Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fat and happy: Why "The Biggest Loser" loses

I have struggled with weight all my life--mostly because in my younger years I was unable to accept that my larger frame was natural and healthy for me. Unhappy with a 12, I dieted and deprived and fretted over calories, and wound up a 14. Unhappy with that size, I measured and counted and starved my way into a 16. Wash, rinse and repeat...from high school until my 30s. It has taken an excellent nutritionist; the quelling of my fashion magazine habit; deeper understanding of the food and diet industries; consumption of tons of body-positive writing; and 20 years of growing up and gaining body confidence and self -assurance to get to a place where I have a reasonable relationship with food and my body.

I have come to understand that proper nutrition, a whole foods diet and exercise are important. I try to incorporate all three into my life, but when I fail, I know that it is not a moral issue. I am not "good" for eating a carrot, nor am I "bad" for eating carrot cake. I know that weight, on its own, is not a reliable determinant of health. Nor is weight a determinant for beauty and desirability. Society, though, often conflates the body type du jour with what health "looks" like. I have learned to notice the ways that sexism and racism play out in the notions of what women should look like and how much space they are allowed. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that my jeans size is of minor significance in comparison to the rest of my life. More important than wedging my hips into a size 8 is that I have love, laughter, adventure, learning, excitement, career challenges, friends, etc. A tiny booty does not a successful life make--no matter what all those ads and overwrought articles in lady mags say. I believe all these things, and so, also believe that weight and weight loss take up far too much of the American psyche and conversation. (To no good end, as our eating and exercise habits have only become worse as our obsession with weight grows.)

I pondered these things as I sat down last week to watch yet another season of "The Biggest Loser." Knowing what I know, and believing what I believe, why am I watching this show with its sad fatty stories, shrieking trainers and lose-weight-at-all-costs ethos? Why can't I shake the automatic elation I feel at weight loss--mine or someone else's? The promise of body transformation is like a siren song that is hard, I think, for any modern woman to completely ignore, no matter how feminist, fat positive and educated about the food industrial complex she is.

There is no avoiding certain modern body-image truisms:

- Smaller is always better
- Losing weight is always good
- Fatness is symbol of life failure; weight loss equals life success

It is this last point that is really bothering me this week. This notion that, no matter what other joys your life may hold, you cannot be happy and successful if the numbers of the scale aren't "right." Closely tied to this widely-held belief is the idea that fat bodies are almost always caused by some sort unhappiness-inducing trauma. This year's season of "The Biggest Loser" (TBL) seems to embrace both of these views, I think, to the detriment of its contestants.

Season 8 of TBL is all about the dramatic, sad story. One contestant lost her husband, young daughter and new baby in a tragic car accident; another spent her life in the foster care system. All around, there is much teariness and talk of broken lives. It's not that the contestant's stories are not moving, it's just that the assembled group seems designed to reinforce the idea that overweight is always catastrophic. No one can be 50 pounds above the "norm" because of genetics or slowed metabolism or medication or illness or a fondness for baked goods. Something really, really bad must have happened to you if let yourself get big enough to wear a size 18 or a 40-inch waist pant.

But there was a moment in last week's episode of TBL that really triggered my ire and highlighted why I think the show ultimately fails its contestants and the millions who watch hoping to find peace with their bodies. Jillian Michaels, the show's hard-bodied, trainer-come-drill sergeant, berated contestant, Julio, for suggesting that he is happy aside from his weight. The conversation basically went:

"You CANNOT be happy at 400+ pounds!"

"But I am happy..."

"You ARE NOT happy!"

"But I have a wonderful family..."

"You CANNOT be happy!"

Jillian eventually wore Julio down until he admitted the only thing he was successful at was food.
So, we are to believe that nothing in Julio's life: not his wife, not his children, not his friends, not his career, NOTHING might possibly make him happy as long as he is a fat, fatty McFatterson. How ridiculous and dehumanizing.

What I find perplexing about the weight we give, well, weight, is this. Yes, eating well-balanced and nutritious meals and getting regular exercise are good things to do. Being active and a good eater are two positive human traits. So is being neat. So is being curious. So is being generous. So is being well organized. So is being smart with money. Are eating well and working out the most important things anyone can do--so important that to not do them perfectly results in complete and utter failure and sadness? Actually, I think the trait TBL advocates is actually thinness not healthy eating and exercise, thus the low-calorie, restrictive diet and grueling workout sessions that regularly make contestant's vomit or wind up at the hospital. Is thinness the most important thing in life?

