“Inspiring” they call it. “Life changing.” Even “Life affirming.” These phrases echo in my head as I watch the commercial for The Biggest Loser; watch snippets of them being shamed and yelled at by trainers, being offered ridiculous temptations to break their diet, watch them trotted up onto a giant scale in their underwear to maximise their humiliation, and watch them have to turn on each other to vote one person out.
There’s nothing inspiring about it.
I have friends who watch the show, and love the ‘journey.’ They can’t wait for the last episode where the contestants get all teary as they smash through giant images of their lesser, yet larger selves in more flattering weigh in gear, punching their fists in the air as they watch the scale display a number that somehow makes them feel good.
I know there’s nothing real about reality TV. Sure, I’m as addicted to the Bachelorette as anyone but I’m not silly enough to believe that its not more determined by ratings hungry producers and less by true love. And I get the appeal to shows like the Kardashians too, but anyone who thinks that is reality probably needs a reality check themselves. Reality is heavily scripted depending on what said producers think the audience wants. And I can suspend disbelief long enough sometimes to get into the show in a ‘this is so bad it’s good’ kind of way. Or, I can live and let live, roll my eyes internally and just not watch or read about shows that are truly pitiful.
But the ex personal trainer in me cannot turn the other cheek when it comes to damaging the health and well being of a group of vulnerable people in the interest of manipulating television ratings to sell products with advertising space. People are always more important than money and their health and well being is most important of all.
There have been plenty of expose articles with ex TBL contestants who have shed light on what really happens on the show. Allegations of extreme crash dieting and excessive and frankly dangerous exercise regimes, claims that the weigh ins happen more than a week apart therefore distorting the audience’s view of contestant success, recounts of how humiliating some of the challenges and weigh ins were and stories of mistreatment are just some of the anecdotes doing the rounds from various contestants. Ex winners in the US version Kai Hibbard and Ryan Benson and Australian contestant Andrew Costello, (among many more) have all revealed damning details in the media, but the juggernaut keeps on rating, exposing the unscrupulous nature of reality television and reflecting a sad indictment on us, the television audience.
So this is where I draw my line. And this is my plea to you, the viewing audience, to not get sucked into the marketing machine. This is where I outline my arguments against supporting this show. This is my 6 reasons to NOT watch The Biggest Loser.
It’s insulting to contestants and the audience.
The show is called The Biggest Loser. Sure, it’s a play on words, but the clear implication is that people who struggle with their weight are losers. There is already a huge bias in society at large when it comes to those that don’t fit the ideal image. How many times have we inadvertently looked at a person of a larger stature eating a burger and inwardly thought ‘Why are they eating that?’ as if their diet is any of our business at all?
When we watch contestants being berated for not measuring up in a workout, being shamed for not losing enough weight, being forced to participate in a challenge that is designed to humiliate we are party to insulting their self worth. Kai Hibbard reflects on a particular challenge where she was forced to run out of a horse gate as if she were an animal. Humiliation may make for great TV ratings but it lessens us all as a society and as individuals. The psychological component of successful long term weight loss is well documented; body image is such a personal thing, and so this kind of treatment of human beings in the public domain even when they themselves have signed up for it is insulting to all involved.
2. It spreads a terrible message about body image.
I touched on this above, but if we are talking about a show that claims to be purely about weight loss it is worth further exploring the idea of body image. We are obsessed with a perfect body image and very few people live up to that ideal. What kind of a society measures success by the way a person looks? Are we really that superficial? Yes, I know, its not just about weight loss, so they say, it’s about a healthier lifestyle.
Except its really, really not. If it were, the trainers would be using long term strategies that contestants could implement into their lives long term, and contestants wouldn’t be voted off as if they are living some kind of grown up version of Lord Of The Flies – the Body Edition. This show proudly advocates and rewards sudden weight loss, and if a contestant doesn’t measure up they get voted off the island. The faster the better. Because big numbers make better television, not healthier bodies long term. If getting to that perfect, ‘ideal’ weight as quickly as possible is really the name of the game, then certainly that game is guilty of perpetuating poor body image ideals at the expense of real long term health.
3. The show has horrible long term consequences because it is focussed on short term gains.
Both Hibbard and Benson have been highly critical of the short term focus of the show in recent years. Hibbard recalls dehydrating herself prior to weigh ins – losing three kilos in a matter of hours through prolonged heavy exercise with no water intake. Benson tells of the ten days prior to the final weigh in, where he existed on a liquid diet in order to achieve maximum weight loss. And though many are bound by confidentiality agreements, the vast majority of contestants gain weight after leaving the show.
Suzanne Mendonca and Rulon Garner claim to be part of a TBL alumni group, stating in this Daily Mail article that they “admitted their drastic weight loss was only short-lived, and that ‘just about everyone’ they know from previous seasons have since piled the pounds back on.” The long term affects of such dramatic weight loss on the body are well documented, and can be detrimental not just to future weight loss but also to health and wellness; high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and gall bladder disease are all potential hazards of this kind of extreme yo-yo dieting.
4. The show distorts the exercise and nutritional program which is used for weight loss.
The secrets of TBL weight loss regime are well guarded, but many ex contestants claim they would exercise intensely for four to five hours a day while existing on meagre diets of around one thousand calories. This is obviously not sustainable in the long term without serious health implications, nor is it realistic once a contestant returns to their life. Moreover, the lack of transparency on the show is dishonest and could have far reaching implications for audience members that try to emulate extreme weight loss they see on the show.
5. The show distorts reality in general and uses tricks to make contestants appear to hit milestones that will be reversed once the body naturally craves homeostasis.
Manipulating weigh ins through dehydration techniques, altering the appearance of reality by presenting weigh ins as one week apart instead of up to three, (according to Hibbard) and requiring contestants to exist on a liquid diet at times creates a distorted reality for the audience. US trainer Jillian Michaels parted ways with the show, and is quoted in sheknows.com as saying “But then you’ve got to take responsibility for it good and bad and I felt actually pretty ashamed. I got to a place where I thought if I’m going to be the face of something, I’ve come to a point in my career where I have to have control and that’s where I’m out.”
6. It celebrates and rewards professionals that are knowingly ignoring available science to achieve fame and fortune.
While the health and well being of the contestants on each of the franchises and the message sent to viewers and greater society is obviously important, an element of anti science also creeps its way onto TBL, and that also has consequences. In a world where the efficacy of health and fitness offerings are almost exclusively misrepresented a show like TBL can have a considerable negative impact on the general health and lifestyle of the community. The professionals involved in the show – the trainers and those behind the scenes that consult on and design the weight loss programs – are either knowingly ignoring the overwhelming scientific research that proves their methods to be long term failures or they don’t know the science at all. Given they are on a major television network claiming to be experts in their field, either is a terrifying thought and both have serious implications for the way we view weight loss techniques.
So this is my plea to you the viewer. Don’t give this un-reality your tacit approval by tuning in. Don’t be party to the humiliation of human beings based on their lack of body appeal, to the long term damage to their bodies, to the further distortion of body image amongst society and to the blatant ignorance of scientific method.
Don’t watch The Biggest Loser.