“The Biggest Loser” Controversy

I’ve been thinking about this topic for awhile, but I’m just now getting a chance to sit down and write about “The Biggest Loser” contestant weight loss controversy, and while I will touch on the frenzy surrounding Rachel Frederickson’s weight loss, I don’t want to lose sight of the bigger issues at hand. Shows like “The Biggest Loser” are symptomatic of our collective societal issues surrounding food, exercise, and body image. How we talk about the bodies of contestants on shows like this fascinates me. Right now, Frederickson’s body is under the scrutiny of the public eye, and people are concerned about her rapid weight loss and low body weight. Once again, it has become all about the weight, and a woman’s body. Some people think she looks great now, and other people think she looks like she has an eating disorder. The only person who truly knows what is going on is Frederickson herself, but we love to speculate. Why is that? Why, in 2014, are we still so obsessed with women’s bodies? If you think about it, what do we know about Frederickson, other than that she was once obese, and has now lost a lot of weight? We have once again separated the woman (person) from her body. Textbook objectification.

I have no idea if Frederickson has an eating disorder or not, and it’s frankly none of my business. My hope is that she is happy and healthy. If she is struggling with an eating disorder, my hope is that the staff of “The Biggest Loser” helps her seek treatment.

What is interesting to me about “The Biggest Loser” is that the show takes obese (often morbidly obese) individuals who often appear to have dysfunctional relationships with food, exercise, and their bodies, and puts them on restrictive diets and launches them into insane exercise regimens. This seems like a plan that’s destined to fail. The trainers aren’t working with contestants to help them learn to eat a nutritious, healthy diet or to work out in moderation. Instead, they are propagating all-or-nothing thinking. For most people, it’s not possible (and most likely not healthy) to spend six hours a day at the gym. I remember one episode I watched in which one of the trainers said the contestants should be eating 1500 calories a day while they are working out six hours a day. That kind of caloric restriction combined with heavy exercise seems like a set-up for bingeing, and eventually a restriction-binge cycle.

What would happen if “The Biggest Loser” took a more moderate approach and aimed for healthy weight loss by teaching the contestants about how to properly nourish their bodies via a well-balanced and adequate meal plan? What if they aimed for a moderate amount of exercise per day, like one hour per day, without the trainers screaming in the contestants’ faces and trying to give them “therapy”? What if they had actual, licensed mental health professionals available for consultation?

It would not make for very exciting television, is my guess.

When I go to colleges and high schools, I often talk about how we need to rethink our relationships with food, exercise, and our bodies. Shows like “The Biggest Loser” encourage people to assign negative connotations to food, when in reality, food is simply fuel for our bodies. It is neither good nor bad. Likewise, shows like this promote the idea that exercise has to be all-or-nothing, and that hardcore exercise is the way to weight loss. And, these types of shows send a message that our bodies are not acceptable if they are obese or overweight. They promote the insidious idea that the number on the scale or size of our pants is indicative of our worth as a person.

What bothers me the most about “The Biggest Loser” is the attempt to humiliate the contestants and shame them about their body size. Shaming is never an effective way to help anyone, with anything, yet the contestants on “The Biggest Loser” are weighed in sports bras and spandex pants, and throughout the show, they are belittled and made to feel less-than because of their bodies. How is that helpful? I know that the contestants have free will and are participating of their own volition, but they are made to feel like the show is their last chance for weight loss. I think there just has to be a better way. Also, the idea that this is a weight loss contest is disgusting. While the factors for developing an eating disorder are not clear-cut, it seems like common sense that if someone had any type of predisposition to developing an eating disorder, this type of contest would likely trigger eating-disordered behavior. In addition, if a contestant is dealing with Binge Eating Disorder (BED) this type of regimen is not addressing the underlying mental health concerns of that contestant. This could be viewed as swapping one form of disordered eating for another form of disordered eating.

My hope is that NBC cancels this show. It demeans the contestants, and it propagates destructive myths and ideas about food, exercise, obesity, and weight loss.

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