Reality weight-loss shows, such as NBC’s The Biggest Loser and ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition, have captured the attention and the hearts of viewers all over the world and have proved to be an increasingly popular form of programming on television today. While it may appear that these shows are supposed to be inspirational and uplifting, giving life back to those who have lost control of their weight (because you can only be happy if you’re skinny by societies standards, right?); in reality, these shows tend to favor the physical transformation of the contestant rather than the overall health through the constant emphasis placed on quantitative methods and measures. This often times causes contestants to take their physical transformations too far, which is the latest criticism NBC’s The Biggest Loser is currently facing, reinforcing society’s stigma toward large bodies and emphasizing the idea that size is a direct correlation to ones happiness, health, and social standing.
NBC’s The Biggest Loser first aired in 2004 and gained almost immediate popularity among viewers, bringing in 10 million viewers alone during the first season it premiered. The reputation of the show continues to rise leaving it “one of the most popular reality television programs in the United States” (Yoo 294). The Biggest Loser is a reality show that casts obese contestants all competing with the hopes to win the grand prize of $250,000 (Can I skip the competition and go straight to the check at the end?). However, as with everything in life there is always a catch. In this case, the money is awarded to the contestant who is able to lose the highest percentage of weight at the end of the show for their final weigh in, in relation to their starting weight when their journey began. This is where the motives of the show can be called into question; contestants are presented with the possibility of winning that kind of money and many would entertain the idea of doing whatever it takes to win, healthy or not. According to Hines, the most recent winner, Rachel Fredrickson even admits, "Maybe I was a little too enthusiastic in my training to get to the finale" (TODAY Entertainment). In another interview with People Magazine she told reporter, Michelle Tauber, “she had been taking, maybe three, four classes a day at the gym, including Zumba and spin” (I’m sorry, but did she just start paying rent at the gym instead of her home? Did she have a life outside the gym?). While The Biggest Loser may be stressing the importance of diet and exercise, which are both great things to focus on when leading a healthy lifestyle and while trying to lose weight, they are also promoting an unhealthy amount of weight loss for each of the contestants to achieve and an intimidating and rigorous competition atmosphere among contestants. This leaves audience members at home with unrealistic expectations for their own weight loss ventures (Yoo 295). Therefore, the show quickly goes from being uplifting and relatable to almost discouraging, because the results they see are often unrealistic examples.
With an increasingly popular reputation in the United States also brings unintended consequences of the show. The Biggest Loser recently wound up in some trouble when the constant body shaming they utilize ever so frequently may have took one contestant too far with her physical transformation. The premise of the show is to take obese contestants and help them to lose weight; in turn freeing them of potential health problems they are at risk for when falling under the obese weight range. However, when Rachel Fredrickson, winner of the most recent season of The Biggest Loser lost more than half of her body weight—people began to question whether or not the focus of the show was really on the health of the contestant or the number on the scale (Dewey).
Rachel Fredrickson started the show weighing in at 260 pounds, technically obese for her 5’4” frame. However, throughout the course of her weight loss journey on the show she managed to lose 155 pounds (Oh, so all I have to do is lose more than half of my body weight to win? Sounds reasonable). That drastic amount of weight loss left her weighing in at a mere 105 pounds at the finale; she had lost 60 percent of her body weight during her time as a contestant on the show (Dewey). When she began her journey she may have been technically obese putting her at risk for certain health problems, but now weighing in at 105 pounds, she is below her healthy body mass index; thus, she now falls under the underweight category for her current BMI (Tauber). This contestant went from overweight to underweight in less than a year, and yet we are supposed to believe that the show is mainly concerned about getting us to a healthy weight, promoting a new, healthy lifestyle for the contestants to maintain after the show.
Many people choose to place full blame on shows like The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition, labeling them as the scapegoat and stirring up controversial conversations that surround the show. However, what we, as a society, must come to terms with is that these shows simply reflect the stigma that we all reinforce towards those with larger body types (Wait what? We actually have to take the blame for something we reinforce daily? Nah, I’m good, thanks.). Dewey quotes Jillian Lampert, who currently holds the position of a director at an eating disorder treatment center in St. Paul stating, “As a society we often criticize people for being at higher weights — that’s part of why we have the TV show ‘The Biggest Loser’ — and then we feel free to criticize lower weight” (Feel free to feel like someone just punched you in the stomach from the guilt that you now feel after reading that quote. I know I did). The stigma society upholds towards body image is simply unrealistic and extremely unhealthy, which is exactly why many of these weight loss shows and the contestants on them are going to extreme measures to try to come even a little bit closer to being accepted by society for their appearance.
As a society, we continually correlate a person’s size with happiness, health, and social standing, but what we often tend to forget is that society’s idea of the perfect size isn’t necessarily going to be healthy for everyone. There is so much more to take into account regarding health than simply looking at a person’s physical appearance and assuming that since they don’t appear to be thin then they must be unhealthy or overweight. Thus, societal pressures take over, which Brownwell speaks to, “there is tremendous pressure in American society to be thin and to have the perfect body shape” (307). Other weight loss shows such as Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition also contribute to society’s problematic assumption that a person’s size directly correlates to their health. Tania Lewis states, “These shows tend to primarily focus on the physical makeover and the apparent magical transformation that can be brought about via specialist modes of expertise such as plastic surgery” (290). Sadly, as long as our society continues to view a certain size range as being ideal or healthy, these shows will continue to favor the physical makeover the contestant achieves over their general health improvement as a direct effect that came of their weight loss.
In conclusion, reality weight-loss shows have proved to be a lasting and loved genre that is currently permeating the programming on primetime television. At first, these shows such as The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition may come across as encouraging, moving, and relatable to audiences nationwide, but when given a closer look it becomes clear that they may in fact be another source of reinforcement to the stigma society places on body image. They highlight the idea that a person’s size can serve as an accurate and direct correlation to their happiness and health. As long as our culture sees a specific body type and size range as healthy and ideal, it will continue to produce reality weight-loss shows so focused on numbers and quantitative methods that they end up favoring the contestants’ physical makeover, rather than the vast improvement the weight loss has had on their health.
Brownell, Kelly D. "Personal Responsibility and Control Over Our Bodies: When Expectation Exceeds Reality." Health Psychology 10(5) (1991): 303-10. American Psychological Association. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. <http://psycnet.apa.org.proxy.lib.uiowa.edu/journals/hea/10/5/303.pdf>.
Dewey, Caitlin. "Did This ‘Biggest Loser’ Contestant Lose Too Much Weight?" The Washington Post. N.p., 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2014/02/06/did-this-biggest-loser-contestant-lose-too-much-weight/>.
Hines, Ree. "'Biggest Loser' Winner Addresses Eating Disorder Controversy." TODAY Entertainment. N.p., 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <http://www.today.com/entertainment/biggest-loser-winner-addresses-eating-disorder-controversy-2D12099786>.
Tauber, Michelle. "The Biggest Loser's Rachel Frederickson: I Exercise Up to Four Times a Day." People. N.p., 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. <http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20784458,00.html>.
Yoo, Jina H. "No Clear Winner: Effects Ofon the Stigmatization of Obese Persons." Health Communication 28.3 (2013): 294-303. Taylor & Francis Group. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10410236.2012.684143?journalCode=hhth20#preview>.
Lewis, Tania. "Revealing the Makeover Show." Revealing the Makeover Show 22, No. 4 (2008): 441-46. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. <http://www.tandfonline.com.proxy.lib.uiowa.edu/doi/full/10.1080/10304310802190053#.UqZIWaWN0ZY>.