Read Part One of this post here:
Wait a minute.
People who are overweight and/or obese have a problem controlling how much they eat. That’s bad for their health.
However, the inability to exercise complete, rational control over your behavior at all times is the hallmark of being a living, sentient, human being.
Fat people are not more damaged than other people. They’re not less stable.
Fat people are just really, really unlucky. Everyone has issues, imperfections, foibles, big and small. Heavy people wear a personal shortcoming externally, for anyone to see and judge. And pay them less.
Lisa didn’t become a better mom when she became a thinner mom. The fact that Lisa was not able to stop overeating, and even her admission that, as a working, single mom she frequently fed her kids cheap, take-out, fatty pizza (shocking!) doesn’t mean that she ever failed to meet their emotional or material needs.
Weight is not a moral or character issue. It’s a health issue. But the Biggest Loser is relentless in characterizing contestants as initially weak, childlike, and even, in trainer Bob’s words, “broken” people.
Over the season, the show sometimes depicts the dieters sympathetically. They have to. It’s essential that viewers invest in the “characters” and the competition between them. But the Biggest Loser’s occasional kindness and warmth towards its dieters is a cynical part of a formula entirely based on disrespect.
Contestants start their “journeys” as worthless, miserable, and lost. They are burdens to their families, expensive to taxpayers, and (as is invariably mentioned, over and over and over) they have one foot in the grave.
Then the show, like an angel, plucks the dieters from despair and intervenes. Medical advisor “Dr H” even claimed the show deserves a Nobel peace prize for saving their lives on the Thanksgiving “Where Are They Now” special.
Then, while never explaining to viewers exactly what program is being followed, making it impossible to replicate (isn’t that the opposite of “empowering?”), all credit is given to the trainers instead of the contestants.
Listen to the language in this voice-over during the finale:
“For ten seasons on the Biggest Loser, trainers Bob and Jillian have taken over 200 morbidly obese Americans and turned them into the epitome of health.”
This is the formula: in the course of each season, the trainers yell at and physically punish the contestants until they vomit and yell back and eventually cry.
That “breakthrough” allows the contestants to “find their inner warrior”, lose 100 – 200 pounds, and “become the person they always wanted to be.”
Viewers are left with nothing but breadcrumbs to trace how it happened. It seems to involve copious amounts of sponsored products Yoplait, Brita, Extra dessert-flavored gum, Subway, and Jennie-O ground turkey. And Ford vehicles.
And of course, who can ignore the messaging in the Biggest Loser Challenge Video game, endlessly promoted throughout the season?
A blonde woman, of medium weight, enters a gym. She sees intimidatingly thin and attractive women everywhere. So she leaves, saying, “Why does working out have to be so humiliating?” Then she goes home and works out to her Biggest Loser videogame instead. “This is more like it” she says.
Then trainer Bob weighs in, promising, “The new Biggest Loser Challenge will have you breaking right out of your shell.”
Working out in public is”humiliating?”
A gym full of attractive, fit people is intimidating, maybe. Why is it “humiliating? Presumably the narrative goes: it’s humiliating because our lady knows that she should look like them. She doesn’t. So she’s humiliated and is better off at home.
Thus, the fundamental unacceptability of the overweight person is the core of the brand of the Biggest Loser. She or he is a failure. Feeling too ashamed to enter a gym is normalized rather than challenged.
To take it a step further, the shame is evoked and then monetized. We have a product to help you with that.
The message is always that with the show’s help, change is possible. Otherwise, you’re just a tragedy.
The biggest irony is that proponents of the show champion its model of behavior modification over surgical intervention, but the Biggest Loser refuses to treat overeating as simply a behavior to be modified. It indulges in the constant characterization of the obese as pathetic human beings, deserving of pity and in need of intervention.
Think of Jillian’s comment about the makeover week fashion show. The contestants were not “sexy,” “glamorous,” “stylish,” or “hot.” Her take? They were “adorable.” Like children playing dress-up.
At the finale, everyone looked great. The men were fit in natty suits with big smiles. The women had pretty party dresses, date night make-up, big hair and high heels. Their pride in their achievement was evident.
But of course, to be weighed, it was essential they change into spandex.
What if the Biggest Loser originated from a basis of respect for the contestants and genuine sensitivity to what they’ve gone through as overweight and obese people?
The most jarring moment in the finale (or that I have ever seen on the show, in fact,) came when we met Sarah, pictured above. She will be a contestant in the new season, which starts in just three weeks.
As Sarah tearfully explained that she has been unable to start a family, and that her weight has played a role, producers made an unacceptable decision. They played audio of Sarah saying, “All the doctors attributed my miscarriages to my weight,” while showing footage of Sarah eating doughnuts on her couch, watching TV. Like Homer Simpson, Sarah is reduced to the quintessential image of a “fat slob.” She’s a cartoon, a joke.
Compare the Biggest Loser’s treatment of this sensitive, painful issue to About.com’s. In their post on the complex data on the relationship of obesity and miscarriage, they carefully explain:
“Body weight is a sensitive subject for most people. Very few women in the United States are satisfied with their bodies. Many women struggle with their weight for their entire lives, sometimes facing depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, because of the ceaseless internal and external pressure to lose weight. Almost everyone who is overweight is well aware of the matter and does not need to be told about the health risks of being overweight.
In addition, many women are tempted to blame themselves for their miscarriages in the absence of a clear cause — so a link between obesity and miscarriage makes an already emotionally charged issue even more so.”
Consider how the show treated Sarah, but don’t forget the 5.5 million American women viewers. A quarter to a third of them have miscarried. A third of all Americans are obese; even more are overweight.
For how many women was that “you miscarried because you’re fat” soundbyte incredibly personal? 500,000? A million? Does that messaging give people the tools and support to change bad habits or does it alienate or even damage them?
This season of The Biggest Loser has been characterized by inexplicably absent pieces of vital information about health and weight loss, which would be of tremendous service to viewers. The show could be a vehicle addressing obesity in America.
It could provide, for example, replicable meal plans and encouragement to working families trying to eat less processed, unhealthy foods in the real world of limited budgets, kids, and time constraints.
Instead, the show appears to guard its program explicitly so it can sell that information to viewers, through cookbooks, cruises, spas, videogames, suppliments and hundreds of other products and platforms.
Most troubling, The Biggest Loser participates in an unacceptable cultural trend of dehumanizing the overweight. It’s sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Often producers use the contestants’ own words to express negative messaging. Viewers may be confused or just forget that it’s the producers and writers controlling all content.
Sarah may have wept and told them that her doctors linked her pregnancy losses to her weight, but it was the show’s architects who chose to roll that line over an image of Sarah eating doughnuts on her couch, rather than, say, a wedding picture or her doing some gardening.
This is especially poignant because “bad ass” trainer Jillian Michaels announced via twitter this week that she is leaving the show, among other reasons, to pursue motherhood.
When she talked about her upcoming final season at greater length, Jillian said some pretty great things:
“I should be on the front lines, you know, I should be the one getting P.E. back in our schools; I should be working with my peers to get organic farm subsidies; I should be a part of making these solutions available to the people,” Jillian said. “It’s like, I was given a voice, I was given trust, I was given a platform and I feel like I should be doing more with it.”
Amen, sister. Perhaps the show’s producers will hear Jillian and strive to aim a little higher, too.