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 psychologist 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 Loser website, 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.
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