Talking back to The Biggest Loser

As I’ve mentioned before, The Biggest Loser is my ultimate guilty pleasure reality TV show. Ethically, it goes against pretty much everything I stand for — it’s foundation is (sugar-coated) fat hate, body shaming, fat shaming and reinforcing the SHEER WILLPOWER diet. But I love a good makeover story – always have – and seeing individuals slim down from size 32 to 8 is fascinating and horrible at the same time.

Still, as I watch, my teeth tend to grind of their own accord, on a regular basis. I find myself talking back to the screen, countering some of its damaging assertions. Let’s tackle some of those, shall we?

Why aren’t you happy? (they actually ask this of people, in the beginning, assuming they are unhappy by default of their size)

The assumption is that fat people can’t be happy, and that unhappiness MUST be the reason one is fat. Personally, I EAT WHEN I AM HAPPY. You can have a happy fulfilling life, even if you are fat. Now, you might have become obese because you are scared, or due to internalized self-hatred (which can be separate from happiness) or, simply, because you have a compulsive eating disorder. Not all fat people are miserable!

I want to be beautiful!

Oy, this one. Always said by the women, and they always get the “weeping at the beginning about feeling ugly; heaped with pretty praise later in the show” edit. FAT PEOPLE CAN BE BEAUTIFUL. I know this is a SHOCKING notion, but it’s totally true! Getting skinny doesn’t automatically make you beautiful. Yes, losing your extra chin(s) and not having any fat rolls is awesome and lovely, and certainly confidence building. But the notion that skinny = beautiful is ANNOYING and DAMAGING. (also, JFC, you’d think fat chicks NEVER fall in love and get married… except they TOTALLY DO!)

I want my life back/I want the life I’ve never had

Well, damn, I didn’t realize that fat people didn’t have lives! They don’t have jobs, get married, have kids or anything that “normal” people do! Frankly, this dichotomy is fascinating — half the contestants are “doing it for their family” — they are married, with children and presumably have jobs and homes and hobbies. But they “want their life back.” The young ones, usually single, say they’ve never had a life, so they want one now. While being fat/obese certainly limits ones choices & experiences in life, the indication that a life fat is no life at all is terribly reductive and simplistic. You want an active life. Yes, ok. You want an unhindered life? Ok. Hell, just flat out say it — you want a life where people don’t discriminate against you and treat you like shit? OK. But the reinforcement of the idea that fat people can’t have lives and be happy = DAMN ANNOYING (and not true).

You’re fat – so you’ve obviously given up on life

Oh, this. How many contestants go on and on — or are told by the trainers — that they clearly “gave up on themselves”/life because they became so morbidly obese. What a bizarre notion. People who are fat/obese don’t care about their life? Really? If anything, I’d say fat/obese people care about their lives very much — often it’s emotional turmoil (and inappropriate emotional reactions to and relationships with food) that leads to substantial weight gain. That’s a whole lot of caring about life, people and problems. Frankly, if there are obese people who have “given up” and “don’t care,” perhaps it is a response to the constant onslaught of being told that they are worthless, lazy, stupid and disgusting for being fat. And the annoying converse: that all thin people automatically love life? That they can’t have problems or not care about themselves? And often “giving up on life” is equated with not caring about your health, so if we assume the opposite about “thin” people, it reinforces the fallacious thin = healthy myth.

 He/she/you/I is/are/am going to be a TOTALLY DIFFERENT PERSON!

I’ve already covered this, but it’s worth saying again: LIES. You do not become a “different” or “new” person just because you lose a ton of weight. Unless by “totally new person,” you mean someone with a BRAND NEW eating disorder and neuroses you didn’t have before, because that’s the most common takeaway from losing so much weight in such a short period of time. If by new you mean “totally disconnected from your body,” yeah ok.

You may acquire new hobbies as the result of a body change. You may acquire new friends and acquaintances. But you do not become a different person. Your core being remains. If you were a nasty, miserable person fat, you will be a nasty, miserable person thin. If you hated yourself fat, you’ll hate yourself thin — just in a slightly different way (helllloooo Fear Of Getting Fat Again Former Self-Hate). If you were a happy, positive doormat fat, you’ll be a happy, positive doormat thin. Though, well, you might not put up with being a doormat once you get your hands on some thin privilege!  The whole body & personality transformation myth is exactly that: a myth.


