Culture of Obesity
As American culture increasingly concerns itself with weight issues, a variety of attitudes and responses to this very real issue arise. Prominent among these is the component of health as threatened by obesity, yet this approach is inextricably linked to societal and personal views on self-esteem, attractiveness, and emotional well-being. The day of humor as an acceptable reaction to obesity is largely over, which indicates a healthier regard for the real problems both arising from it and contributing to it. However, as evinced by the enormously popular program, “Biggest Loser”, it may well be that the pendulum has swung too far, and that obese people are currently being inappropriately seen as inherently damaged.
The television show in question, which has an international following in the millions, as well as ancillary presences as a website and organization, ostensibly gives to obesity the serious consideration the problem merits. Unfortunately, and as demonstrated by returns to dangerous eating habits from successful participants, the psychological emphasis of the show appears to be, at best, misplaced. It seems that, in the interests of generating greater viewership and audience engagement, the trainers and producers of “Biggest Loser” adopt a holistic approach which presents the obese people inevitably as victims of deep, emotional scarring, and which is beyond their sphere of expertise. “Biggest Loser”, by reflecting and encouraging modern thinking regarding obesity as a consequence of an inherently damaged psyche, actually serves to demonize the obese, even as it also, and perhaps dangerously, seeks to provide counseling and life-affirming therapeutic approaches very likely irrelevant.
Basic Premise, Strategy, and Approaches
Differing “themes” notwithstanding, each season of “Biggest Loser” presents over a dozen, substantially obese people. They have competed to join the program and spend several months at the fitness ranch, where their diets will be controlled, trainers will work with them, physical competitions will be conducted for prizes, and weekly weigh-ins will determine who is allowed to remain. As may be noted immediately, the premise incorporates aspects of actual health considerations and entertainment opportunities. Most importantly, the time at the ranch is itself presented, and typically embraced by the participants, as something of a life-saving “retreat”; it is understood that their obesity is so severe that only a removal from their ordinary lives can effect the necessary change.
From the initial episode of each season, the gravity of the circumstances is made abundantly clear, as the contestants are presented as desperate individuals with only this opportunity to reclaim, or even save, their lives. In some cases, this is valid, as certain contestant are indeed in danger from their excessive weight. However, and uniformly embraced by these people, even those not at any appreciable health risk from their weight are addressed as “broken” individuals. The assumption made by the show, and applicable to all, is that some form of profound unhappiness is responsible for the obesity. To address this, the trainers then enter upon a somewhat incongruous duality of approach. Long hours are spent at the gym and food intake is strictly monitored, and this is typically conducted in a military, basic training sort of way. Then, and invariably, there are frequent moments and breaks wherein contestants are pushed to giving into extreme emotion, which usually takes the form of self-recrimination and/or the revelation of a history of being unloved, insecure, and generally unhappy. Most perniciously, it appears that the trainers seek to trigger these responses even from contestants not ostensibly displaying such issues. The implication is blatant, in that obesity must be symptomatic of deep distress.
The participants, as noted, willingly adopt the mentalities thrust upon them. It is fascinating to observe that, in their desire to ascertain some actual, identifiable cause for their obesity, they comply to agreeing to states of emotional dysfunction perhaps not before entertained. More precisely, virtually no contestant on the “Biggest Loser” has maintained that they are there simply because they enjoy eating to excess. Those who begin the program with this point of view unfailingly discover crippling issues several episodes later, which points to something of an agenda on the part of the producers. That is to say, it appears that a deliberate effort is made to portray a uniform degree of emotional instability as an inevitable cause of obesity, as the contestants are encouraged to subscribe to this ideology.
All of this is, moreover, reinforced by a rather specific argot employed by the trainers, and quickly reflected by the contestants. The language employed in the program reflects modern catchphrases and aphorisms of a specifically “new age” type; expressions such as, “get past the pain”, “finding your real self”, and “coming to know and love who you are” are incessantly used by trainers and repeated by contestants. This language distinctly adds to the religious retreat aspect of the show, in that a certain, modern variation of spirituality is insisted upon as profoundly relevant to the obesity issues. No one is “fat”; rather, they are “troubled”, and the contestants who initially do refer to themselves as fat soon alter their language, or refer to their old, “fat” selves contemptuously. As episodes go on, it is often apparent that contestants are conflicted in regard to how they actually perceive their weight problems, even as they echo the vocabulary – and, consequently, ideologies – addressed to them.
