fitness · weight stigma

Fervent hope for 2021: that “The Biggest Loser” won’t be renewed for a 19th season

CONTENT WARNING: this post is about critiques of the reality show “The Biggest Loser”, thanks to the podcast Maintenance Phase, a fat-positive and evidence-based show debunking junk science and myths about health and wellness fads. Their critiques include information about weight loss, extreme exercise, extreme eating restriction, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and mental health that may trigger or traumatize some people. For those who want to read this post, it is in service of reminding us that fat phobia and all its harmful sequelae are still out there, but so are we. Maybe 2021 will be the year to go full-force against such toxic media. Hence the hope.

Now to the post.

One of the horrors of 2020 that you may have missed (which is kind of a blessing) was the reboot of the horror reality show, The Biggest Loser (henceforth called TBL). For those of us who prudently turned away from this abomination, there are articles to provide background and critique of the show.

The Biggest Loser is coming back– but should it?

Is the Biggest Loser even a little bit better?

‘It’s a miracle no one has died yet’: The Biggest Loser returns, despite critics’ warnings

However, if you don’t have the time or interest to wade through all that, podcasters Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon of Maintenance Phase offer up five things wrong with TBL. Of course there are one million and five things wrong with the show, but: their incisive and humorous analysis gives me hope that more people will turn their backs on TBL and on the social evils that support it.

Here’s their first one: TBL is wildly unrealistic. How so? Here are some reasons Mike and Audrey shared:

  1. the kinds of participants chosen for the show were fat people with emotional eating issues, who don’t exercise, and are extremely unhappy with their weight. But, fat people are like all people– some are happier, some less happy; some exercise more, some less; some are happy with their bodies, some less so. Like all the people.

2. The purported method of weight loss: go live in a big ranch house with strangers for months on end, and don’t do anything else. They point out that this method is not found in the medical literature. Good to know.

3. According to the show, the contestants lose an average of 16 pounds/7.25kg in the first week. This rate of supposed weight loss is also not documented in medical studies. Furthermore, Mike and Aubrey tell us that the “first week” is really more like 2–3 weeks, according the contestants. Even so, this is still an unhealthy and unrealistic body change for anyone.

Here’s reason number two: it’s fake and unethical. (that seems like two reasons, but I’m considering it a two-for-one reason).

Case in point: former contestant Kai Hibbard gave interviews about the many ways the producers of TBL would distort results, promote fast weight loss, and otherwise create an environment conducive to disordered eating behavior. Here’s more from this article:

… a runner-up said the show gave her an eating disorder, and seven years later, in a series of 2016 reports, The New York Post quoted contestants who said the show’s doctor and trainer told them to lie about how much they were eating; rigged the weight-ins; and even gave them illegal drugs.

Also, the show features super-processed foods in product placements; TBL has more product placements than any other TV show (533 in 2011).

Reason number three: it’s abusive (and horrible). The contestants are deliberatively portrayed in the most unfavorable way in before pictures, and dolled up to the max in the after pictures. That’s to be expected. But, some contestants have been damned and judged in both their before- and after-weights, some of which are dangerously low according the standard medical science. Further, contestants have reported being encouraged to smoke (to reduce appetite), or pressured to exercise while injured or ill. In the new “wellness” season of TBL, a woman injured her knee doing box jumps, and then is shown using a rowing machine with an ice pack on her knee. No. Just no.

Reason number four: the contestants gain all of the weight back, and suffer permanent harm to their resting metabolic rate. There was a study published here, which you can read about in Scientific American here. Or in the New York Times here. The upshot is that after drastic weight loss, contestants gained a lot of weight back and had a much reduced resting metabolic rate, which the researchers attribute to the drastic weight loss. And this harm isn’t reversible according to our current scientific knowledge.

Last reason, number five: TBL is toxic for everyone of all weights and sizes, blasting false and harmful and distorted messaging telling us: a) what sorts of bodies are the preferred ones; b) that we– the public– can get ourselves one of these preferred bodies; and c) how we can get ourselves one of those preferred bodies. It’s a load of lying lies from a pack of lying liars.

Two other things are worth noting here. First, TBL doesn’t focus on any nutritional information, or talk about cooking, or how to enjoy a greater variety of say, plant-based foods. Oh, no. In fact, the show spends most of its time pushing the contestants to do punishing and painful physical activities, and yelling at them when they are (rightly) tired or or not up to doing them.

For me (and I think for us at Fit is a Feminist Issue), this is (one of) the worst things about TBL: it depicts exercise as a punishment for being fat. And exercise is wholly constituted of activities like box jumps, running on a treadmill, or using a rowing machine indoors. Okay, those things are fine, but what about:

  • hiking
  • dancing
  • yoga
  • biking
  • swimming
  • badminton
  • throwing a damn frisbee around with the dog?

Mike and Aubrey make the point that there’s a whole world of fun physical activity, and TBL loser ignores it. Instead, it recreates “the fat kid’s experience of PE”. Great.

Now that I’ve put you all through the wringer of these five reasons why TBL is awful, what’s the positive takeaway?

I do have one. Here it is. The show debuted in fall 2004. It lasted until 2016. In 2020, they tried to resuscitate it and recast it as a wellness show. But it didn’t work– everyone from fitness experts to health columnists to reality show bloggers hated it. We now see it for what it is– a horrible example of our legacy of fat phobia and body insecurity. And those social maladies are not over.

But: no one is talking about how they’re hoping or even considering that TBL is coming back for another season. It’s 2021 y’all. We got no time for that crap.

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