Posted on February 3rd, 2012
I watched the Biggest Loser this week, all two hours of it. I’m not a regular fan, but I’ve caught an episode or two most seasons. Since the show has become a touchstone for people trying to become fit and lose weight, I thought I’d take another look.
Mostly this reminded me why it irritates me so much.
First, of course, is the reality show hothouse formula. Everyone stays together on the “ranch” so that we can get lots of juicy interpersonal conflict going. I won’t go into what it was Tuesday night; it’s completely inconsequential. Watching reminded me why I don’t watch reality TV. When I feel as much anxiety and anger about people on a TV show as I do about the people in my real life, I generally prefer to stop tuning in!
More to the point are the messages about training and getting fit. Flashbacks showed us some contestants vomiting into buckets at the end of their first day of workouts at the ranch! Once in my life, I vomited at the end of a 90-minute Saturday spinning class they used to hold at Gorilla Sports in Chicago. The guy who led the class kept doing repeat hard intervals the entire time without giving us enough time to recover. There were only four of us in the class, and he could totally see we weren’t recovered; yet he kept ramping up again anyway with a sadistic glee in his eyes. In the shower afterwards I had dry heaves. Much as I liked the idea of the long workout format, I never went back to his class. (Apparently no one else would, either; it was soon cancelled.)
The two trainers on the show, Bob and Dolvett, are the usual screaming hardasses (with moments of TV tenderness to humanize them). Once in my life a trainer screamed in my face. Our regular spinning instructor at Gorilla Sports hadn’t shown up, and the gym gave us this trainer guy to take us through an alternate workout. He started with fast jumping jacks, exactly the sort of gym “cardio” that pointlessly spikes my heart rate, and after a few minutes I had to stop. He walked up to me and yelled right in my face! I couldn’t believe it. I just stared at him, then turned and walked out of the workout.
“Who wants to be screamed at like they’re in the Army?” I’d asked a psychologist friend.
“Well, look how many people join the Army,” she said.
The worse part of the show is the ridiculously dramatic weigh-in at the end. The contestants of one team need to beat the contestants of the other team in total percent weight loss. If your team loses, you have to vote someone off. Blah blah blah. So basically, everyone is throwing everyone else under the bus if they can’t lose enough weight. What I couldn’t believe last night was that the trainer Bob was rolling his eyes during the weigh-in and bitching about specific members of his own team on camera for not losing enough! Bob, who designed their stupid workouts and knew exactly what they did and how hard they worked! If my trainer ever turned on me with that kind of attitude, he wouldn’t still be my trainer. Of course, they have no choice.
So this is what I am seeing. First, we’re teaching overweight people, who already have no or negative experience with exercise, that exercise has to be so hard it makes you nauseous, it makes you fall over, it makes you cry. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as awful after a workout as these contestants seem to feel! After a race, maybe — but I don’t come back and do that every day. And we tell them they have to work out for hours, all day long, if they want results. There was a strange aside in the middle of the commercials in which one of the trainers answered a reader question. He told the reader to start exercising slowly, not like what you see on the show! How confusing is that?
Second, we’re teaching overweight people that their weight is what they need to measure. This is what has bothered me about this show forever; there is no reason they can’t properly measure body composition instead of weight, and teach people some useful concepts. What we’re all truly after is fat loss and muscle gain. A low weight-loss week for a contestant could be a positive muscle-gain week, or a neutral water-retain week. But all we see is everyone, even the trainers, agonizing over weight loss. It’s a real disservice.
“It’s a TV show,” people tell me. And I know what they mean — the entire structure of it is designed to create false, hook-you-in, watchable drama. But I know avid viewers who try to emulate its principles, and that scares me.
Personally, I think it would be fascinating to watch a show about real people getting their health and fitness under control and transforming their bodies over several months. That’s intrinsically interesting to most of us. I don’t know why what’s served up has to be this MTV Real World immaturity encased within a Survivor competition format.
I would be very interested to hear if other people find more value in the show than I do, and what you are getting out of it, or any other thoughts about it.