The Biggest Loser Backfires

The Biggest Loser is a TV reality show on which people who really do weigh a lot more than is healthy compete to lose weight. They do this on teams. There are various challenges. There are charismatic trainers. And, of course, because it is a TV reality show, individuals can get tossed off the show either because of poor performance (not losing enough weight) or by getting voted off.

An interesting and entirely inappropriate trend has developed on this show.

Individuals decide that they should leave the show while others must stay. They accomplish this by gaining, rather than losing, pounds. The show is about brave people in an uphill battle doing amazing things, except for when the strategy dictated by the rules of the show lead individuals to gain weight on a show about losing weight, add fat in a contest to lose fat, do something unhealthy on a show about being more healthy. Older contestants say the youngsters are like their children, and thus are willing to sacrifice themselves by adding fat. Sometimes it is actual parents giving up their own position on the show for their actual children. Two twins tried to save each other’s place on the show (both failed successfully, somehow). At some point, it became a matter of guilt. If you did not go along with some plan to save one or more other contestant by putting weight on rather than taking it off, then you were a bad person.

I call bullshit at two levels. First, on the individual level, this should be rather obvious. There are a lot of reasons a person is two or three hundred pounds over their “healthy” weight, but one of them is liking to eat pie a lot more than liking to get some exercise. (I oversimplify.1) There are other reasons, but that is one of them. I’m sorry, but when I see a bunch of people who for thirty years have preferred pie over running and doing jumping jacks competing with each other to see who gets to NOT lose weight in a given week to “save” the others, I’m thinking …. well, I won’t say it because someone will likely get mad at me. So I’m not going to say it. You already know what I’m thinking.

Second, there is the level of the game itself, the show, and their rules. This show … The Biggest Loser … is about saving people’s lives. People who are morbidly obese (or, as a TV news caster once said “morbidly overbese”) may need to lose dozens and dozens of pounds to save their own lives. “Eliminating” people from a game like this is not just a matter of drama or show. It is a matter of health. It may even be a matter of life and death. But, I’m sure the marketing drones at the network that puts this show on insist on elimination because of some survey they’ve done.

That whole situation may change the first time a “Biggest Loser” loser, a person voted off or sent home by the rules, dies of a heart attack. Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet. Well, I think they should change the rules first. Stop voting people off. Just make losing more weight a very very desirable goal. Like everybody gets a car. A small car (more incentive!).

Writing this blog post was a lot of work. I feel weak. I think I need a piece of pie.2

____________________
1And when I say I “oversimplify” I’m trying to give you a pointer to the fact that the problems people who end up weighing two or three hundred pounds or more than they probably should are not about liking pie. See comments below in which people scream at me. They make important points.

2Disarming reference to my own inadequacy.

Comments

  1. #1 Anonymous
    February 22, 2011

    ‘Biggest Loser’ trainer Jillian Michaels sued over weight loss supplement pills

    http://www.nydailynews.com/lifestyle/health/2010/02/11/2010-02-11_biggest_loser_trainer_jillian_michaels_sued_over_weight_loss_supplement_pills.html

    This is not the first lawsuit, only the most recent.

  2. #2 Albatross
    February 22, 2011

    While I’m not going to argue the merits of any reality TV show, I will say that what you don’t know about the topic of compulsive or emotional eating would fill all the books about that topic.

    People like me, 50 lbs overweight, maybe I’m like this because I like to “eat pie.” But people who are 400, 500 lbs., the people on that show, they aren’t on there because they “like to eat pie.”

    Most of them are on there because they have powerful emotional issues that they are suppressing through eating.

    The show does a dreadful job of dealing with such things, and does a disservice to both its participants and the public by not making emotional healing the primary element (even beyond exercise and diet) in treating these overweight people.

    But almost worse is mocking such folks as “liking pie.” These people will never overcome their weight issues without emotional help. They are merely the opposite of anorexics, with the same eventual outcome.

    I’m married to a woman who could be on that show. She has struggled with her weight her entire life, ever since her bitch of a mother started projecting her own shame onto my wife when she was only a child. Her healing has involved thousands of hours of ongoing therapy, cutting all ties with her family, constant exercise, and lots of meditative and reflective emotional work. Advances in one area result in setbacks in another, the pride of a success is followed by panic attacks as the complex system of emotion attempts to compensate.

