Skip to content

National Disgrace —

April 30, 2012
by

Trigger warning: This post is about The Biggest Loser and all the terrible things that go along with that.

Note: All the photos, except Coach Mo, Roth and Nelson, and the Disclaimer should be animated GIFs, but they aren’t working for me. To view shots from the scenes, click on the photos to animate the GIFs.

I’m loathe to say it, but I think Michelle Obama crossed a serious line.

On April 3*, the First Lady of the United States of America appeared on The Biggest Loser, and in the second part of the White House special on April 10, she gushed over how inspirational the show is and how it contributes to the health of our nation. Oh, Biggest Loser, you’re a National Treasure!

I understand that she was there to promote the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award Challenge (PALA), but just because a show gets big ratings doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate place to promote a national health program that, ostensibly at least, is not about weight loss.

The Biggest Loser is not a show about health, it is a game show about weight loss, and it promotes an incredibly unhealthy message to the public about what is necessary for health and what is possible in terms of weight loss.

But above and beyond that argument is the very fact that The Biggest Loser has a long and brutal history of dehumanizing contestants, pushing them to dangerous physical extremes,  encouraging them to dehydrate themselves until they piss blood, triggering eating disorders, and teaching society that it’s necessary to humiliate fat people for their own good.  TBL‘s most popular “character” was a verbally abusive tyrant who takes sadistic glee in getting fatties to vomit on their first day in the gym.

The Biggest Loser has a greater concern for pushing Brita Water Filters and Jennie-O Turkeys than improving the health of the public. After all, how could they possibly help the public when they’re perfectly willing to gamble with the lives of their own contestants?

In 2009, the first episode of Season 8 began with a busload full of new contestants dropped off at the beach for their very first challenge. Up to this moment all of the contestants led mostly sedentary lifestyles, but The Biggest Loser seemed to think it would make great television to make 16 sedentary people who weighed between 250 and 476 pounds run one mile in the sand. The prize would be immunity and the choice of partner, and as an added surprise, a former contestant, Daniel, from Season 7.

However, Daniel had already trained for and ran a 5K, and at 312 pounds he’s a living demonstration of the fact that what you look like does not determine how physically fit you are.**

One of the contestants, Tracey Yukich, began the race in a sprint and maintained a significant lead before gradually losing ground to Daniel, who ultimately won. All of the contestants finished the race except for Yukich and Coach Mo, both of whom suffered heat stroke.

Coach Mo was sent to the hospital for dehydration, low blood sugar and low blood pressure.

Yukich’s collapse in the sand was far more serious. A medic responded first, but then something truly horrible happened.

Reflecting upon the incident, Antoine, a person she just met, said, “Tracey was only 100 yards away from the finish line. We knew that if she didn’t finish the race, she would be devastated.”

Yes, I’m sure that Tracey, in her dehydrated stupor, was thinking, “I would rather die than not finish the first challenge.”

And so, ignoring the immediate medical emergency, her fellow contestants helped her stand and supported her the rest of the way.

Wow, how inspiring that these complete strangers were willing to risk Yukich’s health, and possibly her life, so that she wouldn’t be “devastated” by failure.

It reminds me of that time at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul when Greg Louganis hit his head on the diving board and his teammates helped me swim a victory lap.

Yukich wound up in the hospital for two weeks with undisclosed complications, although some have speculated that she had rhabdomyolysis, in which the body breaks down muscle tissue and the resulting products can cause long-term kidney damage. Heat stroke is one cause.

The Amazing Dr. Rob Huizenga, Quack to the Masses, finally admitted that it might have been a bad idea:

“If we had it to do over, we wouldn’t do it,” Dr. Huizenga said of the recent one-mile race that resulted in hospitalizations. “It was an unexpected complication and we’re going to do better,” he said, adding that “that challenge has changed a lot of the way we do things,” including more closely monitoring contestants’ body temperatures during exercise. [emphasis mine]

Yes, who could possibly have predicted the medical consequences of making sedentary fatties run in the sand for a mile. And the medical community barely knows anything about heat stroke, though they believe it may be caused by a surge fire humours.

