The XX Factor

“The Biggest Loser” Exposes The Dieting Fraud

One of the major arguments of the growing fat acceptance movement is that fear-mongering about “health” functions more as a tool to bash fat people than as a genuine expression of desire for a healthier populace.  You couldn’t ask for a better argument for that point of view than this article in the New York Times about the dangers posed to contestants on the reality show The Biggest Loser , though the very name of the show has always suggested to me that it’s more about mocking fat people than promoting healthy lifestyles. Contestants from the show are claiming that the rapid-fire weight loss encouraged on the program led them to dehydrate themselves, some to the point where they were urinating blood.  These concerns are coming after a recent episode had contestants rushed to the hospital for heat stroke.

But as the article points out, even contestants that didn’t try to cheat the system by dropping water weight were still putting their bodies in grave danger by losing so much weight so quickly.  You’re not really supposed to aim to drop more than two pounds a week on a responsible weight loss program, because doing more than that can cause heart problems and electrolyte imbalances that could cause a heart attack.  Yet The Biggest Loser is far from the only cultural product that promotes the idea that rapidly turning fat people into thin people is a legitimate strategy for “health.”  That message blares at us from a variety of tabloid coves, weight-loss advertisements, TV shows, and puff pieces fawning over fat celebrities that dropped half their body weight in a short amount of time due to gastric bypass surgery.  Why is it not enough for fat people to lose weight?  Why does it have to be so much so quickly?

Part of it is a numbers game.  Look at the numbers given in this Times article: Contestants lost 118 pounds, 112 pounds, 122 pounds.  At the recommended weight-loss rates, that means most of them would have taken more than a year to accomplish their goals.  But searching around the Internet, it seems that the show tapes for only 10 to 12 weeks. Committing yourself to a year or many years of weight loss can seem like an overwhelming goal, especially since the emphasis in the world of weight loss is self-deprivation and pain, as if you’re punishing yourself for getting fat.  But most people would like to believe they could give a couple months over to the misery of dieting and exercise, as long as they see a light at the end of the tunnel.

The emphasis on rapid weight loss goes a long way to explaining why diets don’t work . The demands of dieting are unsustainable, and people who diet spend all their time thinking about how they’re going to reward themselves with all the forbidden foods when they finally cross the line.  It goes straight back up to an American inability to conceive of moderation.  Extreme dieting rests next to virginity pledges or teetotalism, or from the left, Buy Nothing Day or throwing out your television set.  When looking for alternatives to excess, we latch onto abstinence.  But abstinence pledges defeat us, and we don’t just fall off the wagon, but fling ourselves off it.  Indulgence/punishment rituals satisfy our need for drama, but they don’t do much for our health or well-being.