by Lydia Jade Turner
This article was first published on Online Opinion.
The time to expose the dangers of the popular weight loss show The Biggest Loser is overdue. We need to look beyond the show’s manipulative emotionalism at exactly what messages it promotes about health and dealing with weight-related issues.
Here are some of the irresponsible ways the show’s trainers promote weight loss.
* encouraging contestants to dehydrate prior to weigh-ins – even up to 36 hours beforehand;
* encouraging weight losses of up to 17 kilos in one week even when it’s well know that such rapid loss is dangerous;
* making those who are labelled “morbidly obese” run up to 10 kilometres in the summer heat, putting them at risk of heat exhaustion and dehydration – a deadly combination;
* encouraging contestants to continue intense exercise despite injuries;
* encouraging contestants to continue intense exercise despite vomiting;
putting contestants on a starvation diet of 1,000 calories per day – and overlooking those who choose to consume even less than that;
* berating those who haven’t shed enough kilos at the weigh-ins for “letting down the team” – even when they have already lost more than the recommended average for healthy weight loss per week.
We have seen some of the results. One contestant collapsed two days after filming ended, having lost 40 kilos in 12 weeks. His gallbladder was removed after being rushed to hospital. Another contestant was hospitalised for low pulse rate as a result of starvation. Yet another was treated for dehydration. And these are just the cases we’ve heard about.
When contestant John Jeffrey resigned from the Australian show in 2008 fearing someone would die, he wasn’t the only one with this concern. Just last month American trainers Jillian Michaels and Michelle Bridges expressed the same fear.
It’s not just the dangerous weight loss methods that should worry us. What really disturbs me, as a psychotherapist working in this field, is that The Biggest Loser is a show that actively promotes the socially sanctioned bullying of fat people.
The competitive nature of the show involves pitting people against each other for our voyeuristic entertainment. Positioning contestants alongside comical amounts of food perpetuates the myth that fat people are always eating and need to be taught some “discipline”. The contestants can’t even cover their tummies with a flimsy lightweight top during the weight-ins, encouraging viewers to reel in disgust.
The language used by the trainers towards the contestants frequently takes a patronising tone. On The Biggest Loserwebsite, Dr Clare Collins’ states: “Too tired, too busy, too hard, too expensive, no support, not the right time … I’ve heard them all! Take care and be wary because one day you may hear the words ‘too late’.”
What sort of arrogance is “I’ve heard them all!” as if fat people owe her some kind of explanation and NONE of the ones she’s heard are good enough. This condescending attitude completely simplifies and overlooks the complex psychological and physiological interactions that lead a person to fatness and poor lifestyle choices. Her approach reveals the deep-seated hostility towards fat people that allows this professionally condoned abuse to continue.
Bullying towards fat people is rarely met with empathy. The US fat politican Marilyn Wann summed it up well when she said that not only is it easy to get away with bullying a fat person, but you can come off as “kind of a Superhero.” It’s shows like The Biggest Loser that contribute to the idea that all fat people are lazy, stupid, morally weak, and fat for exactly the same reasons. We’re bombarded with simplistic equations like “energy-in, energy-out,” and images of thin people living successful happy lives. These media representations are grossly misleading.
The theme song itself is laughable “all we’ve ever wanted, is to look good naked, hope that someone can take it, God save me rejection, from my reflection, I want perfection.” As if looking good and being sexually desirable is the only goal fat people could possibly have in life, as nothing else about them counts until they are “thin”. Fearmongering on the show is common, as contestants are often told that if they don’t do what the trainers say, they will die. Yet it is clear that some of the trainers themselves are worried that a contestant will die soon, given The Biggest Loser’s ridiculous training regime.
The unfortunate truth is that the way in which the contestants are portrayed is merely an extension of how fat people are portrayed by the media in general. Even mainstream news coverage systematically denies fat people identity, as it is protocol to show them headless – only filming their bodies – in reports on “obesity”. Imagine if we did this to any particular race of people. To deny a group of people the right to even be seen, simply because we are conditioned to be repulsed by their bodies, informs us that what we are really dealing with is an issue of human rights.
Having lost 19 kilos from working out six hours a day, Kelly Osborne yesterday told Sunday Mirror newspaper in the UK “I took more hell for being fat than I did for being an absolute raging drug addict”. “I will never understand that. I remember some horrible, obnoxious teenager screamed out of a car window to me, ‘You’re fat!’. I went to my parents bawling, I would rather be called ugly than be called fat!” The shame and stigma that fat people systematically face is significantly damaging to their health and wellbeing.
In my clinical experience, a fat patient reported being abused while going for a jog. That’s right – abused while engaging in a healthy activity. Other experiences fat people have reported include being told off by other shoppers about the content of their shopping trolleys, seeing themselves as the target of “hate speech” in comments posted in response to articles about “obesity”, and having doctors assume that all of their physical ailments must be due to their fatness rather than properly screening them like any other person.