Huizenga seemed to say that they messed up and from now on they would not going to put a contestants health second to good television, right?

So, when contestant Elizabeth Ruiz suffered an asthma attack and collapsed during a preliminary challenge she was cut from the show before it even began filming in 2010. Good call, Biggest Loser!

Then for some idiotic reason, they allowed her back on the show.

Lo and behold, halfway through Season 10 she collapsed while carrying a 30-pound backpack during a challenge with the Marines.

Once again, her teammates (producers?) pushed her to finish the race despite this second acute exercise-induced asthma attack. After all, why should a pre-existing medical condition stop her from competing, right? As one enlightened Wikipedian said:

Bob works with Elizabeth, who often uses her fear of asthma as an excuse for not working out as hard as she can.

Yeah, ya big wheezin’ pansy! What’sa matter with ya! “Oh, I need air! I need air! Help!” Maybe if you weren’t so fat you could train like a Marine without coughing yourself to death, ya big fat bast… eh? What’s that?

Really?

Okay, so, um… turns out you can’t join any of the military branches if you have an asthma attack while exercising, according to the August 2011 Standards of Military Fitness (PDF):

2–23. Lungs, chest wall, pleura, and mediastinum

d. Asthma (493), including reactive airway disease, exercise-induced bronchospasm or asthmatic bronchitis, reliably diagnosed and symptomatic after the 13th birthday, does not meet the standard. Reliable diagnostic criteria may include any of the following elements: substantiated history of cough, wheeze, chest tightness, and/or dyspnea that persists or recurs over a prolonged period of time, generally more than 12 months. [emphasis mine]

Turns out, The Biggest Loser has even higher expectations for asthmatic recruits than the United States Marine Corps.

Nice.

At the helm of this depraved, unhealthy and deeply disturbing vision of fitness, are executive producers J.D. Roth (yeah, the Fun House guy) and Todd Nelson.

Roth and Nelson crossing the picket lines during the Season 11 strike.

In the New York Times article, Roth shares his more sanguine, and less sympathetic, attitude toward the treatment of contestants:

JD Roth, an executive producer of the series who created its current format, said that while the show was extreme, “it needs to be extreme in my opinion.”

“For some of these people this is their last chance,” he said. “And in a country right now that is wrestling with health care issues and the billions of dollars that are spent on obesity issues per year, in a way what a public service to have a show that inspires people to be healthier.”

Ah yes, we should be grateful that Roth and Nelson have birthed The Biggest Loser from their humanitarian loins to save America from the Fatness. It’s just icing on the vegan, carob tort that Roth and Nelson’s 3Ball Productions made millions*** exploiting fat people and fulfilling the fatphobic fantasies of countless knuckle-dragging alcoholics who wish to emulate Bob Harper’s Greatest Hits.

In fact, research has shown that if The Biggest Loser inspires anything, it’s to hate fat people just a little bit more.

I understand the whole “inspiration” claim, but inspiration doesn’t mean much when the expectations are so unrealistic.

In fact, Mrs. Obama says that the best way to lose weight is to begin with gradual changes that add up to significant changes over time. It’s the slow and steady lifestyle change approach to weight loss that is supposed to be healthier, and more effective, than traditional weight loss programs.

But in an interview with NBC, Mrs. Obama credits The Biggest Loser with inspiring people to make those kinds of gradual changes:

Biggest Loser does an excellent job of getting people to think about ways, large and small, that they can work on their bad habits, bring better nutrition into their lives and find really small, but meaningful ways to slowly start getting active. Incremental changes can make a huge difference. People don’t have to automatically be able to do a Bob or Dolvett training. You can build yourself up to something that strenuous.

Yes, Biggest Loser does an excellent job at promoting incremental changes, like during the first episode of Season 8, when no less than three contestants exercised past the point of nausea during the so-called “last chance workout.”

Mrs. Obama, is this inspiring people to make incremental changes?

No. This is inspiring people to take health and fitness to unhealthy extremes, and promoting weight loss as the end all, be all of health metrics.

