The internet (and my local Y.M.C.A. for that matter) are abuzz about the latest The Biggest Loser finale. The show bestows $250,000 on the person who loses the highest percentage of their starting body weight. This year’s winner wasn’t the guy who lost 222 lbs. (!). No, the winner outdid that incredible feat by going from 260 down to 105 (in 5 months). Twitter blew up with cries of #anorexia and #scaryskinny. Of course, 5 months earlier those same twitterers would have been hurling other #insults.
I usually throw the show on while I wash dishes and clean my kitchen at night for the same reasons as anyone else – I can half pay attention and still know what’s going on and I’m a sucker for a good transformation.
Before last night, I didn’t know much about Rachel (the winner) other than she was a type-A competitive type. She was always intent on winning the physical challenges and usually did. The finale was on late, so I was in bed relaxing catching up on emails with the show on in the background. I looked up for her big reveal and gasped. The problems with The Biggest Loser that always gnawed at me suddenly became crystal clear.
It wasn’t Rachel’s new-found tininess or the number on the scale alone that worried me – those just corroborated what I saw in her eyes. I am not a doctor, a psychologist or anyone in any kind of position to bestow a diagnosis on her, but something doesn’t feel right about her situation. The internet is virtually yelling at her for “going too far.” But she just did what she was told to do – lose as much weight as you possibly can in 5 months. Heck, she did it better than anyone before her! And that is the problem with this show.
The thing that the audience loves about The Biggest Loser is the transformations. The transformations from fat to fit, from sedentary to athletic, from hopeless to hopeful. Those transformations are great. But the show doesn’t reward the fittest, the most athletic or the biggest transformation in outlook on life – the show rewards numbers on a scale.
An environment that encourages working out 2-5 hours while eating a scant 1,000-1,200 calories per day all while imploring contestants to lose as much weight as humanly possible in a week (double digit weight loss in one week is not uncommon on the show) and bestows a huge cash prize on the person who does all these things the best is begging to give someone anorexia, bulimia or an exercise addiction (or all three). One former contestant has come out and said the show gave her anorexia and bulimia – in fact, encouraged it. She said the show insisted contestants forgo electrolyte replacement drinks because they caused water retention. We could read that another way: dehydration is great for weight loss!
The thing that the audience (guilty) loves about The Biggest Loser is the transformations. The transformations from fat to fit, from sedentary to athletic, from hopeless to hopeful. Those transformations are great. But the show doesn’t reward the fittest, the most athletic or the biggest transformation in outlook on life – the show rewards numbers on a scale. These numbers are the problem with this show. These numbers do not correspond with the metrics that signify health, happiness or enthusiasm for life. You know who looked like she embodied all these metrics? That body builder lady that lost 27% of her body weight. She was still well over 200 lbs. but she looked happy, fit and like she was having the time of her life. Was she a winner in the eyes of the show? No. She was one of the worst performers on the scale.
And as we competitive runners know all too well, focusing on a number can lead to fixation and fixation can lead to disordered behavior. When we runners get overly obsessed on mileage and pace targets we often end up overtrained. Have you or someone you know ever obsessed about getting in mileage or certain workouts to the detriment of her performance, overall health or sanity? I know I have and a lot of runners I know have. If Rachel developed an eating or exercise disorder because of her experience on the show, it’s easy to see how. I can’t help but wonder if that would happen to me if I was in that environment with those kinds of incentives and directives.
I realize it’s trite, but the problem with The Biggest Loser is the focus on an arbitrary number as a proxy for what we all really want – health and happiness. When a contestant focuses on that number to the expense of that health and happiness in an obvious way (it’s definitely already happened less obviously) then the show is doomed, because the secret is out. The show is not about health and happiness, it’s about incredible ratings-bait numbers on a scale. It’s about getting viewers to think they too can lose tons of weight if they workout with those trainers on their t.v. sets or eat the (usually crappy) diet food pitched on the show.
For Rachel, who surely is a talented athlete as demonstrated by her athletic dominance on the show, I was hoping she’d discover an athletic passion and devote herself to excellence in that arena. Focusing on kicking ass in multisport, swimming, running or some other sport would surely lead to the fitness Biggest Loser contestants (and presumably much of the show’s audience) aspires to. When our focus is performance, we tend to fuel our body with healthier food and moderate our exercise to avoid injury and overtraining. When optimal performance is the goal, relative optimal body composition tends to follow. If Rachel, instead, focused solely on the number on the scale then she at best missed that mark and at worst ended up sick.
It will surely be interesting to see what happens to the show now. Will they parade their winner around for interviews? If she is struggling with an ED will she be allowed to talk about it? Time will tell, but I have a feeling history will not look kindly on this show.
What do you think about The Biggest Loser?
✰ For more Salty posts about eating disorders go here. ✰
✰ If you suspect a friend is suffering from an eating disorder go here. ✰