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?

The Biggest Loser, and the culture of fat shaming

I’ve blogged about The Biggest Loser previously, at which point I was a casual viewer, having watched approximately five episodes of the current season (season 11). Since then, I’ve drunk the Biggest Loser Kool-Aid in massive quantities and have marathoned the entire 9th season, added all my favorite contestants on Twitter and am very actively engaged in the current season and its trajectory. The show has turned out to be an important part of my weight loss/fitness “regime” (as I joked in the original post), as it does serve as a positive reinforcement each week and a reminder that I need to stay on track, and get fit. I have to credit The Biggest Loser with inspiring me to sign up for my first 5K. To wit: begrudgingly, yes, I’m a fan. It’s inspirational, and tells some good stories.

However, one of the finer points of  my initial revulsion to the series sticks with me: fat shaming. And not just fat shaming. Fat people fat shaming fat people.

One of the most frustrating anti-fat (people) messages we get is that if you’re overweight, and especially obese, that you are lazy and have no will-power. Hey, sometimes it’s true (being sedentary does have a correlation with weight), but as we all know, losing weight and turning your life around often cannot be done based solely on so-called “will power” and “not being lazy.” Even if you get off your butt and work out or you resist that cheesecake nine times out of ten, a lifetime of learned, disordered and destructive behaviors can set you back, stand in your way, or lead to relapse. Or, you may have a medical condition or genetic predisposition that makes “getting skinny” improbable or impossible. Not being able to lose weight, or struggling to do so, is not an automatic product of being “lazy,” or “not working hard enough.”

So this season in particular, its rankled me every time contestants (like Arthur or Q) have been chastised by their fellow contestants (Justin and Rulon) for “not working hard enough.” The trainers do it, too, which I also find problematic, but you can’t blame a super thin and buff personal trainer for thinking that working out six hours a day is a magic bullet to weight loss. That’s their worldview and their job.

But fat people need to give other fat people a break. Anyone who has struggled with weight and/or obesity knows how difficult it is – thinking about food constantly, weighing your choices, sometimes making bad choices, food guilt, feeling gross in your body, fat rolls, sweaty fat rolls (the WORST), super fast weight loss, almost no weight loss, plateaus, working your butt off and not seeing it on the scale, etc. etc. The reality of being an overweight person trying to lose weight is that it’s HARD, it’s unpredictable, different for everybody and “eat less, exercise more” DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK. Sometimes your body gets really pissed at you for eating less and exercising more and your metabolism skids to a halt. Some weeks the scale doesn’t correlate to your effort.

Yet we get fat people on The Biggest Loser “calling out” their fellow contestants for not working hard enough. Ok, is it possible a contestant didn’t work as hard as they could have? Yes. But people have different health concerns, pain thresholds, bodies and metabolism. They react differently to exercise, particularly different types of exercise (Moses, as we saw, works better with boxing as opposed to straight cardio), and food.

This season has been a study in extreme opposites: Justin and Rulon losing massive amounts of weight in the beginning and fat shaming their fellow contestants who has slow or low weeks (notably Q and later Arthur), and then BOTH eating humble pie when they slowed down, lost zero or, as we saw this week, cheated on their diet. I’m sorry, the Olympic Gold metalist who can clearly just work his ass off and drop a shit-ton of weight is cheating on his diet, yet he has the gall to chastise fellow contestants who have been sedentary and obsese their entire lives, are new to exercise and have a slow week? Rulon needs to gain a bit more understanding of his fellow human beings, and step outside his own narrow worldview.

But the ray of sunshine this season is Courtney, who through all the fat shaming and “you didn’t work hard enough” rhetoric has had the right attitude and message: every pound lost is a pound lost, and more recently, plateaus happen. While she was uncharacteristically not happy with her three pound loss last night, she is acknowledging her plateau, which is a normal aspect of a weight loss journey. I don’t know if it’s because she’s still a bigger girl or because she’s such a rockstar who lost over 100lbs on her own before starting the show, but on the weeks where Courtney hasn’t “lost a lot” (cue eyeroll), her fellow contestants and trainers have NOT fat shamed her or indicated she wasn’t working hard enough. Compare this to season 9, when Stephanie hit a plateau, losing only 1 or 2 pounds a few weeks in a row (and one week zero) and her fellow contestants, particularly the women, accused her of cheating and playing the game. When someone hits a plateau? Fat shaming and accusations of cheating don’t help. It’s amazing how cruel the very people who should understand your struggle can be.

I hope that people will take away from this season Courtney’s message of positivity, hope and realism. However, fat people shaming other fat people has become pretty standard for The Biggest Loser, so I doubt her attitude will prevail. What is it about overweight people being the hardest, and often the most cruel, to other overweight people? We reinforce the same ugly stereotypes about fat people that society/culture/media thrusts upon us — we’re lazy, slobs, gluttons, unloveable and invisible — when we look at another overweight person and say “well, she/he is clearly just not working hard enough.” Sometimes it isn’t that simple. Be happy for your own success and, yes, be supportive of your fellow fat friends. But fat shaming is NOT being supportive. Be understanding, offer positivity (not negativity disguised as positivity, ie: you just didn’t work hard enough, but you can next week!) and keep an open mind.

And don’t get me started on the “all fat people are miserable; all thin people are super happy” motif of Biggest Loser an the fact that often contestants slim down far beyond where they need to be, all for the big reveal. Why do you need to slim down to a size 4 or 6? No. But that’s a topic for another day!

Heavy vs. The Biggest Loser – is reality “fat” TV any good for us?