But the thing is, unless prescribe to TBL’s dangerous combination of severe caloric restriction (an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 calories per day) and grueling 4- to 6-hour daily workouts, then you won’t see the kind of  “miraculous” 30-40% weight loss results that make the show so successful.

Rather, the slow and steady lifestyle change gets you something like the results of the EatRight Program in Alabama, which found an average weight loss of  9 pounds over two years, around 5% of participants’ starting weight. Government healthcare agencies, such as the CDC, are attempting to lower expectations with the modest recommendation of 5-10% weight loss, rather than Biggest Loser-style changes.

The reason? Most weight loss research shows that 5-10% is the most sustainable long-term weight loss possible. Plus, more importantly, it can be extremely dangerous.to lose more than 2 pounds per week.

The Biggest Loser knows how dangerous their approach can be, otherwise, why would they have contestants sign a waiver on the opinions of their own medical professionals?

One such release, which was provided to The New York Times by a former contestant who did so on the condition of anonymity, says that “no warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals who examine me or perform any procedures on me in connection with my participation in the series, or their ability to diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series.”

I’m sorry, but if this is where Michelle Obama goes to promote the PALA, then I have lost all respect for her campaign to improve the health of the nation. I gave Mrs. Obama the benefit of the doubt that Let’s Move was a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt at helping kids get healthy, but promoting The Biggest Loser as a model of healthy behaviors is simply beyond the pale.

Mrs. Obama remained silent during our Strong4Life campaign, ignoring the question that Angela Elizabeth Black asked, and CNN chose, because, according to an email sent to Black, the subject was too controversial.

Apparently, it’s too controversial to defend fat children from public humiliation and degradation, but it’s perfectly okay to hock a national Save the Fatties campaign on a show that promotes dangerous weight loss practices.

And on top of giving The Biggest Loser a powerful stamp of legitimacy, Michelle Obama scrapes the very bottom of the motivational barrel:

America, don’t miss your last chance to join your favorite contestant’s team in the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award Challenge. Do it for yourself, for your family and for your country. Sign up at NBC.com/PALA before it’s too late. [emphasis mine]

Not only am I supposed to lose weight for myself and my family, but I’m supposed to lose weight for my country?

Excuse me?

Did Michelle Obama seriously just invoke patriotism to promote weight loss?

Because hen Michelle Obama chose to promote her program on The Biggest Loser, she made weight loss an integral part of PALA’s appeal. You cannot separate the message from its platform. When the First Lady praises The Biggest Loser as a model of health and fitness, she is sending a message that TBL’s extreme weight loss prescription is what Americans, particularly obese Americans, should aspire to. To connect weight loss and patriotic duty is nothing more than shameless jingoism for the War on Fat.

To further make her case, Mrs. Obama claims the following, “One-third of kids are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.”

That may be the case, Mrs. Obama, but may I remind you that while 12 in 100,000 children develop type 2 diabetes, there are 2,700 children in 100,000 with an eating disorder.

When will Mrs. Obama take a stand against the real epidemic that is killing our children today?

Both The Biggest Loser and the War on Obesity only contribute to the numbers of adolescents with eating disorders. And a major part of the problem has become the acceptance of dehumanizing fat people, which is the hallmark of The Biggest Loser. Mrs. Obama briefly acknowledges the negativity of TBL at the end of the segment, when she repeatedly says (presumably to Bob), “Be nice. Be nice.”

That’s the only problem Michelle Obama has with the show? That the trainers aren’t always nice? If I may, I’d like to nominate Michelle Obama’s “Be nice” for Understatement of the Year.

So does her advice help?

Not quite since in the second half of the Michelle Obama episode Bob Harper returns to raging dickweed without missing a beat.

On of the contestants, Chris, gets to call home, which is an odd development considering the fact that contact with family is restricted and often used as a reward for winning a challenge. Suddenly, Chris is allowed to call her husband, Roy? Why?

Roy asks Chris to return home, telling her that he’s lonely, he misses her and that “There’s no substitute for my wife.”

