On last night’s episode of NBC’s hit show “The Biggest Loser,” trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels were extremely disappointed in the terrible results their clients achieved the week before. “I want to see numbers on that scale that represent what Jillian and I are all about!” Bob exclaimed, yelling out into the gym, “I’m thinking I want to hurt someone I haven’t been able to hurt for a long time.” Contestants had trained at Camp Pendleton, the famed Marine training ground, and had mostly posted unacceptable weight loss of a pound or two for the week. In fact, three players gained weight for the week, unheard of in Biggest Loser history. It got Bob pissed, and it got us at the Center for Health, Media and Policy at Hunter College wondering: what the hell are they doing at that ranch? What goes on in their normal environment if a week at Camp Pendleton is like a week at the Cheesecake Factory? So we’re blogging The Biggest Loser this week and for the rest of the season to take a closer look, calling on experts from various health care professions to help us understand what this enormously popular and profitable expression of health issues is all about.
It’s a weird time to be a fat person in America. In an era when most of us strive to treat each other with sensitivity about a myriad of physical and cultural differences, overweight people, with their “self-created” problems, don’t rate much consideration. The fashion and entertainment industries are notorious for their plus-size unfriendly ways. Even against this background, the current cultural mood towards the heavy seems to be shifting into a harsher gear, seeing them increasingly as moral degenerates and a civic burden. The right predicted years ago that if cigarette smoking was culturally vilified, eventually twinkies would be too, and, for better or worse, they were right: NYC has banned trans fats and has floated taxing sugar-based drinks; many other municipalities are following suit. What was once a personal struggle to eat well has acquired new civic and moral weight. So, with our country agog about the obesity epidemic and its related health care costs, with Michelle Obama dedicating herself to helping all kids be as sleek and fit as Malia and Sasha, and with Mika Brzezinski smugly purring about her daily runs and abhorrence of carbs every morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, The Biggest Loser occupies a strange place in our current cultural landscape. With all due respect to the fat acceptance movement, most of us don’t dispute that being severely overweight is not healthy, but you have to wonder what’s going on when seven million people tune in weekly to cheer as the obese are pushed to exercise until they vomit or are hospitalized.
One of NBC’s top-rated shows (after football, of course), The Biggest Loser receives over 200,000 submissions from hopeful cast members and draws almost 7 million viewers per week, second only to ABC mega-hit “Dancing with The Stars” in its Tuesday time slot. Certainly the show enables obese people to lose hundreds of pounds that they almost certainly would never lose on their own. In a way, the show depicts a universal struggle shared by even those wearing sample sizes; grappling with that destructive and/or compulsive thing we all do that we wish we could change but can’t seem to. Champions of the show would say that The Biggest Loser’s real currency is hope. However, with its widely criticized extreme weight loss practices, and undercurrent of sadism and voyeurism (is it REALLY necessary to conduct semi-nude weigh-ins for 25 minutes?), the show trades heavily on our bedrock cultural revulsion at body fat (see the recent Marie Claire mishegas, par example), and becomes, at times, a parade of punishment instead of the beacon of hope supporters claim it is. It’s also massively profitable, with over $100 million dollars annually in merchandizing sales. If your sister-in-law in Boise or Brooklyn or rural Missouri wants to start a diet, chances are that you’ll find her with a Biggest Loser protein pack or Biggest Loser dessert cookbook or one of the other 50 items that Amazon stocks associated with the show. That doesn’t count the Home Shopping Network Biggest Loser Line. In America right now, The Biggest Loser IS weight loss.
Now in its tenth season and sixth year, The Biggest Loser has been exposed for its troubling practices, and promised to change, but it hasn’t. The New York Times wrote a chilling expose of the show a year ago: “On ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Health Can Take a Back Seat” (November 24, 2009) detailing how contestants urinate blood due to self-imposed dehydration before weigh-ins.
Most infuriatingly, the year-old New York Times piece quotes the show’s medical advisor, Dr. Rob Huizenga, of U.C.L.A., admitting to unsafe practices and promising to change them.
“‘If we had it to do over, we wouldn’t do it,’ Dr. Huizenga said of the recent one-mile race that resulted in hospitalizations. ‘It was an unexpected complication and we’re going to do better,’ he said, adding that ‘that challenge has changed a lot of the way we do things,’ including more closely monitoring contestants’ body temperatures during exercise.”
How did this season open? With some hopefuls doing that same one-mile race, while others stepped 500 steps. That one-mile race they “wouldn’t do over” resulted in an ambulance carting off Corey, from Portland, Oregon, who weighed 391 lbs when he tried to run that mile. In Boston, 30 year old Elizabeth, a Nurse Practitioner who started the show weighing 244 lbs, collapsed on the stepper and required oxygen. She was personally selected for the competition by trainer Jillian Michaels, deeply impressed that Elizabeth had pushed herself to work out until her body shut down. Elizabeth is still on the show, and collapsed again last week at Camp Pendleton, becoming unconscious and her eyes rolling back in her head as the cameras rolled. She also posted a disappointing weight gain of one pound last week. But Elizabeth is lucky to still be on the show.
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Tristin Aaron is a communications specialist and media trainer who started her career as a punk rocker at the Bay Area record label Lookout!. She was co-organizer of and presenter at the original Ladyfest and is now the Director of Communications for the Center for Health, Media and Policy at Hunter College. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son, dog and cat in a 700 square foot apartment with no washer/dryer, harumph.