Screenshot: Lose the Biggest Loser already

Well, thank the programming goddesses above that ABC's airing two episodes of Better Off Ted tonight. It is indeed better to thrill to the antics of corporate shark Veronica (played to perfection by Portia De Rossi) than to watch two hours of the eminently depressing and dehumanizing The Biggest Loser.

O, the objections I have to that show! Where to begin, where to begin ... I'll just start with:

-- Treating the overweight contestants like circus sideshow freaks. In any reality TV competition, the competitors are already reduced to easily-identifiable narrative types, but this show adds the extra filip of stressing how very abnormal these people are. Why, they're hardly people at all! So it's okay to stare and mutter about how, thank god, you're nothing like that.

-- Promoting unrealistic, unsustainable and unhealthy practices in a blind pursuit to drop the weight. Contestants often fast, willingly dehydrate themselves, and lose an unhealthy amount of weight weekly. As this article notes: "Medical professionals generally advise against losing more than about two pounds a week. Rapid weight loss can cause many medical problems, including a weakening of the heart muscle, irregular heartbeat and dangerous reductions in potassium and electrolytes." TBL contestants routinely clock double-digit weight reductions each week.

-- Shrugging off those unrealistic, unsustainable and unhealthy practices as something the contestants are doing to themselves because "it's reality TV."

-- Perpetuating two weight-related myths: First up is the popular "fat equals unhealthy" with its unspoken corollary "therefore, thin equals healthy." The truth is, "healthy equals healthy," where "healthy" is defined by a broad variety of factors including blood pressure, resting heart rate, blood chemistry, mental and emotional states, etc. "Healthy" does not begin and end with a low body-fat percentage.

The second myth the show perpetuates is what Kate Harding so aptly pegs as "the fantasy of being thin." As she puts it:

[T]he Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has.

I recently watched Erik Chopin's "Confessions of a Reality Show Loser" on the Discovery Health channel (I know! They took out time from the "The uterus is a mystery chamber filled with surprises and drama!" programming!) and the fantasy of being thin was in full evidence. The erstwhile season three winner was within a few pounds of his pre-reality show weight, and he cited his weight (re)gain as the cause for everything from his strained marriage to his career woes to his self-esteem troubles. And he actually said, more than once, that the problems would go away once the weight did (again).

The fantasy is pernicious, because it disempowers people at their current weight and it leaves them unable to comprehend that their problems will still be there when the weight is gone.

-- Leaving its contestants unequipped to handle responsible health maintenance after the show. Reading this account of Kai Hibbard's post-show life was pitiable:

When she got pregnant, the power of her hunger petrified her. She would eat, and then run hard.

The doctor told her to tone down her workouts but she kept them up, and that caused bleeding. Soon she was confined to bed.

How is being afraid of your gestation-induced appetite, and exercising so much you're endangering your health supposed to be "healthy"? If this is the legacy the show leaves with its competitors, it's only preparing them for a lifelong struggle with the fantasy of being thin.

So why is this a feminist issue if TBL showcases male and female contestants? Because an estimated 72% of TBL's audience is female, and of those female viewers, three-quarters are ages 18-54. Because this show and its attendant empire of products are all aimed at women shoppers. Because this show underlines and reinforces the pernicious pseudofitness philosophy put forth in women's service magazines.

I love me some celebration of human potential made manifest through physical activity. I do! But you're not going to find that on TBL. I'll be back Thursday to tell you where you can look for it instead. Stay tuned ...

by Lisa Schmeiser
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5 Comments Have Been Posted


There's vomiting and dehydration in the show? I'm so glad I don't watch it. Somehow, I always suspected it wasn't a paragon of high-quality television programming.

It's not that bad of a show

I'm not a super fan of the show. I like to watch it when there is nothing else on, but it's not that bad of a show. I don't think they necessarily take the best approach to weightloss, but they are still teaching the contestants, as well as the viewers about how to live a healthy lifestyle. How to workout, how to eat healthier, how to eat healthy while dining out.

I dont' agree with how they break down the contestants, but with alot of them, they weigh over 400lbs. In those cases, they may need to be broken down, just to realize that they are killing themselves.

I don't know. I'm certainly not a health or weightloss expert, but I can see pro's and con's of the show. I think it's better to work off the weight, while learning about a healthier lifestyle, than go and get a surgery or lipo.

That's my two cents.

I like that you mentioned

I like that you mentioned the "circus sideshow freaks" aspect of TBL. I feel the same way about the obesity shows on TLC. A kinder, saner show is X-Weighted. It's Canadian, and it helps people make better decisions, it's not about shock value. Usually there's a fitness expert, nutritionist, and therapist involved. There's no competition, and people get to stay in their own homes. Sometimes people lose weight, but sometimes they don't, just like real life.

Fat Myth

I agree with everything you've said here except for the part about fat = unhealthy being a myth. It's true that being somewhat overweight doesn't necessarily equal ill health in all cases, and it's definitely true that being thin doesn't, on its own, always (or even usually) mean one is healthy. However, the people on this show, well, there can't be any denying that the amount of extra fat they're carrying is unhealthy. Weighing 300 or 400 or 500 pounds puts extreme stress on your heart and other organs, not to mention your bones and muscles. Of course you're right that how you go about losing it can also be harmful, but that doesn't negate the fact that the fat in these cases does equal unhealthy.

The Biggest Loser is such a

The Biggest Loser is such a terrible influence on viewers. It promotes the idea that you can and should lose weight in an incredibly short amount of time when in reality, this is a very dangerous practice that can lead to major health issues. The show should instead promote healthy eating and a manageable workout schedule that would work for each individual contestant. The show tells women that they need to work themselves half to death and vomit in order for a workout to be effective. There are serious problems with this show and it needs to be revised.

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