The Retrograde Shame of The Biggest Loser

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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.

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The longer The Biggest Loser went on, though, the harder it was to maintain this position. Though participants were reportedly forbidden from talking to reporters without the show’s permission (and were warned about potential fines of up to $1 million if they broke the rules), news began to eke out about what happened behind the scenes. In 2007, the Season 3 contestant Kai Hibbard spoke out about the tactics she’d used to shed weight before the finale, which included eating only sugar-free Jell-O and asparagus (a diuretic) for days at a time, and sitting in a sauna for prolonged periods to sweat out more water. In 2014, after the Season 15 winner, Rachel Frederickson, weighed in at an emaciated 105 pounds, a visibly shocked Michaels quit for the third time, with People reporting that she was “deeply concerned” that attention wasn’t being paid to the contestants’ health. In 2016, Biggest Loser alums told The New York Post that they were given diet pills on the show, sparking an internal NBC investigation. (Producers, doctors, and trainers on the series denied all allegations.) Most damning of all was a wide-ranging National Institutes of Health study published the same year, which revealed not only that the majority of former contestants had regained the weight they’d lost, but that their extreme dieting had also permanently damaged their metabolism.

Even after so much scrutiny, The Biggest Loser wasn’t officially canceled by NBC in 2016. It just never came back. And, in the four years it was off the air, a lot changed. Weight Watchers pivoted to wellness, supposedly rebranding itself away from the hard focus of numbers on a scale and toward more general encouragement of health and well-being. Consumers became more skeptical of diet culture, and more cognizant of the societal factors that lead to obesity. TV also adjusted to the times. Dietland and Shrill premiered, deftly dissecting fatphobia and the self-hatred that products like The Biggest Loser subliminally encourage. As if to illustrate how anachronistic the NBC show seems now, Michaels—whose unfiltered, unflinching style was historically a big part of her appeal—was broadly denounced for fat-shaming this month after making comments about Lizzo’s weight on a BuzzFeed show.

And yet, despite everything, The Biggest Loser has shuffled, zombielike, back to prime time, with a new season debuting this week. USA Network, the sister network to NBC where the show has found a new home, announced last year that in its new incarnation the series was going to offer a “holistic, 360-degree look at wellness.” In a panel at the Television Critics Association conference in January, Harper (now serving as the show’s host) and two new trainers insisted that this time around, things would be different—that the focus would be on health rather than weight. Which is both a funny comment about a series whose final 20 minutes still revolve around mass weigh-ins optimized for peak drama in a TV studio, and, it turns out, completely untrue.


A striking thing about The Biggest Loser—then and now—is how many of its ugliest, most misguided moments have actually made it to air. Over the years, the show has featured Frederickson’s gaunt, victorious grin as a hologram of her heavier self looks on disapprovingly; an entire temptation-themed season that bribed contestants with cash and fast food; and the revelation that trainers gave their teams caffeine pills for extra energy. At the beginning of Season 8, competitors were immediately given a challenge: to run a mile. During the ensuing footrace, two collapsed and were hospitalized. “If we had to do over, we wouldn’t do it,” the show’s medical consultant, Dr. Rob Huizenga, told The New York Times a few months later. But in the first episode of the new USA season, the show’s 12 contestants are similarly asked to run a mile, and are told by their trainers that it’s a way to “establish your personal baseline of fitness.” The winning team gets a six-pound advantage at the final weigh-in, enough to decide which side has to send someone home.

Some things have changed in the new iteration of the show, most of them aesthetic. After the weigh-in, contestants are no longer taken to a room containing fridges bearing their names, filled with their favorite junk foods. At least in the first three episodes made available for review, they no longer have to vote to eliminate team members by writing their names on slips of paper that they hide inside silver platters. There are no more challenges compelling competitors to “earn” certain team advantages (letters from home, pounds deducted at the weigh-in) by eating junk food. Very little attention is paid to food at all; this is odd, given how much of the fanfare surrounding the new season was about its attention to all aspects of getting healthy, not least nutrition. (Countless studies have shown that when it comes to weight loss, diet is a far more crucial factor than exercise.)

USA

The show fetishizes workout culture as much as it ever has. The two new trainers, Steve Cook and Erica Lugo, are slightly gentler than Harper and Michaels in their prime, but both seem entirely committed to the Biggest Loser premise that obesity is just a form of mental weakness and treadmills are the cure. Contestants go straight into interval training, which leaves them crying, hyperventilating, and vomiting repeatedly into color-coded buckets. When Kat, a 23-year-old cardiac nurse, tells Erica that she feels lightheaded, Erica tells her to keep pushing. When Steve notices all the people throwing up on the other side of the gym, he tells his team, that Erica’s “got people puking. You guys aren’t working hard enough.” The show, more than ever, sees its competitors as walking health crises who need to be thoroughly broken before they can be saved.

The message this kind of attitude conveys is one of shame. Not only is stigma detrimental to weight loss, it also affects the way viewers at home see the world. (A 2012 study found that watching weight-loss reality shows left subjects with “significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals.”) The Biggest Loser claims to want to change these kinds of attitudes, but its empowerment talk communicates much less than the deliberately punishing workout interludes do. And its “therapy” sessions are led by trainers, an absurd conflation of physical and mental health.

Despite all this, the show can be useful, if only because it’s illustrative of how fundamentally broken American attitudes toward health can be. Weight-loss culture in the U.S. is defined by excess rather than moderation: working out so hard that you physically purge yourself of food and water, treating pain as an affirmation instead of a warning, following diets that eliminate entire food groups instead of encouraging balance. In one scene in the third episode, Steve and Erica briefly gather the contestants to give them diet advice, which includes bringing your own mustard to gatherings so that you don’t slip and accidentally ingest a tablespoon of ketchup. These aren’t wellness tips for a well-rounded life. They’re expressions of such obsession that humble condiments can threaten to derail a whole week of workouts.

Shortly before the new season debuted, Kai Hibbard wrote a blog post for the National Eating Disorders Association about her dismay that The Biggest Loser was returning. When she’d first signed up for the show, she wrote, “I had no idea what to expect ... I just bought into the idea that to be healthy or happy I needed to be smaller. Instead, I became unhealthier, developed disordered eating, and hated my body more than I ever had. Not only did I very publicly display my disordered eating and exercise habits, I was quite literally celebrated for them.” For all the rebooted show’s proclamations that it’s about health, not thinness, it’s still a television series that rewards people who lose unhealthy amounts of weight, and scolds them if they shed “only” four or five pounds. The Biggest Loser hasn’t changed. Shame is its overtaxed heart, self-hatred its rigid core. TV viewers, at this point, should know better than to buy into anything such a series has to say.