While many would agree that everyone should sit within the healthy BMI range of 18.5-25, I’m not so sure. It turns out that the determination of weight categories was decided by The International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), which in turn was funded by the pharmaceutical makers of popular weight loss drug, Xenical. BMI poses multiple problems in accurately determining health, and while it sounds great on paper, the reality of how culture is played out every day in the GP’s office, in gyms, between wives and husbands and so forth, tells a very different story. People everywhere are terrified of fat. We as a nation are not satisfied with a BMI of 25, “looking good” has recently become a duty – meaning, we want “thinness”.
This prescription of thinness, whether promoted under the guise of health or as a beauty ideal, is harmful to everyone. Those who are fat are systematically bullied and discriminated against, while many of us who are not fat, compromise our health out of fear of becoming so. The overwhelming international evidence is clear: promoting a thin-ideal as the only way to be healthy and desirable not only increases risk of engaging in harmful weight loss behaviours, but also discourages people from committing to exercise. One fat interviewee on Oprah recently stated she was too ashamed to go to the gym – and why wouldn’t she be? People don’t go where they don’t feel welcome.
The Singapore government only recently banned its Trim-And-Fit (TAF, or FAT spelled backwards) program in schools, after it became increasingly obvious that the program was leading to a significant spike in eating disorders and body image problems. The TAF program routinely created a sort-of apartheid by making kids who were labeled “fat” run extra laps around the school yard, allowing them fewer calorie purchases during lunchtime, making them eat at separate lunch tables to those deemed “fit” (or just “not fat”, really), parading fat kids in front of morning assembly, and awarding “thin” kids bracelets to identify them as superior to the fat ones. The results were not surprising given that studies repeatedly show that stigma and shame significantly predict poorer health outcomes.
This discrimination towards fat people pervades every aspect of industrialised cultures. Even The Australian New Zealand Obesity Society acknowledges that 84 per cent of health professionals in Australia hold prejudicial views against those who are fat. So for fat Australians today, even accessing health care – a fundamental human right – poses a problem of epic proportions. US Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is actually introducing a system in which people with higher BMIs will pay more for the same groceries than lower-BMI patrons. In Japan, companies are fined under a new government regime if their employees gain weight. The fear of “letting down the team,” a common statement pushed onto contestants of The Biggest Loser to induce guilt, is similarly employed here.
Yet these punitive approaches will never work: how can we ever nourish and respect our bodies in such a hostile environment? An environment that normalises and actively encourages body-hatred? Commercial weight loss ads are particularly callous when it comes to promoting weight-based prejudice. A recent ad for Rush Chocolate milk actually showed a male police officer treating a female driver like a drunk driver, simply because she was drinking full-cream chocolate milk. He made her get out of her car and walk up and down in a straight line. Like drinking ordinary milk is now a crime. With multi-billion dollar industries profiting from the promotion of a thin-ideal, it doesn’t look like the voluntary Weight Council of Australia which only has five businesses as members is having much impact when it comes to regulating the industry.
Interestingly, the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) has stated on their website that they encourage Australians to avoid “diets” and adopt a healthy lifestyle instead. The website also states that the DAA is calling on the Australian government for tighter regulations of the weight loss industry. How puzzling then, that Dr Clare Collins, both spokesperson for the DAA and senior consultant to The Biggest Loser, is actively promoting The Biggest Loser “diet” on the show’s website and in supermarkets nationwide. Diets that require two main meals to be replaced by liquids are usually treated with suspicion by dietitians, yet this has effectively flown under the radar.
And soon we will see the DAA’s latest liquid diet, Dietitian’s Choice, on supermarket shelves. Only to be taken under the guidance of a dietitian, of course. How did the DAA jump from being anti-diets, especially liquid diets, to now capturing the market by stating people should go on these diets but only if they see a dietitian? Could this just be a method of monopolising the market? The research is clear that these diets do not work, as they come with a 98 per cent failure rate. Despite employing the spokesperson from the DAA as senior consultant, most of The Biggest Loser contestants are already weight cycling – and it is highly unlikely any will keep the weight off after two to five years, given that the weight loss solutions provided don’t work for the majority of the Australian population.
We have been at war with obesity for more than 40 years, and so far, it isn’t looking good. An increasingly hostile environment that continually bullies and discriminates against fat people is never going to lead to a healthy outcome. Despite all the shame and hate obesity rates continue to increase – shouting louder is not the solution. The Australian government needs to tighten regulations on the weight loss industry, so that ordinary citizens are not beguiled into attempting diets that only lead to increased health risks and significantly increased weight gain in the long term. Promoting health as a multi-dimensional, ongoing process where fitness is valued regardless of BMI, will liberate us from our culture of disordered eating and weight-based prejudice.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you are someone who is considered ‘obese,’ and would like to prevent media filming you headless in reports on obesity, check out these awesome shirts by Marilyn Wann!