles. Anorexia has been in the public eye since the 1980s, but the newest eating disorder, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a relatively recent diagnosis (I mean it was recognized before by basically everyone in the field, but now a bunch of psychiatrists said it was legit, so now it’s officially legit). Binge Eating Disorder is thought to be the most prevalent eating disorder in the country. It affects 2.8% of people over the course of their lifetime and can often lead to obesity and other serious consequences such as death. While I haven’t watched The Biggest Loser in years, I would bet that some participants of the show have at some point struggled with this eating disorder.
As a part of eating disorder treatment, I hear over and over, Listen to your body. Love your body. Honor your body. Pretty sure that applies across the board. While I don’t specifically know best practices for treatment of BED, somehow I think that public shaming and fainting during dangerous work outs maybe are not the best strategies for treating a serious biopsychosocial disorder. People with BED can suffer with self-hatred and loathing at their propensity to eat, and behaviors can cycle. One eating disorder can be replaced with another. Are we really that surprised that someone went too far?
I am not trying to minimize the health ramifications of obesity. I understand that people can have serious health issues or prematurely die because of obesity. However, The Biggest Loser enterprise is not the right way to go about addressing this issue. Stigmatization and public shaming of people based on weight is never okay. Eating 500 calories, working out for 6 hours a day, and humiliation are never acceptable. It doesn’t matter what weight you are.
We need to take a step back and realize that the entire way that our culture views weight, eating, and exercise are deeply problematic. Can you imagine a country like France making a show like this? Neither can I. In this country, weight loss sells. Our diet industry rakes in $20 billion per year. So, the network produces season after season, and the abuse and shaming is never questioned.
I feel badly for Rachel. I really do. I hope that she reaches a stable equilibrium. But Rachel is only one contestant– and victim– of this show. What about the other Biggest Loser contestants who “lose” the competition but develop harmful habits toward eating and exercise that might last a lifetime as a result of the show? Or they are self-conscious about their weight and feel ashamed for the duration of their lives? Yet, their unhealthy habits are discounted because they are not “thin enough” to warrant attention. No one makes stories that go viral about them.
I am concerned about Rachel, but I am also concerned about everyone else on this show, and frankly, I am concerned about the messages people get from watching it. And I am concerned that there are people whose voices are being ignored because they are not close enough to some cultural ideal. It reminds me of this Huffington Post article that was really eye opening to me. Jennifer Lawrence is applauded as a “body image hero,” and I mean, like the next person, I am enthusiastic about anyone who says, “If anybody even tries to whisper the word ‘diet,’ I’m like, ‘You can go fuck yourself.’ “
However, when I read the article, I realized that Jennifer Lawrence is a white, small Caucasian woman who meets a conventional standard for beauty, and she just happens to gloat about eating French fries. But– would a larger actress who says she likes eating be applauded as a body image hero? The author contrasts Lawrence with Melissa McCarthy, an actress with a different, bigger, body type. Melissa McCarthy is quoted saying, “I don’t know why I’m not thinner than I am.” What if Melissa McCarthy went on record saying that she loves French fries? Would there be gifs and tumblrs dedicated to her? Somehow, I don’t think so.
The author, Jenny Trout, wonders: “At what percentage of body fat does a woman earn the right to be a person?”
What is saddest to me about the whole Biggest Loser controversy is that this is what it takes for people to speak out. We should give attention and concern where attention and concern are due– this entire franchise. Rachel is not a far cry from what every other contestant has tried to do– lose as much weight as possible, and if you need to starve or almost kill yourself on the treadmill to do it, so be it.
This show is not okay, but in leaving the critique there, we are missing the public stigma and shaming associated with weight issues. We are missing the fact that millions of people are on their couches eating popcorn watching people almost kill themselves for a quarter of a million dollars. “You can never be too rich or too thin,” as the popular adage goes. The Biggest Loser attempts to handle both.
In my opinion, enough is enough. This show is a horrible outflow of our fat-phobic and paradoxical culture, and it is time that people stand up and call it out for what it is: Bullying. Shaming. Abusive. Unacceptable. It loses. And so do we.