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 mean...really...so 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.

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