You know that things have gone awry on the US series of The Biggest Loser when even the trainers are rendered speechless.
Celebrity trainers Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper can usually be counted on to come up with some uplifting banalities about the winner. But this year, they’re distancing themselves from Season 15 winner Rachel Frederickson and her record-breaking weight loss that saw her claim the $US 250,000 prize.
But perhaps they didn’t need to say anything anyway. The horrified looks on both trainers’ faces spoke volumes as Frederickson paraded her emaciated-looking frame at the finale.
Frederickson, who weighed in at 47.6 kgs, lost 70.3kg or 59.6 per cent of her body weight during the show. This puts her in the underweight category according to the Body Mass Index (BMI) measure.
According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, ‘[B]eing underweight can…have adverse health consequences including decreased immunity (leading to increased susceptibility to some infectious diseases), osteoporosis, decreased muscle strength and hypothermia.’
Even though many health professionals question whether BMI measurements are an accurate marker of health, The Biggest Loser franchise relies on it. After all, how else are they to reduce something as complex as health to a single, easily understood digit? It’s a tidy way of labeling and shaming overweight and obese people.
By it’s own standard — namely BMI — the show has facilitated the transition of Frederickson from one extreme of poor health to another extreme of poor health.
This wasn’t lost on viewers. Twitter exploded as the 24 year old voice over artist took to the stage, with viewers condemning Frederickson’s extreme weight loss and the show for encouraging it.
But there’s a double standard at work here. Frederickson’s slight and frail-looking frame isn’t dissimilar from the current cultural ideal of beauty that’s celebrated in our magazines and on our TV screens. But pictures of waif-thin celebrities don’t provoke outrage in quite the same way as Frederickson has.
The difference in the case of The Biggest Loser is that the show lives or dies by carefully cultivating an emotional bond between audiences and contestants. Over the weeks and months of the show, we feel we’re on a journey from pain and rejection to health and healing with them.
As NBC’s The Biggest Loser website puts it, ‘This season’s inspiring theme of “Second Chances” will be seen through the compelling stories of 15 contestants, all on their own unique journeys [sic] to reclaim their health and re-write their futures.’
To see a contestant descend into potentially poor health isn’t just anti-climatic. It’s a betrayal of the audience’s trust. If the reactions on Twitter and some sections of the media are anything to go by The Biggest Loser audience feel they’ve been cheated and personally implicated in something less than savoury.
Surely it was only a matter of time until somebody took a competition that only values weight loss — and rewards it with quarter of a million bucks — to its inevitable conclusion. But for many of the show’s viewers, Rachel Frederickson’s ‘big reveal’ revealed rather more to them than the show’s producers would have wanted.
Far from being about health and wellbeing, it revealed a show built around fast, unsustainable and unhealthy weight loss.
As weight management doctor and director of the Butterfly Foundation Rick Kausman says, ‘There is no question that rapid weight loss is unhealthy. To lose that amount of weight so rapidly she would have to be losing a whole lot of other things other than fat, such as muscle and probably bone density.’
‘When will we learn that this is unhelpful to contestants and viewers? In years to come people will wonder how shows of this type were ever allowed to be shown on television,’ Dr Kausman said.
If there is an upside to this whole sorry affair, it’s that The Biggest Loser franchise can no longer pretend it’s providing a community service inspiring people to become healthy.