Last week a woman named Rachel Fredrickson won The Biggest Loser when she shaved off 60% of her total body weight. I’ll admit that when I first saw the pictures of her 5’4″, 105 pound frame, I was a bit shocked. The transformation was incredible, certainly the most dramatic transformation ever seen on the show. But today I won’t weigh in (forgive the pun) on whether her methods were healthy. Enough has been said on that, by myself included.
I want to talk about the bigger issue of how the show operates, and how we view weight in our culture. The conversations I’ve had about this lately have shown me that the way we talk about the bigger issue when there is an individual person at the center of the fray is really important. So let me first say that Rachel’s story, journey, and body are her own, and I have no right to judge them. Society told her she was too fat, and when she lost a lot of weight, we told her she was too skinny. I’m guessing 10-15 pounds is all it takes to swing that pendulum. We’re ok with the extreme weight loss methods when someone is obese, but we let the stones fly when someone at a healthy weight remains really dedicated. Maybe we feel inferior because all of the sudden, someone who used to be fatter than us is now thinner than us. But that’s a whole different discussion, isn’t it?
What really bothered me were the stories that came out after Rachel’s victory from other contestants about their time on the show. After reading about several people who developed eating disorders or were ignored by producers when they needed help, how most of the contestants gain all the weight back after the show but aren’t allowed by their contract to talk about it, I realized something. The Biggest Loser would like you to believe that the show is about health – helping contestants become their best selves – but it’s not. It’s about ratings.
Big news, right? Some of you are probably saying, “duh.” Or maybe you’re ready to jump to the show’s defense. Full disclosure: I am not an avid watcher of The Biggest Loser. I’ve watched 3 or 4 episodes ever, and by no means am I an expert. But I think this much is obvious: the contestant’s health is not the goal. Why am I so sure? Because the show misses two important points.
1. Weight Alone is a Poor Indicator of Health
Most people know how The Biggest Loser works. The contestant who loses the most body weight by percentage wins. It’s as simple as that. But your BMI (body mass index) only rates your health based on how much weight you carry for your height. As a consequence plenty of fit, muscular people end up with a BMI that categorizes them as overweight or even obese, since muscle is considerably denser than fat, while many people with health issues are categorized as healthy. My dad is a good example. He swims, ice skates, hikes, and backpacks. He’s in great shape and he’s never been even close to overweight. But several years ago, he found out his cholesterol was high.
We’re bombarded with the message that thinner is healthier, but some new studies are showing that may not be completely true. Overweight people who work out live longer than slender people who don’t. Nearly half of the obese people in one study qualified as metabolically healthy (they don’t suffer from “insulin resistance, diabetes, low levels of good cholesterol, high triglycerides and high blood pressure”), and had no higher risk of death from heart disease than those at a healthy weight. In fact, a third study found that of 65,000 patients with heart disease, the obese and overweight ones had the lowest risk of early death.
The number on the scale is one indicator of your health, but it’s not the only one.
Health is More than Your Body
The mind-body connection is a powerful thing. As a doula, I’ve witnessed a laboring woman’s mental, emotional, and spiritual condition greatly impact the ease of her labor, for better or for worse. That connection is a huge part of what makes us human. We are holistic beings, deeply interconnected within ourselves. Health is so much more than your physical fitness; it’s your mental wellbeing, your emotional stability, your sense of purpose, your feeling of balance.
As I mentioned, I am not an avid Biggest Loser fan. But in the handful of episodes and clips I’ve caught, I’ve gathered that you can hardly get from commercial break to commercial break without someone breaking down in tears or vomiting. Contestants are barely allowed to speak with loved ones during filming. They’re away from family, separated from the things that give them greater purpose, under the constant scrutiny and supervision of cameras, producers, and strangers. In that environment, when all your energy is poured into the goal of losing weight and the stakes are high, I imagine it’s not difficult to see a measure of success.
But it’s a wholly unrealistic and miserable way to live your life. That’s why so many of them gain the weight back when the cameras and the $250,000 reward are gone. They haven’t learned balance. They haven’t been equipped with the tools to make physical health an integrated part of their lifestyle.
If The Biggest Loser cared about the health of their contestants, they would consider other factors (like those in the metabolically healthy definition) along with the weigh ins. Contestants would be coached on more than burpees and pull-ups; they would be encouraged to find balance, pursue the things that bring them joy, and find the motivation to do it themselves when they aren’t on national television. But some of those things are hard to quantify and they happen slowly. They don’t elicit the level of drama we’ve come to expect from reality TV. It’s hard to compete against other people for the best mental health, or the best balance between physical and emotional well being.
Maybe getting healthier isn’t supposed to be a competition. Maybe it looks different for everyone. The Biggest Loser doesn’t just oversimplify what it means to work toward good health. Producers regularly push their contestants to dangerous extremes in the name of the weekly weigh-in and high drama, and, from what I can surmise, care little for their overall health and long-term success.
That’s the impression I’ve gotten as a relative outsider. What do you think- does The Biggest Loser actually encourage people to get healthier? Do the contestants really know what they’re getting themselves into?