You may recall a rant of mine, in the early days of Words to Eat By, about NBC’s reality show “The Biggest Loser.” I called it cruel, misleading, and downright scary. I also confessed that I had my DVR all set up to record the entire series. There’s no denying it—they concocted one hell of an addictive show for those of us with weight issues. Each week I’ve sat with my remote control, fast-forwarding through much of the sappy “confession-cam” stuff, and paying attention to the workouts, the challenges, the weigh-ins, and the eliminations. And each week something has made me cringe, either the sometimes mean-spirited nature of the challenges, or the annoying suspense-building editing, or the naively hopeful proclamations of some of the contestants. But here’s the thing: as the weeks progressed, I found myself cringing less and less. The people who remained were beginning to remind me an awful lot of me, after I’d lost the first fifty pounds. They were taking on a glow, a sheen of excitement, an attractiveness inspired by newfound confidence. These people were changing their lives.
And best of all, the show began to change with them. A few weeks ago they adjusted the rules to reflect the smaller number of remaining contestants. Instead of basing the eliminations on pure poundage lost, the deciding factor became percentage of total body weight lost. At first I thought this was equally unreliable, but in fact it has turned out to be pretty accurate as far as rankings go. The guy who’s lost the most—a whopping 90 pounds—is in first place, and in last place is the fattest guy. He’s lost roughly the same amount as two other finalists, but because they weigh barely half as much as he does, his percentage is puny and theirs is substantial. This week he got sent home, which is exactly as it should be. They don’t show what he’s eating, or how much, but I can only assume he’s not trying as hard as the rest. His physical size prevents him from working out as hard as his challengers, but someone of his size should lose larger amounts, faster, just by dint of being very obese, and male.
But my biggest beef with the way this reality show has operated is that it’s entirely removed from reality, really. A bunch of fat people were locked up together in a giant house, away from their families (not even phone calls were permitted), away from their jobs, away from the temptation of the drive-through or the colleague who brings in home-baked cookies or the leftover pasta from last night’s dinner. A 24-hour gym was at their disposal just steps from the front door, and a pair of trainers were assigned to work with them for hours each day. That is NOT reality. But this week, in a surprise twist, the producers redeemed themselves. They sent the three finalists home. Two men and one woman were instructed to continue on their own for a few months, I assume with occasional video cameras trailing them around, and then return for the live finale next week. When the host announced this new development, I actually applauded my television set. What happened after they got home is reality.
Back when the show premiered, I predicted blithely that a man would win, no question. Now that the rules have shifted, I’m no longer so sure that’s true. At this point, it’s the same as any other weight-loss program. It’s about commitment, and not giving up. It’s about who really, really wants it. My money’s on the girl.