It is important to keep in mind that in their introductory interview, we learn that Roy (63) is 20 years older than Chris (42), they’ve been married just 8 months and she has four kids from a previous relationship that he is now taking care of by himself.

After the call, Chris becomes emotionally distraught and orders all the “bad” foods that she eats when she’s under stress, which, in this instance, includes a cheeseburger, a grilled cheese, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of mayonnaise, chocolate, and a banana.

Of course, the film crew captures the entire binge from the end of her bed, zooming in as she smears mayo and peanut butter onto the burger and takes a giant bite. It’s a moment at which Chris is feeling intense shame and desperation, and The Biggest Loser is all too happy to broadcast the evidence of a Bad Fatty in action.

The following day on the treadmill, Bob Harper standing in front of Chris. She looks upset, so Bob asks what’s wrong (of course, nobody from the film crew informed Bob of the late-night binge) and Chris tells him that Roy wants her to come home, which she is considering. Bob gets mad and the following exchange takes place:

Bob: So you’re just throwing in the towel, you don’t care about this weigh-in, there’s no reason for us to work out so I need to really focus on her. [Referring to the contestant on the treadmill beside Chris]

Chris: I don’t feel like I have a choice.

Bob: Why don’t you have a choice?

Chris: Because I’ve got stuff going on at home that I need to deal with. I mean, that’s the rest of my life. This is temporary. That’s the rest of my life.

Bob in a cutaway: Chris is not doing her workout, she’s not doing what she needs to be able to do because Roy has basically been wanting her to come home. For her to throw away this experience now would be such a waste.

Chris: Can we just stop to talk about this? [Gesturing to the treadmill]

Bob: No! No, this needs to be talked about because you’re just saying to me I don’t care. That’s what you’re saying to me. Isn’t it about give and take? Aren’t you supposed be able to support each other? When does he support you?

Chris: [Pausing] I don’t have an answer for that. [Sobbing.] I don’t have an answer for that.

Bob: Something’s got to change here, Chris.

Chris: Do we have to do this now? [Gesturing to the camera crew] Can’t they go away?

Bob: Here are your options: you stay here, you respect this [swirly gesture with his finger] OR you go home. You need to stay in this house. Being in this house takes care of Chris and then we’ll be able to take care of your relationship. He needs to be taking care of his end. If it’s you, you’re going to be overweight Chris, unhappy, miserable. You’ve experience happiness here and you don’t want to go back.

Chris: I don’t.

Bob: It feels good to be happy, right?

Chris: It does feel good.

Bob: It feels good to be happy.

I thought the whole point of The Biggest Loser is train people how to achieve fitness in real life. They come to the ranch, they learn all the tricks, they commit themselves to this lifestyle, they learn to balance life and health, and then they become thin forever, right? Because if you learn all the tricks of losing weight, but can’t juggle nutrition and fitness into your every day life, then you’ll go back to your old habits and become a terrible fatty again.

Except Bob seems to suggest that when Chris has a significant relationship issue that requires her attention, then the only options are for her to remain sequestered on the ranch away from her family or to go home and give up on it all. He tells her that she must lose the weight before she can focus on her relationship.

Bob isn’t teaching Chris how to incorporate fitness into her life; he’s teaching her how to incorporate her life into fitness.  He’s teaching her that she must put her exercise regimen ahead of her relationships if she wants to be happy. He’s teaching her that if she leaves the ranch to take care of her relationship, then the weeks of work she’s put in, along with the lessons she’s learned, will be a waste. He’s teaching her that if she wants to be with her husband, that she “doesn’t care” about her health or her fitness.

Afterward, Chris describes Bob’s intervention in terms reminiscent of an abusive relationship: “”He mentally has pulled me back in.”

Bob is manipulating Chris and turning her frustration and angst against her own husband to prevent her from leaving the show. Why? Because it would negatively affect his team’s chance at winning.

And that is really what The Biggest Loser is ultimately about: a two-person competition between Bob and Dolvett or Bob and Jillian. The contestants are just pawns to be exploited for three months, then discarded.

