As a fat person, I have been particularly sensitive about how fat people are portrayed in media. For example, I hated that movie “Super Size Me,” that movie about the guy who eats nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days, becomes unhealthy, and then we’re all supposed to think his research is groundbreaking and that he’s actually NOT an idiot. I feel like in that movie the filmmaker creates a strong association between obese people and stupidity, and that basically no one noticed this because the film’s anti-corporate was message was Bandwagon Of The Year that year so it overshadowed everything else in the film. Another example of what peeves me: I can’t stand when news sites and TV shows do a spot on the obesity epidemic in America and show photos or video clips of obese people (often standing in line at a fast food joint or walking out of Wal-Mart, mind you, because that’s all we do, you know) with their heads cut off by the frame to anonymize them, as if to imply that these obese people were too ashamed to show their faces in association with this news story. In my opinion, this dehumanizes the obese and suggests they have no self-respect.
So when “The Biggest Loser,” the reality TV show about weight loss, starting airing on NBC in 2004, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Frankly, I was offended by what I’m sure the producers thought was a clever title. But I don’t think it’s clever at all; the American media is so down on fat people that as far as I’m concerned the title basically was calling us a bunch of Big Fat Freakin’ Losers.
I accidentally watched about a minute of the show once, a few years ago. The clip I saw featured an obese man running around a gym with a little blond woman on his back. She was his trainer and she was screaming at him to do it better, do it faster. I thought this was demeaning and couldn’t believe that people watched this crap. So I turned it off.
And I didn’t turn it on again until recently, because, well…suddenly I was curious about it, for obvious reasons. Since the marketing NBC does for the show is always bragging about how it’s infectious and has inspired so many people to lose weight, I tried to watch the show from the perspective of an obese person who might want to try to get motivated to lose weight. I wondered, “Would this show inspire me to lose weight? Or scare the crap out of me and paralyze me with fear?” Here are my observations:
(1) The trainers are really mean to the contestants. Obviously this is for show, and to make the show interesting and perhaps amusing to viewers, but it perpetuates the myth that the only way to lose weight is to suffer at the hands of a real aggressive jerk.
(2) In one episode, a trainer was annoyed at his contestant for only losing 8 pounds that week. And the contestant was all depressed about it, too. Now, I understand these people constantly enjoy much bigger weekly losses because they’re basically losing weight full time (they don’t have pesky jobs or lives to get in the way) but it made me wonder if viewers really grasp that these numbers would be insane for anyone trying to lose weight at home. It also made me wonder if obese people realize they can lose weight at a respectable pace on their own WITHOUT having to live in a “boot camp” or “fat farm” for months.
(3) In the same episode, the contestants were finally heading home after several months at the boot camp. They were reunited with their spouses before they went home, and the trainers stressed to the spouses that their support was key to the success of the contestants once they got home and were dealing with fitness/nutrition on their own. In other words, the contestants would need to be accountable to their spouses in lieu of their trainers. I wondered how an obese single person would feel watching this. I wondered if they felt like they might have an uphill battle in front of them, because they don’t have someone in their life at home to support them. As I’ve written about before in my Week 8 blog, fat people don’t really need any more excuses to NOT lose weight; we come up with plenty on our own, thank you very much.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the show is entirely bad. It seems to have a lot of heart, and it’s hard not to feel some compassion for the contestants’ stories. And I liked that the Thanksgiving episode I watched responsibly included some cooking tips on how to make your Thanksgiving dinner healthier. But overall I think the show might be doing damage to some viewers (while admittedly inspiring others). In short, I think it would be interesting to see how many people it turns off to weight loss… but I suspect no one in the NBC marketing group is keeping track of those numbers.