By Lisa S. Kantor, Esq. & Rachel Teicher
NBC's popular reality show, The Biggest Loser, has returned for its 15th season. The message in the show is clear: significant weight loss is good, fat is bad. While many people find this show to be wildly entertaining, we can't help but be horrified by the deliberate display of fat shaming and weight bias, excessive and dangerous measures for achieving weight loss, and the unfortunate and unrealistic body image standards endorsed. First Lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to be a featured guest on the show next month, and here's why we wish she wouldn't.
The show has repeatedly set new benchmarks with their competitions for heaviest contestant (454, 476 and 526 pounds), fastest 100-pound weight loss (seven weeks), and most weight lost in one week (34 pounds). The extreme measures undertaken to accomplish this weight loss have justifiably caused concern within the medical community. Rapid weight loss is a very risky business, escalating the chances of developing gallstones, mineral deficiencies, loss of muscle tissues, and reduced bone density. Furthermore, suddenly taking on strenuous and excessive exercise can lead to dehydration, problems with electrolyte balance, stress fractures, and even cardiac complications. The show's focus on competitive weight loss is irresponsible, and lays dangerous groundwork for disordered eating and eating disorders within vulnerable participants. The bottom line: the weight loss methods used in this show are incredibly unhealthy, and this information should not be overlooked by the First Lady.
A recent study shows disturbing results: after examining the relationship between exposure to The Biggest Loser and increased weight bias, Domoff and colleagues (2012) found that participants in their study had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals, and they more strongly believed that weight is controllable. Participants in the study who had lower BMIs (and who were not trying to lose weight) had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals following exposure to the show. These findings confirm the persuasive impact the media, in this case The Biggest Loser, has on how we feel about anti-fat philosophies, weight bias, and body dissatisfaction. Shows like the Biggest Loser foster destructive ideas about body type, weight, and fat, and have become deeply embedded into our culture. In fact, some researchers have found that weight stigma (including fat talk) is so embedded among women, that it often reflects not how the speaker actually feels about her body but how she is expected to feel about it. Participation in this show by Michelle Obama grants unspoken approval to these damaging physical and emotional behaviors. This approval perpetuates the damaging way America understands weight, furthering body shaming and weight bullying.
In 2012, Yoo JH (Department of Communication, University of Missouri) observed several important findings. One, individuals who were more concerned with their weight watched more episodes of The Biggest Loser. Two, watching The Biggest Loser lead to a greater belief of perceived weight control, meaning the idea that people are in complete control of their body weight. Why is this important? When people who watch The Biggest Loser reinforce the worth of weight and body type, as well as assume that weight is a controllable factor, then they begin to attribute obesity to personal responsibility…feeding into weight stigma, fat-phobia, and even obesity "panic." Without taking into account age, athletic background, muscle mass, ethnic background, genetics, or medical conditions, we are being taught to judge people based on weight and external appearance all the while assuming that weight loss is 1) easily attainable and 2) the solution to most problems. Weight loss on The Biggest Loser promotes simplistic, yet dangerously deceptive, ideas that persuade viewers into believing: that fat is bad, weight loss can be achieved if you push yourself to the extremes, weight loss is the answer to better health and happier (more attractive) people, and extreme measures taken to achieve weight loss are safe and entertaining.
While this show might be entertaining to many, it is hardly an inspiration to the population to which it bullies and shames into weight loss.
Michelle Obama's planned appearance on The Biggest Loser is most certainly a means to promote her Let's Move Campaign as an effort to fight childhood obesity. While we absolutely promote the health benefits and enjoyment of moving your body, we also subscribe to the Health at Every Size (HAES) principles. Very simply put, the Health at Every Size community acknowledges that good health can be attained independent of body weight, shape, and size. HAES is based on three sustainable and safe principles: accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes, eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite, and finding the joy in moving one's body and becoming more physically vital.
Bingebehavior.com (support for people with impulse control disorders including binge eating disorder) encourages you to sign their petition in the hopes of convincing the First Lady to utilize the compassionate and powerful community support of professionals rather than the sensationalized, harmful platform of entertainment oriented shaming.
We encourage Michelle Obama to re-evaluate her participation with the Biggest Loser, and to collaborate with weight stigma advocates, eating disorder organizations, and research and treatment professionals on the healthiest ways to advance the Let's Move message.
Our hope is that we can begin to eliminate the weight stigma and fat phobia that invades our nation.
Let's begin here.