This is why the trainers push contestants until they puke. This is why the producers allow an asthmatic contestant to endure a grueling simulation of Marine boot camp. This is why lawyers make contestants sign a waiver for the medical advice they receive. And, most especially, this is why they have this disclaimer at the end of the show.

Michelle Obama ought to be ashamed of herself for supporting and validating The Biggest Loser, a show which promotes some of the worst, most reckless, most unhealthy weight loss practices. It boggles the mind to realize that the First Lady of the United States has come out in support of a show that revels in physical and verbal abuse.

The only reason that Michelle Obama, and society in general, lionize The Biggest Loser, is that the victims of the abuse are fat.

Oh, Biggest Loser, you’re a National Disgrace.

*Although the show aired on April 3, the segment with Michelle Obama was recorded weeks before, although I cannot pinpoint the exact date. However, the episode that aired on April 17  involved contestants walking off the set, which took place on February 23.

**For those who claim that the key to Daniel’s success was the weight loss, I would point you to our many readers who are incredibly active,  but have yet to lose 142 pounds like Daniel.

***Recently, Roth and Nelson were suspended from producing Season 12 for undisclosed reasons.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. vesta44 permalink
    April 30, 2012 11:42 am

    The cognitive dissonance between the disclaimer at the end of the show and the waiver the contestants have to sign is stunning and the hypocrisy of The Biggest Loser in having those 2 statements in place for the same show is monumental. And the only reason I can come up with for people going on this show anyway (because you know they’ve seen the disclaimer and they’ve signed the waiver) is that they are so fucking desperate to end the torment they get for being fat that they’re willing to risk their health and their lives just for a very small chance to be temporarily thin (and possibly win the money).
    For Michelle Obama to think that travesty of a program is about health is just mind-boggling. She really needs to pull her head out of her nether regions and educate herself about obesity, how complex it really is, and how there aren’t any simple solutions to ending it (or really any solutions at all). That kind of misguided ignorance does so much harm, and if she ever realizes exactly how much harm she’s done with these misguided, good-intentioned, ill-aimed efforts of hers, all the hand-wringing and I’m sorry’s in the world won’t fix it or make it better.

    • May 2, 2012 10:20 am

      I would love if Michelle Obama would start talking about eating disorders instead of obesity, but that’s not going to happen, is it?

      Peace,
      Shannon

  2. April 30, 2012 1:12 pm

    That really is terrible of Michelle to support The Biggest Loser. I’m glad you wrote this article and for the links, so I have more in my arsenal when it comes to trying to convince people on the fence of anti-fat sentiment, to go towards the acceptance side.

  3. April 30, 2012 3:41 pm

    Couldn’t agree with you more about the show increasing fat hatred. I have written several letters to Michele Obama about her Let’s Move campaign and now will write one about this as well. Too bad I’ve never heard back from her. How about a shame on you billboard in front of the White House???

    • May 2, 2012 10:21 am

      I wish we could afford that. We need a SuperPAC. 🙂

      Peace,
      Shannon

  4. April 30, 2012 5:24 pm

    I have never seen a full episode of TBL so I have learned a lot from reading this article. I wonder if the show is really this extreme in actuality or if a lot of the extremities are fabricated to make for a more interesting show to the public. I just can’t imagine a show really endangering the lives of human beings because wouldn’t that be a huge lawsuit risk? Maybe I have no idea what I am talking about here but that just came to mind. If that is how the show really is in the way are treat their contestants, it’s a shame that Michelle would support something like this. I thought she was getting on track with the last interview I saw, she was speaking a lot about being healthy at different sizes and weight discrimination.

    • May 2, 2012 10:24 am

      I got the impression based on the New York Times account and the Kai Hibbard interview that they have actually played down the health problems their show created. When they finally talk about the collapses, they only talk about how fat the contestants were and how their fatness made this happen. I heard contestants talking about how it was “just one mile” in an attempt to justify what happened. One mile is not easy for anyone who is out of shape, let alone someone who is significantly overweight. Plus it was in the sand. And as far as I know, the show never mentions that Elizabeth has asthma during the episode where she collapses. I didn’t watch the whole season, so they may have said it elsewhere. But I believe there is an intentional attempt to portray the health issues as entirely brought on by fatness, rather than the regimens they are subject to.