    She’s a brilliant woman, she’s working hard on this, she has every advantage I can provide for her, and still progress is glacially slow. I watch these people on The Biggest Loser, I see the horrible (or just mundane) backgrounds from which they emerge, and I despair for them ever finding their way out of the maze of compulsive eating.

    My wife isn’t obese because she ‘likes pie.’ She’s obese because of years of neglect and abuse by the people who should have been nurturing her. She’s working hard, with integrity, to heal. I credit the participants on this program with doing THEIR best as well, struggling to heal their own souls using whatever meager or plentiful resources they have at hand.

    They deserve respect, whatever their choices, because they’re at least trying. The show? Yeah, whatever, it’s a fucked up reality show, fine, who cares. But don’t dump your ignorant judgment on its participants, however hapless. What harm did they ever do you?

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    February 22, 2011

    Oh boy. Somebody with issues has discovered the Internet.

  4. #4 Anonymous
    February 22, 2011

    Albatross, isn’t it obvious that “eating pie” is a euphemism? Have you ever considered taking yourself and your problems a little less seriously? Is it really healthy to blame everyone else for your stupid problems?

  5. #5 Susan
    February 22, 2011

    I have seen the same thing and had nearly the same thought. This is not about wanting a piece of pie exactly but it is about looking for a way out. (From what is admittedly a very difficult thing.) Many people in that situation are probably very used to planned failure. The show gives them one more chance to fail in this way. I agree, there should not be a voting off stage or a “red line.” Maybe, if you gain weight two weeks in a row you’re out, or something along those lines.

  6. #6 Webs
    February 22, 2011

    I think you both need to watch the show. I will say I felt the same, but actually the show covers those issues. Anyone voted off is brought back at the end to see who did the best outside the show. And so far in the current season everyone has lost weight.

    Also, not everyone gains weight to save someone. I will admit this is my first season, but that has only happened with two contestants. And one of them just didn’t want to be on the show anymore. Not everyone can handle it. But even that person lost a lot of weight outside the show.

    Also they do handle the emotional issues. Every episode I have watched this season has dealt with the emotional issues and in an important way.

    Anyway, it’s up to you if you like the show. I was skeptical too and I still think they should change the way they deal with people voted off. But overall I like what the show is doing.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    February 22, 2011

    I also like what the show is doing. And yes it is true that the ones who leave the show mostly have done great (the time shifting is a bit odd but showing this is important).

    And of course, what I’m criticizing here is the whole idea of dumping people off the show. It’s stupid, and it minimizes the importance of what they are doing by making it part of a game. Also, it goes against the idea that weekly weight loss is probably not the best way to lose weight over the long term.

    More than two people have damanged their own status, by the way. It has happened several times, and many more have stated that they are willing to do it (four or five made that statement this week).

    I say give everyone a car!

  8. #8 drew
    February 23, 2011

    The point is that individuals with enormous amounts of weight to lose are likened mentally to addicts with concurrent disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar etc).

    I’ll save you the physiology lesson of why gaining such a large amount of weight is about much more than a few extra calories each day.

    I enjoy this blog but it is unfortunate that there is major ignorance shinning through this post. It simply isn’t expected from the intelligence level of this blog.

    The quip comments from the writer and an anonymous poster have thrown fuel on the fire. It is too bad that you couldn’t read the well written comment by Albatross and feel some sense of right or wrong. After all, we are the moral animal.

    Greg – you have been duped into believing the general misconceptions of obesity. I expected more from you.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    February 23, 2011

    Drew, this isn’t about obesity. This is about game shows, and how human strategize, and how the vote-off-the-island style “reality show” in exploiting that has backfired into cultivating an unhealthy strategy in people who are trying to be healthy, and in particular, the very people who are on the edge of failing and most despareately in need of not failing.

    I appreciate the comments both you and Albatross have made, though I’m sure you would do a lot better simply making your point rather than breathlessly accusing me of being a moron. I’ve adapted the text to make the euphemistic nature of pie (and pie is always euphemistic) so clear even a person who is perhaps oversensitive to the topic could not fail to miss that, and to direct readers to the very important and valuable points you and Albatross have made. I quickly add that substituting “pie” for “emotional issues” is rather insubstantial. Instead of doing that, tell us more.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    February 23, 2011

    … and either one of you is more than welcome to contribute a guest post on the topic.