Picture a woman. She's about 35. She has a long-term romantic partner whom she loves and who treats her wonderfully. She is a the top of her career and thanks to her success has earned several of life's "goodies," including an awesome apartment, a wardrobe to die for and the ability to travel around the world (her favorite). She also takes time to give back to the community; she's a "big sister" to a young girl and takes her on adventures once a week. Our woman has a strong support network of family and friends and an active social life. Not especially religious, she does take time for reflection and meditation.

Sound like a pretty good life?

Oh, I forgot something: This woman is overweight, say 250 lbs (about the size of several of TBL's female contestants). Despite her sedentary office job, she does make an effort to stay active, taking weekly dance classes and biking in the park. But like most of us, she finds exercise hard to fit in when life gets hectic or the weather is bad. Frankly, she is more inclined to read a book or go see a movie than exercise. She likes good, rich food and realizes that she probably eats out too much--it's so much easier than cooking. Her problem isn't so much what she eats, but how much. She often eats beyond the point where she is satisfied. Nevertheless, she is relatively healthy. Regular exams show good blood pressure, but bad cholesterol levels that are just a bit too high.

Let's assume that, if she were to cook more, be stricter about getting in physical activity and learn to read hunger cues, our fictional woman's body would naturally settle at a lower weight. (It might not. She comes from a family of tall and large people.) So what? I what? Does her failure to do these things trump everything else wonderful in her life? Should her sole focus in life--a life that certainly looks pretty damned good--be to become acceptably thinner? Should she be unhappy and put her life on hold until she gets her food consumption and level of physical activity under control? And if she doesn't choose to focus on improving these things, is this lapse any worse than the fact that she, maybe, procrastinates alot or is sometimes late or is forgetful?

What I'm asking is: Why is the weight issue--the food issue--so much bigger than anything else?

There is another TBL contestant--a pretty, young woman named Rebecca, who frequently cries about being the girl with "such a pretty face." (People can be such assholes.) In last week's episode of TBL, at a dinner with trainers Jillian and Bob Harper, Rebecca broke down and sobbed how much she wants a family and children and a life. She cried that she wanted to be thought of as the total package and not just a face. I wanted to reach through the TV set and tell her that her life had nothing to do with her weight; that she was beautiful; that plenty of fat folks have families and husbands and boyfriends and friends; that waiting to live until you fit into a size 8 is stupid and ultimately a bad idea. That's what I wanted to say. Bob and Jillian, though, just nodded, all sympathetic and po-faced: Yes, pathetic fatty, you are right to have poor self esteem. But don't worry, we will pound your body into submission and you will be thin and thus worthy of all the things you want.

Seems to me that self-worth and happiness are what every human being deserves, regardless of size. It would seem that if you want to teach people to take better care of their bodies through good nutrition and exercise, the first step is teaching them to love their bodies and themselves. The first step would seem to be teaching them to love life NOW, not 50 pounds from now.

Thinness does not cause happiness, and someone should tell the folks at "The Biggest Loser" this. People can and should be fat and happy.
Image: The Fat Woman, Aubrey Beardsley, 1894, Tate Gallery.


Joan F said...

Excellent post. I am fat and happy and sedentary, healthy enough to have survived to 73 (almost 74), retired from a successful career, loved by a skinny man who never says a word about my weight. Wish I could share this state of mind to those who so sorely need it.

Chi-Chi, The Original Wombman said...

What an excellent post!