      Peace,
      Shannon

  5. The Real Cie permalink
    April 30, 2012 11:01 pm

    Michelle Obama should be supporting Health at Every Size. I really am disappointed in her too.
    Some of these horror stories remind me of watching Celebrity Fit Club where that idiot Tina Yothers said to Angie Stone, who has congestive heart failure, “how do you expect your heart to get better if you don’t push yourself?” I was wondering which medical school Tina got her license from, but I’m wondering more which one gave Rob “The Duck” Huizenga his license. (Get it? Ducks quack.)

    • May 2, 2012 10:26 am

      The Attorney General has paid lip service to HAES, but we have yet to see any real work done to promote it. I think our current culture encourages this: talk about healthy lifestyle as the important factor, but emphasize the fact that healthy lifestyles will lead to weight loss, which is a lie.

      Peace,
      Shannon

      • Kala permalink
        May 2, 2012 11:47 am

        Attorney General, not the Surgeon General?

        • May 2, 2012 11:48 am

          No, no, I definitely mean the Attorney General. He’s suing the shit out of thin, sedentary people. 😉

          Peace,
          Shannon

          • Kala permalink
            May 2, 2012 11:55 am

            Eric Holder is really menacing. I hear he makes everyone in his office work in treadmill desks.

            • May 2, 2012 11:59 am

              And the lunch room only serves Jennie-O and Brita filtered water.

              Peace,
              Shannon

  6. The Real Cie permalink
    April 30, 2012 11:08 pm

    Also, as to the contestant who was “using her asthma as an excuse.”
    Yeh, so what if she could end up in the E.R. or worse, dead, because she was unable to breathe. What a wuss. After all, we all know that people get asthma because their fat.
    Nope.
    Fat has nothing to do with the development of asthma. I had asthma long before I was fat.
    As for diabetes, I was reading about that utter lardass Laura Ingalls Wilder today. She and her gargantuan sisters all died from complications of diabetes. Maybe if they hadn’t all weighed in at a tubby 120 pounds or less, they’d still be alive today!
    (Sarcasm alert, for those who don’t recognise it as such. Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1865. She was a very small person. She was 90 years old when she died. Historians believe that her death was due to complications from diabetes. I point this out because of the idiot belief that only fat people are vulnerable to diabetes.)

    • May 2, 2012 10:26 am

      Diabetes is much more correlated with age than weight, but we don’t hear that too often when we’re discussing the panic over it, do we?

      Peace,
      Shannon

  7. May 1, 2012 11:27 pm

    I’ve never seen the show either. I don’t think I could handle that. It’s so troubling that it’s actually a popular show on tv that people actually watch. It’s just plain sickening!

    • May 2, 2012 10:28 am

      Rapunzel,
      Welcome to Fierce Fatties.

      This show is essentially about promoting all the stereotypes about fatties while providing all the humiliation and degradation that society wants to dish out to fat people. It’s a horrible show and I do not recommend watching even a single episode. Not worth it.

      Peace,
      Shannon

  8. June 13, 2012 12:05 pm

    I hate the Biggest Loser. It’s so awful. The one time I was on a diet, I got into it because it actually did “inspire” me to be really disordered about exercise. I can’t believe how popular it is, and the FLOTUS actually thinks it sets a good example. how incredibly disappointing.

    • June 13, 2012 10:33 pm

      I can understand why it’s so popular. It’s fulfilling people’s fantasies of making bad fatties stop being fat. And the differences in bodies are just astonishing. It’s nothing but a freak show.

      Welcome to Fierce Fatties.

      Peace,
      Shannon

      • June 14, 2012 1:00 am

        That’s what my husband says too, but I find it really hard to believe that people can be so sadistic. Or at least really sad

Trackbacks

  1. Just want to clear something up really quick |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: