Reality shows like The Biggest Loser are wildly successful because people can relate to them. Millions of viewers tune in every week to literally watch these people’s sweat and tears. Its popularity is likely attributed to the vast number of viewers that are going through the same struggle, namely with weight. But because this show has been on year after year and has a reputation for amazing transformations, people are watching it for reasons that go well beyond weight loss. Sure, they likely seek inspiration from the contestants and learn about diet and weight loss from the shows’ trainers as they instruct their teams, but it goes much further and much deeper than that.
We all know that to lose weight you have to pay attention to what you put in your mouth and devote dedication to physical activity. But if that were simply all it was about, it’d be easy. The show would be boring (and unnecessary). What it’s really about is the contestants’ struggles. Our struggles. Their triumphs. Our dreams. Seeing someone do something hard gives us the motivation and encouragement to try it ourselves. Seeing them succeed builds our confidence. An “if they can do it, so can I” mentality of sorts. It gives us hope that it’s not too late or impossible. It doesn’t matter if the “it” is weight loss, completing a triathlon, or auditioning for a television show. It’s about the will to reach outside of your comfort zone and the ability to succeed in doing so.
So why then, if the show is about much more than being overweight, is it OK to promote destructive or dangerous habits or behavior in the other direction? In the past, the weight loss of the contestants has been nothing more than inspirational and almost miraculous. Every year, the winner loses more and more weight than the previous year. That’s great up until a point. Why is this what’s being celebrated? When did it become about losing more weight than contestant X, instead of being your own competition?
That’s the message the show unintentionally seems to be sending by celebrating this season’s winner. A 24-year-old voice-over actress who lost almost 60% of her body weight. Sixty percent. Literally more than half of herself. In the moment that’s supposed to be completely victorious for the contestant and overwhelmingly inspirational for those of us at home, this year’s winner, Rachel Frederickson, walked out on stage to stunned disbelief and concern. The shock and awe on the trainers’ faces said it all. They knew she’d gone too far, yet in a moment of wonder and disbelief, slowly clapped because they knew they were supposed to. Only it wasn’t something to celebrate. Yes, it’s fantastic she lost the weight. She worked hard and she fought and struggled and came out victorious. But at what cost? What cost to her mental and emotional state? What cost to her body physically — to go from almost 250 pounds to just a little over the 100 pound mark? (240 pounds to 105, specifically.) And most important, at what cost to the viewers that are at home watching, subliminally being told that this is OK? That this is healthy; this is what they should be striving for.
Many will say it’s not her responsibility to worry about what people at home are taking away from this, but as a contestant on an immensely popular reality TV show, I say she does have responsibility. By becoming a public figure, what she does matters. What she does and how she looks sends a message, whether she wants it to or not. She’s a role model now. She could easily be a role model for persistence and perseverance, and fighting hard when the going gets tough, but right now, she’s an unintended role model for being crazy-skinny. Unfortunately, her physical appearance is outweighing the reality of her hard work and dedication.
Maybe it’s the network’s responsibility and not hers, or the medical team’s, or the trainers’. I don’t know. I just know it doesn’t feel right. There are young girls watching her. Morbidly obese middle-schoolers who thought they couldn’t stand a chance in the battle against weight before seeing someone like her do it, now only to be shown an outcome that seems impossible. It feeds into everything we’ve been trying to tell girls (and boys and grown women) about the wrong body image media represents. Now we’re saying this is what you need to get to. Not hey, you lost 20% of your body weight, reversed your diabetes, and are physically strong enough to flip truck tires or participate in triathlons. Now we’re saying, if you want to be “successful” you need to lose almost two-thirds of your body weight and look emaciated. What messed up kind of message is that? And what in the heck is next year’s winner going to have to resort to to beat that “record”? Because beating records is what makes the headlines — not hard work.
Of course, that being said, the poor woman is now faced with another problem equal in severity to the one she started with. First she weighed too much; now she doesn’t weigh enough. Either way, people are talking about her. In sourcing for other people’s opinion about the matter, I think Erin of Girl Gone Veggie said it best: “It’s amazing to me how emotionally charged people get when a woman’s weight falls on either side of the size spectrum. It’s almost a damned if you do damned if you don’t.”
Then again, when you’re putting it out there in front of the world, it’s going to be judged, criticized, and spoken about. I just wish the conversation could revolve around the work it took to get there, not simply the end result.
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