Now that I've had two children, I am 30 pounds heavier than I used to be. It was only after I had the kids that I came to realize everything you said in your post. How people rave over women who have "lost all the baby weight" . . . like they are more disciplined and care more about how they look, that they work harder, and are just "better" than those of us still holding on to the weight! What about the comment, "You look good . . . for having two kids"? All the magazines targeted at postpartum women talk about losing this and losing that. It's straight up traumatic sometimes to go through the body changes you do when you have children because it does often end up being a "good" and "bad" kind of reflection on you when the weight doesn't drop off. For me, It's been a whole lot of mental work to get to the point where exercise is not solely about dropping back to a size 8 because in all honesty, I may never get there again or at least not any time soon. It's difficult to find the time to exercise as much as I need to and eat the way I should when you have two small kids under your care. I make time to exercise because it makes me feel good, strong, and flexible and it keeps me healthy. So while I am trying to lose the weight because I'd like to, it's so true that there are so many other things that make life rich and joyful, happy and fulfilling. And few rolls and a little jiggle don't negate that. And surprisingly enough, contrary to what they say, don't make you unappealing to the opposite sex. Like you say, people who are not skinny do find love and good relationships. It's about finding a balance and a place of peace for your own self.

I do find this nation's obsession with weight troubling in so many ways. And I've never seen TBL but I did get Jillian Michael's workout DVD and it remains on my shelf barely touched. For someone touting the lie that thinness=happiness, she doesn't seem to convey that message well at all.

Sandy said...

Ugh, when Jillian harangued Julio that time, my heart just ached for him. She talks some about how she started out overweight, though from what I've been able to glean, she wasn't that fat. Not to minimize anyone's struggles (with weight, body image, or otherwise), but the idea that she has a clue what these people who have been through catastrophes are thinking or feeling is a joke. Not to say that I don't watch it every week, because I totally do.

Monica said...

Awesome post.

kat said...

I've not seen The Biggest Loser, apart from internet "Look at the amazing results!!!! OMG!!!" photos and the like....

I've come to believe, though, that societies idealize body types a d physical traits that are only available to the elite members of that society.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, most people were probably subsistence farmers, working their asses off and likely not having a whole lot to eat for part of the year. Add plague and dysentary and whatever other diseases that would keep people from leading long healthy lives. It's a safe bet that not much food + insane hard labor every day + bad health = smallish people.

Yet when you look at European paintings of the era, the female figures tend to be very round and ample. Probably, only the very wealthy and royalty could afford to have enough food to become even curvy, let alone round.

Cut to today, when most people work fairly sendantary jobs, the cheapest food sources are "calorie rich, nutrient poor," we don't have time to exercise AND work AND spend time with family.....and who gets idealized?
People who have the means to spend 5 hours a day working out and paying a trainer to berate them into causing physical harm in pursuit of unnatural thinness.

What the biggest loser promotes cannot possibly be attainable for normal humans, and it seems really cruel for the creators and advertisers to try to get us to think it is.


Hortence Littella said...

Awesome post!! I was a TBL addict: loved the amazing tranformation, inspired by the personal stories, all of that. I've struggled with my weight all my life. A few months ago I read a book by Jon Gabriel where he describes the phenomenon of obesity and how to address it with so much compassion, understanding, and application of sound science to the complexity of the human body. Since then, I see that TBL is as much a part of the problem as McDonald's, the 50+ hour work week, the < 8 hours of sleep per night habit, and the list goes on and on. As long as obesity and the health problems that are related to it is framed as an individual issue, obesity rates will only continue to rise. Too many people are making too much money off of other people's pain, and because those other people are overweight, we are somehow duped into believing that they deserve that pain and exploitation. We all deserve love, support, and compassion. Thank you for a post that reminds us of that!

Sarah said...

Ok, this is the greatest post ever about why I can't stand TBL.

Being happy "despite" fatness is something no one but fat people can possibly fathom.

I also find myself in utter awe, listening to my average sized to skinny friends talk badly about their bodies. Just today I read a blog post by a girl who has occasionally posted pictures in the past, so I know she is just an average-sized woman, maybe an 8 or a 10. Certainly nowhere near as fat as me. She wrote a very long post about how she can't be naked in front of lovers, despises having her photo taken, and numerous other self-loathing comments.

I can't understand how people who are at a size I would kill to be (I'm a size 22 or so) can think so negatively of their bodies, and I generally think I look hot most of the time. It fascinates me.

Anonymous said...

I found your post smart and thought provoking.

The one point that should be made is that the contestants on TBL knew exactly what they'd be getting. I don't say this makes it right. But anyone going through all the auditions and work to be on TBL is typically a fan of the show and know that they will be ridden hard by the trainers. So perhaps this collection of people aren't happy at their respective sizes and want someone to "force out" some of their underlying issues.

