Tuesday, 12 May 2009

You're fat because your chicken breast is bigger than your fist

If you watch The Biggest Loser, you know that it is essentially a weight loss competition where overweight people form teams to see who can lose the most weight collectively. Each week, whoever has lost the least as a percentage of her total body weight is eligible to be sent home. By the end, one person will have been declared the biggest loser, and will receive a $250 000 prize (in the UK it's £10 000. We can't catch a break) amid much fanfare and confetti. Sound potentially problematic? Well no kidding.

The contestants exercise for hours and hours every day on a restricted-calorie diet. So clearly the show is just about entertainment for its viewers, since this lifestyle is not practical for anyone outisde the show who's not a professional athlete, a member of the Armed Forces or from the planet Krypton. (They do have a Biggest Loser Club, though, which is essentially a less psychotic, online diet and exercise support plan geared toward weight loss, and based on the show.) I've watched a couple episodes of the US version, and even though I have several issues with almost everything about the show's premise and execution, I at least found the trainers/team leaders entertaining.

Celebrity ubertrainers (or should that be ubercelebrity trainers? Whatever. They're uber) Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper each take a team through daily workouts and help drive their success. Jillian is your typical, tough taskmaster, who often appears bewildered and victimized when progress does not occur as expected; while Bob is a positive-thinking, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed sort who I'm almost positive is being dosed with happy pills without his knowledge. He seems to think that fat people are just broken thin people. And doggone it if he ain't gonna fix 'em. I'll admit: I've often caught myself liking Bob despite myself and all the things wrong with his apparent philosophy. He's just so earnest.

The UK version is decidedly worse. Because it features all the things wrong with the show - the unrealistic, stress-inducing workout regimen; the weight-loss as competition dynamic; the stripping down of contestants for weigh-ins as if they're livestock at market, and as if to remind us that they are in fact huge and have the rolls to prove it, in case we'd forgotten - but has none of the entertainment factor. Yes, I acknowledge the problem with this statement: why do I want to be entertained by the show if I concede that the entire thing is a mess? I don't. I've only watched it a handful of times in order to be able to make an informed judgement. But I notice that the UK version has not one redeeming factor: the trainers - whose personalities are meant to be at least interesting enough that their interaction with the contestants creates some intrigue - are dull as grass.

One also gets the impression that the UK producers were aiming to recreate a similar match-up to that of the US version: one of the trainers is a tough, non-bullshit-having woman, and the other is a focused (but milder-mannered?) man. Both try too hard. And the result is a big pile of snore.
But today, my second time watching the show, there were some fireworks, and by 'fireworks' I mean extra-loud yelling, dramatic camera shots and plenty food- and fat-shaming. Trainer Angie stops by the house for a surprise lunch inspection. Don't you hate when that happens? She walks in to find Jennifer, the mum in the mother-daughter team above (contestants are paired up in this series), eating chicken breast she had just prepared. Angie then begins to yell at Jennifer, in front of everyone including Jennifer's daughter Sadie, about the fact that there are no carbs or vegetables on the plate, and that she is eating more than a single portion of chicken. She also belittles her for having had steak the night before. While Angie stands there bellowing, pointing at the offending meal, flailing about and otherwise losing her sh*t over this unforgivable food transgression, Jennifer sits there looking morose, embarrassed, and most of all, hungry. Sadie, who is directly next to her, tries to pull it together for the both of them by agreeing to eat some spinach.

The segment is interspersed with video clips of the other contestants remarking that Jennifer knows she's eating too much, and that they've tried to speak to her about it. The implication is that the only thing that will get through to her is a good old verbal flogging delivered by Angie who, I'm sorry, seems to have no idea how to do the tough love thing, if it is even appropriate here.

I suppose none of this should be surprising, given the premise of the show: let's haul some fatties in here and beat them into shape. But I admit that I was alarmed by the abuse this woman was forced to suffer. First, as the slowest loser to date, apparently, Jennifer was trying to accelerate her weight loss by eating low-carb. Ill-advised though this may be, it does indicate a level of effort and an unwillingness to once again be in the spotlight as the weight-loss failure. Do they expect to throw these people into a competition under extreme physical and psychological conditions and have no bad/compulsive habits develop? I'd be more surprised if they didn't all end up with patterns of disordered eating.

Second, the woman is obviously hongray! During the entire dressing down, she sat there staring longingly at her delicious chicken breast that was going cold and was probably now covered in spittle and hate. And it isn't necessarily because she's greedy, as she was forced to mutter. It's because a body her size probably can't subsist on the fist-sized portion measure that Angie was waving in her face. That's not to say that it's impossible to stick to the diet and lose weight. Clearly it's not: almost everyone on the show loses. But they're not all the same person. Not everyone can change their bodies by sheer force of will. Hunger is not a figment of the imagination, and it won't be exorcised by another hour on the treadmill.

Sadie was worried that after the embarrassing talking-to, her mother would tell Angie where to shove her fist(-sized portion) and give up. And I would think that's a very real concern with anyone who's struggling to lose weight. This show already makes no secret of its extreme methods of trying to get all bodies to look and behave the same. Now they've added express public humiliation to the mix. I don't think the contestants are the only 'losers' here.


  1. I had an experience with denial recently. I was on a long cross country trip and basically threatened with death if I had to pee an inordinate amount of times (okay, I'm exaggerating, but we had a time limit...). So I could take small sips of water here and there but no big gulps. I got more and more thirsty as we went, but still could not take the kind of big, thirst-quenching gulps I wanted to take. And while I hardly ever drink soda, I couldn't help staring longingly at every single billboard advertising drinks as we passed. It was like the only way I could satisfy my thirst without actually satisfying my thirst was to stare at a picture of liquids.

    When I finally got home, I spent about three days drinking as much as I wanted, which was a lot because I was so thirsty from such a long period of restraint. Even though I could still drink water the whole time, the fact that I couldn't drink it in the quantities my body asked for meant that I eventually had to drink it in quantities that my body demanded.

    That's what this reminded me of.

  2. OOohhh being villified for flushing one's kidneys as often as consuming 2 litres of water a day demands... that makes my blood boil. One boss actually told me (in all seriousness) it was undermining my productivity! Steupse. But I do understand the premise that denial solves nothing.

  3. "Hunger is not a figment of the imagination, and it won't be exorcised by another hour on the treadmill." So well said. I can't stand this show, for all the reasons you mentioned...that this is so socially acceptable is just terrifying to me.

  4. I'm disciplined. My portion of chicken never exceeds the size of a normal fist, if by "normal fist" you mean one of King Kong's.


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