The Biggest Losers are the Viewers (March 16, 2013)

Either click here or keep reading for March 16th’s piece on the dangers and shock value of NBC’s hit show The Biggest Loser.

The Biggest Losers are the Viewers

If you’ve not seen NBC’s weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser, you’re in something of a minority. On the air for almost a decade, the show has been in 27 countries (such as Biggest Loser Latvia and Biggest Loser Brunei), and boasts ratings larger than contestants’ waistlines.

You can practically decorate your house with the number of Biggest Loser line extensions out there: DVDs, video games, scales, books, workout gear, diet supplements, and women’s shapewear, just to name a few. You name it, they sell it — and likely make a pretty penny on it.

Back to the show. The premise is a fairly simple one. Obese contestants compete with each other to lose weight. Whoever loses the biggest percentage of their original body weight wins the show and $250,000.

Fine, in premise. Not so fine in practice.

The face of the show, so to speak, is personal trainer Jillian Michaels. Usually, contestants struggle through various kinds of difficult (and sometimes bizarre) exercise while Ms. Michaels screams at them. This year, the show added the new element of featuring obese children as well.

In my view, The Biggest Loser is a modern-day trip to the circus. Instead of a bearded lady, we’re looking at overweight nine-year-olds. It’s voyeuristic and vile. It fetishizes obesity, and we’re eating it up.

Childhood obesity is a problem, no doubt. Children are fragile, both physically and mentally. They shouldn’t be made to exercise like adults, and they surely shouldn’t be doing it for our gawking pleasure on television.

There is no excuse for the kind of bullying seen on this show. What is the message here? That it is OK to yell at people, humiliate people, and scold people, just as long as they’re fat? It reinforces the kind of behaviour that I encountered as an obese child, and that is so problematic in our society. Bullying is not acceptable, period — especially when it is on national TV.

Contestants on the show work out for a minimum of four hours a day, while on a very restrictive diet. Sixty-eight percent of Americans are either overweight or obese, while 62% of Canadians are either overweight or obese. Do we really want to send the message that it takes extreme amounts of daily exercise to lose weight? That it is this hard? The message is damaging beyond belief. It either discourages people from ever trying to lose weight, or it sets up an impossible goal that they inevitably abandon.

We see a lot of before-and-after photos on this show, and I certainly don’t dispute that contestants lose weight. But for how long? Are they honestly keeping up this extreme lifestyle? I’ve always maintained that the single most important feature of a diet and exercise program is that it has to be realistic. It doesn’t matter how devoted to the idea of a no-carb-ever diet you are — if you love pasta more than anything else, you are going to fall off that wagon. And when you do, you’re going to fall into an enormous plate of cheesey nachos, and give up all hope of losing weight. It doesn’t have to be this way, and we shouldn’t be telling people that it has to be this way.

This year, the show has added new elements. Losing teams are locked in a room full of junk food for four and a half hours a day. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s like a weight-loss show and a BDSM relationship had a baby, and that baby is The Biggest Loser. It’s perverse, and we’re watching it.

As I’ve already mentioned, contestants on the show exercise for at least four hours a day. Why? Not only is it impractical and impossible to maintain in the long-term, it actually isn’t physically productive. These people aren’t Michael Phelps, they aren’t training for elite athletic events. No sensible trainer (or doctor, for that matter) would recommend such a course of action.

So why the focus on extreme exercise? Because it makes for good TV. It is shock value through and through. It makes the contestants yell, cry, and fall. We, apparently, having something of a cultural obsession with this. Just google ‘fat guy falling’, and you’ll see what I mean.

Simply walking on the treadmill would do obese contestants a world of good — both mentally and physically. They don’t have to be brought to tears to burn calories.

All of this under the guise of promoting health. There is nothing healthy about bullying and unrealistic, damaging, and simply incorrect messages. There is nothing healthy about this “all or nothing” approach to diet and exercise. There is nothing healthy about tormenting yourself in order to lose weight — trust me, I know.

There are heavy people out there who think they need this. They feel that the only way for them to lose weight is in an extended “bootcamp” form, and I acknowledge that. Fine. If each and every one of the contestants feels that this is their only hope, I certainly feel for them. But for the rest of us, the only lesson we learn from The Biggest Loser is that it is OK to yell at fat people. It certainly is not the cultural solution to obesity for which we’ve been searching.

Sadly, the only people really losing are those watching this show. Turn off your TV, go for a walk, and stop listening to Jillian Michaels.

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