I like The Biggest Loser, I do. I obviously watch it (marathoning season 8, currently!), but hearing these tropes, trotted out time and time again, when I KNOW they’re not uniformly true AND can be damaging, I have to say something.

Do you watch? Is there something done/said on the show that bugs you, too?

11 thoughts on “Talking back to The Biggest Loser”

  1. I don’t watch Biggest Loser…it’s great that they’re helping people get healthy, but I’ve always found it a bit exploitative (as are most reality shows, I guess). However these are things I mostly wouldn’t have thought twice about, you bring up some very good points.

    1. I think most people don’t think twice about them, and just accept these ideas as fact. We’re told pretty much everywhere, from every direction, that fat = bad/unhappy/ugly, so that these people feel that way — and get that edit — is not surprising. But the show really beats the horse dead with these topics through montages, editing, swelling music, etc. I think it communicates the wrong message to a lot of people. It’s not that obesity is good, or it doesn’t take hard work to lose weight, or losing weight isn’t desirable… but that I feel this rampant self-pity, hate and HUGE expectations of “getting thin” lead to disappointment, a disconnection from one’s body, and often times a brand new eating disorder (someone who has binge disorder can easily become a compulsive exerciser, binge/purger, laxative abuser, etc.).

      I used to totally buy into these things too. It’s just interesting to watch now that I have such ridiculously high esteem about myself and my body LOL.

  2. Ugh … the STL BL tryouts are Saturday.

    Going through it (casting calls etc.) a couple of times now, I feel like it’s a crazy mental ride. (Luckily, by the second time I actually really liked myself and now I have a photo-book full of “cute fat” full-body pictures! Woo!)

    It still gets me a little …

    I know I am on the road to a happy healthy life. I am happy and I want to be healthy. I want to be the best me I can be – and I have a good feeling that future me is a sassy 14/16. (And I am more than OK with that!)

    The part that gets me about BL is that it’s sort of weight loss transformational equivalent of whatever factory squishes Seitan into a mold and it comes out looking like a Thanksgiving Tofurky. It totally plays into that fast-fwd fantasy. (In 5 short months we can fix what took 25 years to create!)

    I wish I could see a photo of the ultimate future me – it’s hard for me to even imagine it.

    Luckily I am way beyond the odd thinking of,
    I will start “living/be happy” only when I lose weight.” (Going on years now.) I am living life and I have good people … good job etc etc.

    Not buying into the dream of the fast-fwd machine is still a challenge, I admit it …

    1. It’s a challenge for me, too! I mean, I’m watching The Biggest Loser: Where Are They Now, right now LOL. I love makeover shows, in general, and TBL is a really amazing platform. But you’re right — it’s the fast forward fantasy (compounded by the fact that a “week” between weigh-ins is NOT actually a week in Real Time), and even though they “show” the process, they don’t really. As much as I hate some of the narrative tropes and fat shaming elements, there’s a lot of good going on in the program, and I think the show provides tools to some very lucky individuals to change their lives. I mean, how else can you take 6-9 months off from “real life,” and have the dedicated resources of gym equipment, personal trainers, nutritionalists, medical staff, free food, etc?

      I know there are mentally healthy people who do TBL, I just don’t think they make “good TV,” so we don’t see those stories, or they don’t make it all the way to the end. I think you have to be a real masochist to make it to the end LOL.

      Are you auditioning this weekend? I will cross my fingers! (I really do, secretly, love this show, ha!)

      1. I don’t think I am … but never say never. (I did ask my boss if going on BL could count under FMLA, ha ha!) I guess what keeps me from doing it is the fact that I really do like my life right now and the “life” track I am on. It’s a short drive to STL and like I said before, I could probably send a couple of emails and hustle a VIP line pass …

        I am actually probably more cast-able now, just because I am in better general health, but still have 175+ to lose, etc … ( I kept having to re-add things, because I am literally 1/2 way to my “big goal.” I’ve been stuck fluxing between 360 and 358 … and to get to ~180 (dream weight.) … yeah.

        I just hired a personal trainer and it’s going really well, because I am ready for it. (After a year of just walking.) One thing I enjoy is that we watch my heart rate a lot, and more often than not he is telling me to “slow down!” I am pushing myself, but there is such a thing as going to far and risking injury.

