Journalist Heather Lende has been writing obituaries in the small town of Haines, Alaska, for 20 years.
NBC is defending the winner of this year’s “Biggest Loser” competition. “The Biggest Loser” is a reality show in which participants move into a weight loss ranch for months, to go through a series of workout challenges and often teary therapeutic sessions with coaches and nutritionists.
Rachel Frederickson, 24, arrived weighing 260 pounds. She lost a good deal of weight, then joined two other finalists who went home and tried to either maintain or continue to lose the weight. Frederickson returned to lose a total of 155 pounds — nearly 60 percent of her body weight — and Tuesday night walked away with a $250,000 prize.
Her reveal ignited a flurry of criticism, with many on social media buzzing that she had lost too much weight. The whole episode has raised the question yet again about the impact of reality TV.
Indiana University gender studies professor Brenda Weber, who researches reality television, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss “The Biggest Loser.”
On reactions to Rachel’s weight loss
“In 15 seasons of the show, it’s remarkable that this is the first time it’s actually triggered this kind of national conversation, because the logic of the show has been this from the outset: lose as much weight as quickly as you can, and that’s how you win this competition.”
“Everyone keeps going to the faces of the trainers, Bob and Jillian, in shock and disbelief … And in fact, in the last episode of the season, when Rachel had her final weigh-in at the ranch, she weighed 150 pounds. And so then the finale is six weeks later in real time, so she lost 45 pounds in six weeks at home, and it was a dramatic change, and that’s also a very unhealthy change.”
On how society views overweight and underweight people
“A lot of people feel like it’s unfair and inconsistent to say someone is too fat, and now say they’re too thin, like there’s no place for a person to win … especially a woman. The obese person and the anorexic person actually trigger very similar kinds of reactions, and it’s about these extremes that get written on the body, and they both code as rule-breakers, as being antisocial, they’re not willing or able to act like the rest of us are supposed to act, right? There’s a whole form of social judgment that accrues to these extreme bodies. But of course, what happens is, in the case of the very thin body, that kind of public censure doesn’t come in until it’s really, really extreme, whereas you can gain 10 or 15 pounds, as any number of pop stars from Britney Spears to Kesha to Lady Gaga have shown us, and you begin to get the public censure. You don’t have to have the body that’s 200 pounds overweight to activate that kind of critique.”
On the impact of shows like “The Biggest Loser”
“These shows aren’t isolated. They’re all participating in a larger network of conversations about how we ought to behave, how we ought to look. You don’t pay attention to this popular culture at your own peril. If you’re not willing to be critically engaged with it, then you’re likely to be manipulated by it.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
The show "The Biggest Loser" is phenomenally successful with franchises around the world, a reality show in which participants move to a weight loss ranch for months, go through workout challenges and teary sessions with coaches and nutritionist to try to lose often deadly weight. Talk about "Hunger Games."
Twenty-four year old Rachel Frederickson, a three-time former Minnesota state champion swimmer, arrived weighing 260 pounds, lost weight and joined two other finalists who went home and tried to lose more. But then Rachel returned. She'd lost a total of 155 pounds, nearly 60 percent of her body weight. And Tuesday night, she won the $250,000 prize.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIGGEST LOSER")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Rachel, you did it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You deserve it.
YOUNG: She wouldn't say how she got down to 105 pounds. And the whole episode has raised the question yet again. What is the impact of reality TV? Brenda Weber is an associate professor of gender studies at Indiana University. Her forthcoming book is "Reality Gendervision: Sexuality and Gender on Transatlantic Reality TV." She joins us from the studios of WFIU in Bloomington. And, Professor Webber, you watched. You told us you were stunned along with everyone when you saw this very thin Rachel come out.
BRENDA WEBER: I also think in 15 seasons of the show it's remarkable that this is the first time it's actually triggered this kind of national conversation because the logic of the show has been this from the outset, lose as much weight as quickly as you can and that's how you win this competition.