With that said, I am very uncomfortable with Jillian feeling she is qualified to open up the Pandora's Box of broken homes, abuse, neglect and so forth. Real therapists do this over time, know how much to dig up, and when to slow things back down. Jillian does not. I fear the day when she will dredge up something too deep and too painful for the contestant to reconcile.

This has gone from an entertaining, 'feel-good' type of show to extreme activities and methods, hospitalizations, broken bones and so forth. And not to be healthy, but to look skinny. For shame.

Anonymous said...

What you have just written in this blog puts succinctly what I have felt for a long time but couln't find the words for...


wendye999 said...

I feel the reason there is so much judgement about the body is because we can see it and make instant observations. I can't look at another person and tell if they owe money, or have bad relationships, etc. Sadly, it seems like human nature to look at others and then compare ourselves to them. Of course, I can't tell if someone is healthy or not based on their weight, but I know I often succumb to the temptation of looking around to see if I'm the largest woman present or some such thing. I need to work on that!

Antoinette said...

Very true. There are, indeed, so many other things to live for besides corresponding to a particular weight. It's like worrying constantly about your eyebrows or something. One poster's observation that a few centuries back most people didn't live long, didn't have much to eat and got sick a lot more often, is a good way to keep things in perspective.

NameChanged said...

This post was wonderful! You have encapsulated how I often feel when I am inevitably drawn to weight-loss shows.


Kelly Hogaboom said...

Great post.

Lindsay said...

This is wonderful! Thank you, Tami.

As a (former) heavy exerciser (in both senses of the word "heavy" there, haha), who's always been big on exercising for the joy of it and for how it makes you feel, I can never stand those shows that make it all about losing weight. Even *IF* the person going on the show is unhealthy, and even *IF* they might feel better if they exercized more, pushing that kind of a disordered attitude towards food and exercise will just make them worse off. They'll go on an unsustainable diet, they'll gain all the weight back (or more), and they'll be left thinking that food is Bad, but Pleasurable and exercise is Good, but Painful. Their diet, their health and their emotional well-being will all be so much the worse for all that.

Treatment Shop said...

I read some of your topics and enjoyed reading them. I believe everyone would love them too. Thanks for sharing.

Never That Easy said...

As so often happens with discrimination - and as you mention in your post in relation to sexism and racism - I can see so many intersections between the hatred/vilification of Fat and ablism: The idea that there are perfect bodies and imperfect bodies, and that having an imperfect body is somehow reflective of your character, for example. The prevailing attitude that if you have a disability (or are too big), you cannot also have a happy, fulfilling, or satisfactory life for another.

I thought your post made so many great points, and really summed up why I can't stand that show.

Paj said...

I'm of the opinion that if Jillian were truly committed to health and fitness instead of thinness, she probably wouldn't be peddling a gimmicky weight-loss supplement. She's a fairly repulsive person, as far as I'm concerned.

Also, I'm 5'11", a runner and I make a concerted effort to eat healthy. I'm also anywhere from a 12 to a 16. Clearly I am where I'm supposed to be, ergo Jillian Michaels can kiss my wobbly ass.

lost_in_boston said...

I think that TBL is great for one thing: a personification of what we're fighting against when we are fighting to love ourselves.
I like to look on my life and the people in it who love me and compare it to the pitying, yelling grumpy trainers and think, "Hmm. Which life seems more loving to me?"
Baby steps, but it helps.

Thank you for the wonderful post!

teaspoon said...

Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I am a Biggest Loser addict. Literally, I plan my week around the Tuesday night airing. It started with the last season and for some reason I cannot stop watching. I have struggled with my weight since high school, and as my size slowly creeps up I always look back and think, "I can't believe I thought I was fat then". I am fascinated by before/after stories because I always have this idea in the back of my head that I will someday emerge a "swan" from my ugly duckling past.

I don't know if I can stop watching TBL just yet, but I will be watching it with newer eyes. So thank you for that! haha

Marisa said...

I hope Julio's wife and children are happy when he drops dead of a heart attack. Because while I agree with you that there are lots of happy people who are "over weight" based on society's standards. There's nothing wrong with being healthy and 50 pounds overweight. But there is a big hell of a difference between being 50 pounds overweight and being over 400 pounds with major health problems, like type II diabetes, and heart disease.


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