  11. #11 Rick Pikul
    February 23, 2011

    It seems to me that if you’re going to do a ‘kick them off’ reality show about losing weight, you should do it like most of the “Worst Driver” shows:

    You don’t want to be the guy still around at the end of the show, it’s the one who is doing the best that gets to leave.

  12. #12 Scarface
    February 23, 2011

    So you are saying the people who “sacrifice” themselves for others by adding weight so they get kicked off the diet show are being less than honest with their motivations, or at least, are mixed. I thought the same thing. On Surviver and other shows there are those who obviously get kicked off on purpose and later we learn that is what happened verifying it. On the diet show there is way more of that or the people who make the chow have chosen to highlight or even enhance it.

  13. #13 Albatross
    February 23, 2011

    I didn’t call you a moron, I called you ignorant. One can be cured, the other cannot.

  14. #14 Timberwoof
    February 23, 2011

    I have two problems with this particular so-called-reality show. Only one person can be the winner and it has elements of a zero-sum game. IMHO the US is too focused on the One Winner. Only #1 counts; anything else is not worth remembering. Only the person who lost the most weight is important; anyone else who attempts but fails is tossed aside. Worse yet, given the behavior of some contestants, it seems as though the amount of weight lost has been limited, and some must gain unhealthy weight so others may lose it. Madness!

    The nation is not in a race to see who lose the most weight; it ought to be in one to encourage everyone to attain a healthy weight. Of course, this is not about losing weight, it’s about making good television—defined as how many viewers the producers can sell to the advertisers. Who wants to watch a program about a fat farm where people get up early in the morning, forget breakfast, hitch up the oxen and drag a plow across some dirt so maybe they can eat next fall?

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    February 23, 2011

    Albatros: I didn’t call you a moron, I called you ignorant. One can be cured, the other cannot.

    What? You’re not going to tell me which one can be cured? Crap.

  16. #16 Gray Falcon
    February 23, 2011

    @Timberwoof

    Don’t you realize? There’s only so much weight loss to go around, just as there’s a finite amount of marriage, religious tolerance, and kindness?

    Sorry, should probably keep the political statements out of this, but it’s still the same attitude, it seems.

  17. #17 David
    February 23, 2011

    Actually this is the first reality show which I would disagree is first place or nothing. Throughout the show the various competitors are extremely supportive of each other. Watching the previous season, I was actually surprised just how much this was the case. In fact, half way through last season, I watched two contestants throw a race so that the 3rd place person would win a car, since he actually needed the car far more than either of them did. It was really a breath of fresh air in reality TV.

    Beyond that, if you don’t have a game (send people home), then you don’t have a show (unless you think watching a dozen obese people being driven by trainers is going to draw an audience; pretty sure it won’t), and nobody gets helped. Do the people who get voted off lose as much weight as they would if they stayed? Probably not (though as Webs pointed out, they do continue to follow the weight loss of those at home), but they certainly lose more than if they weren’t on the show at all. And even the people who gained this season for the sake of the game ended up losing 70+ pounds between their time on the show and the final post show weigh in.

    The two brothers who intentionally gained weight to leave the show:
    Don – started at 309; left the show at 286; post show weight 222
    Dan – started at 287; left the show at 272; post show weight 215

    So clearly it is doing good in getting the individuals who make it onto the show to lose weight, even after they leave.

  18. #18 quietmarc
    February 24, 2011

    I agree that there are some…interesting?…moral questions on a show like this. From my understanding, though, contestants who are eliminated still get some form of support while they are at home (I haven’t checked, but I think they get personal trainers, gym access, and some support with meal planning and nutrition beyond what we see televised), and they are still in contention for a prize awarded to the person who loses the biggest percentage of weight at home.

    What I find interesting is how flexible this game-style actually is, depending on the context that’s built around it. Survivor is cut-throat and encourages deceit, dirty-tricks, etc, but on Biggest Loser the producers have, in some ways, discouraged that aspect of it. Players seem to have more motivation to work as a team, and season-to-season there’s often a culture that promotes honesty and “good play”.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    March 22, 2011

    Q. E. D.

    Or, as they say in Arabic and/or KiSwahili: “Basi!”

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