The Biggest Loser

When I first heard that NBC had created a reality show about weight loss I cringed, and something tells me I wasn’t the only one. Reality shows (the ones on network TV, that is) strike me as being inherently degrading to begin with. But inviting America to watch (and snigger at) a group of obese people compete over a profoundly difficult, highly personal issue is far more disturbing to me than gathering a bunch of gold-diggers and dangling a pretty “millionaire” in front of them. I had the same initial response to “The Swan,” and managed to steer clear of that one completely. From the looks of the terrifying Stepford-drones in People magazine, I’m glad I did—I would’ve had a hard time not putting my foot through the television.

The Biggest Loser,” though, resonated a little too closely for me. Losing 100 pounds was the hardest thing I ever did, and keeping most of it off for the last six (or is it seven?) years has been a never-ending challenge. I think about it every day: what I’m eating, what I want to eat but won’t, what I did eat and wish I hadn’t, how much exercise I did (or didn’t do) today. When they tell you at Weight Watchers that it’s not a diet, it’s a way of life, they really mean it—without that kind of vigilance I am absolutely certain I would’ve gained back every ounce and then some within the first year. But the thing is, it’s worth it to live like this. I’m healthy, I’m happy, and I like who I am. For many, many years, none of those things were true. But I digress…

I did stay away from “TBL” the first week, but this past Tuesday S was out of town and I was in front of the TV at the right time and, well, I succumbed. It was worse than I could’ve imagined: cruel, misleading, and downright scary. In case you missed it—it’s a freakin’ elimination show! This isn’t about helping desperate people to regain some control over their bodies. It’s about strategy and who can lose the most weight the fastest so they won’t be sent home.

Every week we watch two teams of fatties exercise—hard—for what looks like hours each day, which in itself can’t be healthy. I mean, how can a 300-pound person go from a sedentary existence to working out six hours a day, every day without risking cardiac arrest (or at the very least a blown knee)? Each team has its own extremely fit trainer, who is also in charge of their diet plans. In the interest of educating the masses through contrast, no doubt, the producers selected a bitch-on-wheels drill sergeant of a woman trainer for the Red team, and a touchy-feely nice guy trainer for the Blue. She feeds her team as little as possible and works them until they drop. He gives his group six small meals a day and talks a lot about not wanting to push them past their limits, which sounds nice—but it still looks like they’re in the gym several hours a day, every day. We never see them actually teaching their teams anything about metabolism or how to make the right food choices. We never hear them offering encouragement beyond “give me another five!” And after the excruciating weigh-in (more on that below), we never hear them offering a viable explanation as to why these poor suckers got the results they did.

One of the crueler aspects of the show, and there are many, is the taunting. No, they’re not calling them “tub-o-lard” or anything—they’re forcing the contestants to work with and live with all the comfort foods they’ve been told to resist. For lunch one day the producers threw the famished contestants in front of a lavish BBQ spread. There were salads and chicken, yes, but there were also mashed potatoes and brisket. Their point was that this is the real world and you have to learn to make choices, but in MY real world I never went near any of that stuff while I was losing weight. You don’t have to sit at a table overflowing with it if you don’t want to, in the real world. Hearing one woman’s pathetic, wobbly swoon over those mashed potatoes made my heart ache. Oh, and the weekly competition, which gives the winning team an advantage in the weigh-in? A bake sale. Eleven people, all of whom would probably kill for a single cookie, had to bake as many goodies as they could and then hawk them at Universal Studios. I cannot imagine how degrading that must’ve been for them. It’s bad enough being a lone fat person in this world—not fitting into subway seats, getting worried looks on elevators—but being one of a group of fatties in matching t-shirts, shouting at passersby to come buy your brownies? I shudder just thinking about it.

By far the most damaging element of the show, though, is the weigh-in. About halfway through the episode, both teams assembled to be weighed on national television. The team who lost the least total pounds had to send one contestant home. We’re talking straight pounds here, not percentage of body fat lost, not BMI, just pounds—which anyone who’s ever lost a serious amount of weight can tell you is the most meaningless measure there is. One at a time they climbed onto a huge platform scale. A giant LED display clicked through assorted weights like a computerized roulette wheel, some above that person’s previous weight, some below. Breaths were held until the number finally settled, with lots of fast edits to amp the tension. Apparently the week before they’d lost something approaching 150 pounds all together, with some of the men losing more than 20 pounds in just one week (itself a scary and unhealthy fact, which went unacknowledged—everyone seemed to be expecting to replicate that loss). This week: a total loss of 16 pounds. One guy gained three pounds and dissolved into tears while still on the scale. By then I was so frustrated at the whole proceeding I was shouting at the television. OF COURSE they lost almost nothing! This whole plan is absurd! They’re not being taught to live well or wisely; they’re being manipulated in front of millions.

I don’t even want to get started on the inescapable gender issues raised by the whole thing: it’s virtually impossible for a woman to win the competition, simply because a) women lose weight slower then men, which means that both weeks so far the slimmest women have been expelled; and b) the producers managed to snare some truly behemoth-sized men, while the largest woman weighs less than I used to. When you’re playing a numbers game like this, the results are practically predetermined. A guy will win. It’s only a question of which guy.

Gosh, I’m glad I got that off my chest. And for all my grandstanding, I have a confession to make: I’ve already got my Tivo set up to record the whole series.

For more thoughts on “The Biggest Loser,” click here and here.