A part of my “diet plan” this time around is to watch reality shows that show obese people triumphing over fat, uttering cliches into the camera, tears and sweat running down their chubby faces as music swells in the background. Why? A mixture of positive and negative reinforcement, watching something like The Biggest Loser reminds me that a) I’m lucky I only have 70 pounds to lose b) yes, Virginia, there are fat people and c) that dropping 150 lbs on a reality show in six months is extremely unhealthy and unrealistic, so go easy on yourself, kiddo.

The juggernaut of reality TV weight loss

I’ve always had an inherent issue with The Biggest Loser, and have never made it past the first few episodes of a given season. Two hours each week of fat people sweating and crying is a bit much, and pitting them against each other in a weight loss battle seems a bit cruel. “You didn’t lose enough, go home” doesn’t exactly solve the problem, though NBC does give the ousted contestants personal trainers (they must) until the finale show airs, and we see the “losers” paraded in front of us — “look, they did it at home!!!” Despite the swells of uplifting music and the sob stories, The Biggest Loser is, at heart, all about fat shaming. Fat is Not Okay, you are Unhealthy and Unfit and so you Must Change. Ok, so it’s also TRUE — the contestants are generally unhealthy, unfit and need to change. But the method and the messaging of the journey is such: these people are miserable and unhappy fat. They are going to die. Look! They lost 150 pounds! Now they are Happy and Perfect.

Reality check: losing a ton of weight doesn’t solve all of your problems. Weight loss is not a fix-all. Food issues are forever. And I doubt all these contestants keep their weight off after the show. The Biggest Loser doesn’t focus much on eating habits and food issues; they push the (much needed) fitness angle and while, yes, if you do a lifestyle change and become a work-out nut, you likely won’t become obese again, but how many of the contestants really become fitness nuts? Plus, losing massive amounts of weight each week is NOT HEALTHY or sustainable. While of course the contestants have an abnormally high start weight, 10, 15, 20 pounds in a week is not normal, even for the chronically obese. The only way to achieve such drastic weight loss is to have these people on a starvation diet plus 5-6 hours of working out each day. How can you sustain that post-show? You can’t.

The fat shaming that goes on in the weigh-ins has me yelling at the TV each week. Contestants are shamed about losing 6lbs in a week. Or 4. Or 8. Doctors recommend you lose 1-2 pounds a week for healthy weight loss. But these people are made to feel ashamed of losing what is, for even the heaviest of people, an abnormally high number in a single week, after many progressive weeks of similar or higher weight loss. It’s not sustainable! Frankly, if a contestant who “worked their butt off that week” “only” loses 6 pounds, or 4, or, God forbid, GAINS, I’m thinking their body is telling them something: IT’S THE APOCALYPSE, WE’RE STARVING, HOLD ON TO THE FAT. That’s what your body does when you’re starving — holds on to the fat. However, when this happens on the show, the trainers belittle the contestants (Bob told someone this week “4 pounds is nothing to be proud of.” This same contestant lost 31 POUNDS his first week), and the host speaks to them in a condescending, judgmental tone. It’s awful.

Heavy doesn't have a competition element to its weight loss chronicle

But, yes, I’m watching it. Cynically, though! Now there’s Heavy on A&E, which takes the appeal of The Biggest Loser — seeing morbidly obese people lose weight — and puts a gritty spin on it. There’s no competition, just “reality.” Each week, two people from the same city are profiled. Over six months, they will be buddied together for support, and given the tools to change their life around. They spend the first month at a weight loss camp (fat camp for adults!), the Hilton Head Health Institute, where personal trainers and nutrionalists help them jump-start their journey. Then they head home, where the show provides them with a personal trainer for the remaining five months. If they don’t make progress, they have to go back to Hilton Head.

So far, I’m impressed with Heavy. It’s not just fat people with sob stories. It’s fat people with REAL sob stories, and struggles. Jodi and her husband’s marriage is on the rocks. Her mother (who is also fat) fat shames her and they don’t have a good relationship. Arnold is surrounded by a family who enables him to eat more than 6,000 calories a day, and not work (because he’s so large he can’t). Arnold relapses after he goes home, gaining 23 pounds back, and has to go back to Hilton Head for the rest of the program. Jodi kicks her mom out of the house and she and her husband attend therapy sessions. And at the end of the six months, while both have lost a considerable amount of weight (Jodi 77 lbs, Arnold about 150 lbs), they are both still obese and have significant life issues to tackle. The weight loss and the A&E program haven’t solved their life problems and made them happy. Maybe, once the cameras are off and the personal trainers aren’t free, they will lose the rest of their weight. Or maybe they’ll gain it back. Who knows. My only nitpick on the participants of episode one: neither appears to have a job. When that is the case, it’s a lot easier to dedicate yourself fully to going to “fat camp” and working out with a trainer every day. It will be interesting to see if in future episodes, people have jobs and other such life obstacles.

This is the reality of fat in America, and losing the weight. It’s hard, it’s nuanced, it’s expensive (normal people can’t afford personal trainers or the TIME you need to dedicate to these work out routines) and fixing one thing won’t fix another. Heavy has a leg-up on The Biggest Loser in showing the realistic journey, but unfortunately what NBC does do brilliantly is the big pay-off. I can tell myself a hundred times that The Biggest Loser isn’t healthy or realistic, but it’s still a thrill to see someone go from 400 pounds to 150.  The montage rolls and the music swells, and you think to yourself “I want that!” It’s intoxicating as much as it is wrong, but it’s also proving to be a pretty good motivational tool.

The Big Reveal is intoxicating