After a brief hiatus, NBC premiered the latest season of The Biggest Loser on January 4. The Biggest Loser is part of the crop of competitive reality television show we’re familiar with. Like Survivor or the Amazing Race, the Biggest Loser features contestants completing challenges to evade elimination and earn a significant cash prize. On this particular show, contestants drop pounds in an effort to win $250,000 and be coined the biggest loser.
But justified criticism bombards the Biggest Loser every season because it is televisual fat shaming on the most extreme level.
On the surface, everything is different on this season of the Biggest Loser. Personal trainer Bob Harper is the new host. There’s a new house, a new state-of-the-art gym, new scales, new trainers, and new contestants desperate to lose weight. All of the contestants offer reasonable explanations for wanting to lose weight. They want to be healthier. They want to set a better example for their children. They want to avoid chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. Change is the theme of this season, according to Harper. Yet, the Biggest Loser hasn’t changed much. It’s a show that exploits the desires of thin people by placing them in embarrassing challenges.
Fat people, literally, become entertainment for the millions tuned in week after week. A lot of Twitter users joked about eating snacks while watching the show. While the contestants starve themselves and exercise excessively, the audience eats cake and ice cream. Its cruel taunting that derides people of size.
One of the biggest criticisms directed toward The Biggest Loser is it paints fat people are those in need of fixing. On the first episode, Harper said that fatness “all comes down to temptation and bad choices.” As usual, he and the trainers offered empty catchphrases that become Instagram captions, but he has to know that being fat is more than a choice. By reducing obesity to temptation and bad choices, Harper is ignoring how real factors, like poverty, food deserts, and the lack of affordable healthier food, contribute to weight gain. It is difficult to lose weight when there aren’t affordable resources available to do so.
In itself, being overweight is not a death sentence. It’s the way we’re socialized to see fat people – as lazy and incapable – that causes discomfort and a desperate need to lose weight. Doctors treat fat instead of people. So, the Biggest Loser tells contestants that eating less than 1,000 calories and exercising for hours is the key to being thin. Going to the extreme is part of that. The Guardian finds that “the contestants are pushed to do daily workouts that are approximately 10 times the amount that is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. The fact that vomit buckets are always nearby, and regularly used, is telling.
We literally see contestants shedding tears as they walk and run on a treadmill on the first episode of the season. Your body must be trained to run on the treadmill. Yet, these Biggest Losers competitors are put on a treadmill and forced to exercise, even if their lungs and bodies don’t have the capacity to complete the tasks. They aren’t even taught how to breathe properly while on the treadmill.
Harley Pasternak, a Los Angeles-based celebrity trainer, was hired as a trainer on the show in 2004. He quit the Biggest Loser before the first season aired. “These entertaining scenarios make for great television, but it’s not for someone who is concerned with making people healthy,” Pasternak told the Guardian.
And it’s not just trainers who take issue with the show, it’s also the contestants themselves. Kai Hibbard, the winner of season three of the Biggest Loser, told the Guardian that participating on the show “was the biggest mistake of my life.”
“In my season there was a woman named Heather who was made to look like a combative, lazy bitch,” Hibbard told the Guardian. “But in actuality, she had a torn calf muscle and had developed bursitis in both knees. When she refused to run, they edited it to make her look lazy.”
Harper attempted similar tactics on last night’s episode when he began offering contestants significant sums of money to get off the treadmill and go home. He offered $5,000. Then, he offered $20,000. Then, he offered $25,000. He told the contestants they’re worth more than $25,000 and “you can’t buy thin.” Except you absolutely can. Access to monetary wealth increases access to healthier foods. And many people invest huge sums of money in waist trainers surgery to make their bodies more acceptable.
Again, the Biggest Loser breaks fat people down and then fails to build them up. Both of the new trainers chose teams. The entire time, I kept questioning why the contestants cried as they were being picked. One contestant summed it up well. “I don’t feel like I’m worth picking,” she said, as she cried. That’s it. Right there. Fat people are taught we’re not worthy of being chosen, of being happy, of being successful. Losing weight doesn’t offer that. Finding fulfillment in who you are does that.
I lost 57 pounds in 2014. It was unintentional weight loss. I’ve kept the weight off because I wasn’t committed to losing weight. I was committed to enjoying my life at its fullest with no restrictions. There was no dieting or strict exercise regimen. Instead, I embraced living life fully, and in response, my body lost weight.
Many contestants lose the weight and then gain it back because the show only focuses on body transformation. Suzanne Mendonca, a contestant on season two, told the New York Post that many former participants are hesitant to do a reunion “because we’re all fat again.”
A show that shames fat people into losing weight and then does nothing to help maintain it has no place on our television screens.