        I am also fairly curious as to what sort of bend the show will take … I am not sure why the producers decided to go with a celebrity “trainer” – that sort of concerns me, because I would want someone that had a strong background and would be well-versed in the warning signs of someone who might be in danger. (I guess they do have a pretty extensive behind the scenes crew that we do not see of professional EMTs and trainers … but I think it’s easy for an elite athlete to be less in touch with how far a sedentary person should really be pushed.

        Sorry this is long … yeah BL … I love you yet loathe you.

  3. I don’t watch.

    I’ve never watched the show, but I have (at some point, maybe still) owned a few of The Biggest Loser DVD workouts because, well, I like watching people who look like me workout. Not that there’s anything wrong with seeing a smaller-size fitness instructor lead the DVD, but when it’s all there ever is — well, it’s nice to see body diversity represented.

    But watching them — along with Jillian Michaels 30-Day-Shred — the body messages always seemed sort of warped to me. There’s a lot of assumption that slimmer=more fit=slimmer and therefore that “slimmer” is what everyone must wish to aspire to. As someone who’s been active for years but who’s generally not lost weight in that time, it’s tough to hear that reinforced over and over as *THE* goal and benefit of weight loss.

    But, you know, there is no multimillion dollar franchise in, “Exercise because it can be fun and awesome! Whether you lose weight or not is irrelevant to your level of awesome!”

  4. I think it’s just a matter of that recurring theme that Biggest Loser is fine, there’s just not enough of the fat spectrum on TV to show a different side.

    Like you said, if they had people who were fine being fat on, it doesn’t make for good TV.

    I do agree that losing weight doesn’t make you a totally new person but, and I think this is what can be lost on viewers, becoming stronger can/does. I was SO timid about trying new things when I was overweight because I knew I didn’t have the agility/skill to do it. After training (more so than losing weight), I’m far more confident in saying yes if someone suggests trying something I’ve never done.

    But in general I think the show harps on those points because those are the people they’re trying to reach/makes the best story. They pick people that have given up on themselves/have grown up in a household not knowing about food and it can be confusing (especially to younger kids) that they eat what they think is normal food and still become obese.

    It’s hard because it’s one of the few popular shows that shows fat people but it’s a very specific group they deal with. I think that’s why I relate to it so much because I *wanted* to be able to run distances, I *wanted* to be able to play volleyball or go ziplining and I just didn’t even know where to begin. But there are people who (regardless of size) don’t aspire to do those things.

    Because of their training schedules, I really try and watch Biggest Loser as obese people becoming athletes over obese people losing weight because even if you lose 250 pounds, unless you’re training like they are you won’t be able to run a sub-4 marathon.

    Sorry, this is rambly. Head cold and traveling. Sorry!

  5. I do watch the Biggest Loser, for my own screwed up reasons, lol! I’ve lost my weight, and have kept it off for over a year. I’m happy (I was unhappy before, but not because I was fat, I had to deal with the unhappiness before I could deal with the food), I have new hobbies, and my self confidence has increased markedly, but I don’t believe it is because I lost the weight.

    I watch TBL to help me stay motivated to work out sometimes – if these contestants are watching they calories and working that hard, I can too. I don’t need to make excuses. 😛 (See? screwed up!).

    I do like seeing the transformations though.

    1. Eh, I’m the same way! I use the show as reinforcement to exercise, primarily, as it reminds me “hey, I really enjoy working out! I am jealous that they are sweating!” However, I don’t think that would have been my reaction had I watched the show prior to starting to work out. It *can* serve as reinforcement for many people, but I don’t think it always does.

      So I clearly have a love-hate relationship with it :) Generally, the problems I have with it only hit me every once in a while. A lot of the attitudes they portray via the stories and editing are pretty deeply ingrained. I really have to forcibly remind myself that it’s not truly reality — at least not one that I choose to see. I think a lot of people are genuinely unhappy fat, and hate themselves fat… I just don’t like that TBL reduces it to “you are these things b/c being fat is TERRIBLE.” Being healthy is a helluva lot easier when you don’t hate yourself, IMO.

  6. To be fair, I do watch Heavy, but A&E’s reality programming somehow feels less exploitative. Maybe I’m just being tricked by the network, ha.

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