Why The Biggest Loser Sucks… But Why It’s Way Worse Than That

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.


Part 2: Jesus is a Pansy- Masculinity and Homophobia


This post is a follow up about Mark Driscoll and his view of masculinity and homophobia, which are important enough topics that they warrant their own post.

Driscoll’s view of masculinity is related to and in reaction against the perceived femininization of the church. To Driscoll, the church is filled with “chicks and some chickified dudes with limp wrists.” He challenges it by creating a “macho ethos” in his church and media following (think: church members prefer movies like The Fight Club).

In addition to projecting his own view of masculinity onto others, Driscoll projects his sense of masculinity onto Jesus. If I heard Driscoll and never read the Bible, I would think that Jesus was a pro-wrestler, which is why one NYT article on Driscoll was apply named, “Who would Jesus smack down?” Driscoll has said, “I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” In a recent sermon on the “Do Not Kill” commandment, Driscoll said, “Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning.”

The idea of the feminization of the church is not inherently problematic. Yes, probably men have felt alienated by the church and by portrayals of Jesus, and that is something that needs to be addressed. But just because you sense a perceived need, you cannot just make up a view of Jesus that meets your cultural perceptions of crude masculinity and say it’s in the Bible.

Newsflash to Driscoll: there are Christians who are pacifists. They– we– do not appreciate Jesus being called a “pansy.” Shane Claiborne says that Fight Club makes for bad theology and is in fact “a betrayal of the cross,” as Jesus’ death meant to reconcile all things and ended the shedding of blood. He continues, “Mark may see things like ‘kindness, gentleness, love and peace’ as feminine, dainty things for pansies, but the Bible calls them the ‘fruit of the Spirit.’ These are the things that God is like.”

Driscoll’s words have translated into overt discrimination, homophobia, and public shaming. Mark Driscoll has talked about homosexuality more than any pastor I’ve ever known, and I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts. I don’t have to be Freud to realize that maybe there is something else going on here. He also compares masturbation to homosexuality because you’re playing with your own parts and you’re the same sex as… you. Like, why are you even thinking about that? Who thinks about that when they masturbate?

A more disturbing display of his homophobia is on a recent Twitter post, in which Driscoll asked his followers to tell stories about “the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader.” One heartbreaking blog by Tyler Clark says, “When you put out a call on Facebook for people verbally attack ‘effeminate anatomically male’ men, I find myself back in high school—shoved against a locker, with the bullies calling me a faggot.” Rachel Held Evans entreats other Christians to call out what Driscoll is doing: bullying.

I am disgusted by how Driscoll is perpetuating discrimination, shaming, and oppression of other men who are not 100% “macho.” It is so cruel to mock men who are effeminate and say “gay” and “faggot” in discriminatory ways… and worse yet, to do it in the name of Jesus. MD: Think of the men who you are alienating. Think of the men who don’t feel welcome at your church, who think that there is something wrong with them for not being like you. Think of how much homosexual people are already hurting, at the direct hand of the church, and how you are just perpetuating that.

I was able to hear Bishop Gene Robinson, the first ordained Episcopal bishop who is gay, speak last year, and he was talking about how he and his church went to a gay pride parade just to hand out water to thirsty people. No judgment, no mocking. That is a beautiful display of how we should treat the other. There is no room for high school bullying. Mark Driscoll, if you are a man, you need to stop mocking other men. Stop mocking people who aren’t you. Get on your knees and start handing out water to people you’ve hurt. Aren’t these people also your brothers and sisters in Christ?

Gender is not a static construct, unlike some evangelical culture might lead us to believe. It’s not as simple as: if you have a penis, you’re going to like violence and meat, and if you’re a woman, you’re going to giggle on the phone with boys and twirl your hair. There are no people who are “purely” masculine or “purely” feminine. That is very simplistic thinking.

My heart breaks for the people who Driscoll has hurt, the people, like Tyler Clark, who flashback to high school being taunted for being a “faggot” when hearing Driscoll speak, the men who have publicly shamed others after receiving “permission” from Driscoll to do so.

Mocking others and being insensitive are so not the markers of what Jesus is in the Gospels. Jesus said controversial things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5). Jesus’ followers wanted to haul ass on his enemies at times, and others wanted him to be a Zealot and overthrow Rome. Jesus chose not to do that. He could have. Heck, if he wanted to time warp and watch the Backstreet Boys in concert 2000 years later, he could have. Jesus could have done anything. Instead of promoting power, he gave up his power (Philippians 2). He came to serve, to wash feet, and to die on the cross.

In his life, Jesus really did the reverse of what people thought he would do. Jesus hung out around the prostitutes, the unclean people, the sick, the dying– the oppressed. Rather than aligning himself with the Pharisees, who imposed rules onto others, Jesus had the harshest things of all to say to them, including: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs,which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). He did not say that to the downtrodden or downcast. He said that to the religious people in charge.

As Rachel Held Evans wrote:

“The bad news for Mark is that we *do* worship a guy who got beat up. We *do* worship a guy who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We *do* worship a guy who spoke honorable about women and treated them as equals. We *do* worship a guy who surrounded himself with just the sort of people Driscoll likes to publicly mock. We worship a guy who inaugurated his kingdom, not by “making somebody bleed” but by bleeding! Pastors should certainly strive to reach and serve men. But we can’t do this by twisting Jesus to fit into our culture’s skewed views of masculinity. Getting men to go to church is not the same as making disciples of Jesus.”

I am proud that I worship a God who has been sent to heal the brokenhearted, who is counter-cultural and embodies Love, as well as the fruits of the Spirit. I am thankful that God would not stand in a high school hallway calling a person derogatory names regarding his/ her sexuality. I am thankful that Jesus could have killed, but he chose to be killed. I am thankful for the redemptive love of God, and I am thankful that Jesus was not a sexist, homophobic, heterosexist wrestler.