Evaluation in Terms of Personal and Cultural Impact
While it may certainly be argued that “Biggest Loser” accomplishes a great deal in helping overweight people individually and through the program's vast exposure and network, the reality remains that its peculiar combination of rigorous, virtually militaristic training and spiritual approaches presents obesity in a very different, and not necessarily more accurate, light. As noted, the interplay between the realities of losing weight and personal esteem issues is incessant, and is evident in virtually every moment of interview, training, weighing in, and competitor “revelation”. As obesity is presented to the participants of the show – and, consequently, to the world – as both the basic reason they cannot achieve personal fulfillment and the cause of the obesity, so too is weight loss equated with personal gratification in social spheres. For example, in the third season, a female contestant was proposed to by her boyfriend as she stepped on the scale to be weighed for the final time. The message was unmistakable: lose weight, and then love will come (Taddeo, Dvorak, 2010, p. 77). This inflexible equating of obesity with deep, personal unhappiness, or as an obstacle to real happiness, is at best specious, and more likely irresponsible and potentially damaging to obese individuals. It assumes psychological dimensions not necessarily present, as well as an inevitable self-hatred by no means uniformly felt by overweight individuals: “Interestingly, body dissatisfaction is not consistently correlated with obesity except at the highest levels” (Williams, Fruhbeck, 2009, p. 358). The equation is nonetheless omnipresent in the program, as contestant after contestant vocally rejoices, not in their weight loss, but in the new state of being they are confident of entering into.
This approach, of course, cannot be consistently successful. The program makes much of its success stories, as it is true that contestants have gone on to completely abandon previous ways of life and begin careers as nutritionists and trainers. This is itself, however, unsettling, in that, as with the spirituality of the show, it renders the struggle against obesity something of a faith, and these graduates disciples of it. Here, as elsewhere, obesity is given inappropriate proportions; it is never merely a physical problem, but a reflection of internal struggle. Not addressed in the program is a reality out of keeping with its agenda, for literally untold numbers of people manifesting various ranges of obesity enjoy excellent senses of self-esteem, have good careers, are not subject to depression, and maintain active social and romantic lives (Williams, Fruhbeck, 2009, p. 359).
Interestingly, the “Biggest Loser” philosophy suffered a serious embarrassment when the winner of the third season, Erik Chopin, gained back much of the weight he had lost. The website of the program carefully presented this, a few years later, as his having “bounced back” inevitably to a middle-ground, after so radical a decrease in weight (biggestloser.org). To those who had witnessed the season, however, most evident was Chopin's desperate attempt to inculcate the ideologies of the show within himself, even as it seemed that he was confounded by them. Then, and not unexpectedly dismissed by the show, there are those contestants who, having strenuously fought to obtain a place on the “Biggest Loser” ranch, cannot succeed there. The program's response to these weekly occurrences is that the contestant in question is unable to invest enough of their person in the necessary process; failure to lose weight is seen as a failure to commit on every level of personal being. In a disturbing sense, “Biggest Loser” offers a double-edged sword to the obese. It will bring about the weight loss, but the show demands, and in no uncertain terms, the contestant's soul to enable the result.
That today's culture is ambivalent, if not still outright hostile, to obesity remains a reality. Obesity flies in the face of accepted standards of attractiveness, which in turn is equated in the ordinary mind with happiness. “Biggest loser”, however, inverts this equation, and irresponsibly so. There is certainly reason to believe, as there is evidence to support the claim, that binge eating is often a response to an emotional crisis within the individual (Buckroyd, Rother, 2008, p. 142). With this program, however, there is no distinction between types of eating, as all eating patterns leading to obesity are perceived by it as necessarily indicative of psychological distress. There is a bitter irony in this, for obesity is a condition which requires no further stigmatizing. This, however, is what “Biggest Loser” achieves. By promoting modern, trend-driven thinking regarding obesity as a result of an inherently damaged psyche, “Biggest Loser” actually serves to demonize obese people, even as it also, and perhaps dangerously, seeks to provide counseling and life-affirming therapeutic approaches by no means necessarily relevant.