Surprise! “Biggest Loser” Exploits and Shames People

The news this week that the “Biggest Loser” exploits and shames people who appear on this reality show is hardly news to anyone who can see past their own prejudice against people living with obesity.

The New York Post published a lengthy story based on the experiences of Kai Hibbard, who says that the show is “a fat-shaming disaster that I’m embarrassed to have participated in.” She describes humiliating rituals of stressing contestants to the point of physical and mental collapse:

They’d get a sick pleasure out of it. They’d say “it’s because you’re fat. Look at all the fat you have on you.” And that was our fault, so this was our punishment.

Signing a contract that grants participants’ story lines to the show’s producers and forbidding them to speak negatively about the experience is a condition for participating. But reports of problems continue to surface anyway. The first season’s winner, Ryan Benson, reported blood in his urine — a sign of kidney damage — after the show ended. He was disowned by the show and regained all of the weight he lost.

The “Biggest Loser” is a monument to weight bias, founded on unhealthy principles for weight loss. Studies have shown that the show promotes bias against people with obesity and encourages people who watch to blame people with obesity for their condition.

The boot-camp approach to weight loss the show espouses, though sometimes effective in the short term, is spectacularly ineffective in the long term because it relies on extrinsic motivation. Lasting changes are more likely to result from tapping into intrinsic motivation. In other words, people who most successfully deal with obesity do it for their own reasons, not because someone else bullied them into it.

And what’s more, the metabolic effects of the “Biggest Loser” — documented in this study — set people up to regain the weight they’ve lost.

Lurid exploitation has an appeal that is centuries old and it hasn’t improved with age. Change the channel.

Click here to read the story in the New York Post, here for more on how the show promotes prejudice against people with obesity, and here for a bit of follow-up on outcomes for some of the participants.

No!NO!NOOOO! – photograph © James Vaughan / flickr

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