When The Biggest Loser debuted on NBC in 2004, George W. Bush was about to be elected to a second term, The Apprentice was a brand-new hit, and Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were fronting one of TV’s most popular reality shows. Amid all this nebulous cultural toxicity of moguls and heiresses, a series in which contestants were isolated from their families, weighed shirtless on national television, forced to exercise for as many as eight hours each day, and taunted with challenges involving cinnamon buns and cupcakes might not have seemed so obviously offensive. Or maybe the cruelty was just part of the spectacle. At the end of the show’s first season, Ryan Benson was crowned the “Biggest Loser” and awarded the $250,000 cash prize. Over the course of the show, he’d managed to lose 122 pounds, or 37 percent of his body weight. By the finale, Benson told The New York Times in 2009, he’d fasted and dehydrated his body to the point where he was urinating blood, a probable sign of kidney damage.
For 16 more seasons of television, The Biggest Loser spawned a colossally profitable weight-loss brand—with cookbooks and fitness DVDs, food-storage options and protein drinks—by insisting that it was helping people. Its most infamous trainers, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, would cycle between modes of sadism and empathy at whiplash-inducing speed. One minute, they’d hurl F-bombs at stunned contestants in the gym and visibly relish their discomfort (“It’s fun watching other people suffer like that,” Michaels once said on air); the next, they’d coax vulnerable competitors into confessing their darkest secrets. The series, like so many elements of America’s $72-billion-a-year weight-loss industry, positioned itself as a force for change, an empowering cultural product in a country where obesity rates are rising. The point of the show wasn’t winning a game, the trainers would emphasize. It was about contestants fixing what was broken deep down inside—the emotional trauma and personal failings, in other words, that had led them to find comfort in food.