YOUNG: It's quite emotional at times. These are very obese people. And in many cases, they know it's life or death. But then layered on top of that is - first of all, it's for everyone to see, to watch and see and it's often humiliating. And then there's this prize, this cash prize at the end. I mentioned "Hunger Games." I constantly think of that. But there are those who say that this is a wonderful example of spirit and guts.
WEBER: I think it's both a weight loss show, but it's also about more personal kinds of challenges that in watching them it becomes quite inspirational for viewers at home.
YOUNG: Who, of course, though, we have to say because I'm sure someone is thinking at - are sitting on their couches.
WEBER: Yeah, many are. And in fact, I think many do that with pleasure. I've talked with several people who enjoy ice cream and cake as they're watching "The Biggest Loser." I know others that watch it because they like the cathartic experience of crying. I actually exercise while I'm watching it.
But one thing that's really interesting, television, particularly reality TV, isn't limited to the television small screen anymore. So people Twitter as they're watching it. Now, there are all these biggest loser clubs and challenges. And that's sort of activated people in interesting and sort of unprecedented ways.
YOUNG: Well, then you come to this show and this finale.
WEBER: I think for one thing, you know, everyone keeps going to the faces of the trainers and - Bob and Jillian in shock and disbelief.
YOUNG: This is Jillian Michaels and...
WEBER: Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper. And in fact, you know, in the last episode of the season when Rachel had her final weigh in at the ranch, she weighed 150 pounds. And so then the finale is six weeks later in real time, so she lost 45 pounds in six weeks at home. And it was a dramatic change. And that's also a very unhealthy change.
And I think many makeover shows, not just "The Biggest Loser" but "The Biggest Loser" itself positions itself in this sort of role of being a savior. And I think even up on the wall of the gym, they have a quote from Bob Harper, one of the trainers, that says, you know, I'm here to save your life.
What happened to this sort of public conversation in the wake of Rachel's win was it shocked people because it triggered another kind of extreme. And what's really fascinating is that I've been reading, you know, Twitter posts and blog responses and things since the finale, and a lot of people feel like it's unfair and inconsistent to say someone is too fat and now say they are too thin, like there's no place for a person to win.
YOUNG: Especially a woman.
WEBER: Right. Especially a woman. The obese person and the anorexic person actually trigger very similar kinds of reactions. And it's about these extremes that get written on the body, and they both code as rule-breakers, as being anti-social, they're not willing or able to act like the rest of us are supposed to act, right? There's a whole form of social judgment that accrues to these extreme bodies.
But, of course, what happens is, in the case of the very thin body, that kind of public censure doesn't come in until it's really, really extreme, whereas you can gain 10 or 15 pounds, as any number of pop stars from Britney Spears to Ke$ha to Lady Gaga have shown us, and you begin to get the public censure. You don't have to have the body that's 200 pounds overweight in order to activate that kind of critique.
YOUNG: But you also say that this idea that this show set itself up as this transformative, progressive work, then when this overly thin body comes out, it puts a lie to that. Let's listen to a little bit of what you were talking about, how when Rachel first came on the show, talked about her weight, 260 pounds, and what that did to her. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIGGEST LOSER")
RACHEL FREDERICKSON: 260, it's the highest I have ever been in my life, and it just means all of the loneliness, all of the hurt, and all of the emotions that went into getting to this number.
YOUNG: So we can hear some of the emotion that's expressed on the show. But, you know, Kai Hibbard, who was a finalist on season three, has since said that before the last episode of "The Biggest Loser," she dehydrated herself. She took off 19 pounds in the last two weeks before weigh in. She stopped eating solid foods, had two colonics, sat in a sauna for hours before the weigh in. You mentioned the look on the faces of the trainers when Rachel came out, but they must know what people are doing in the final hours, and especially in those last weeks when the finalists are alone and not on the ranch. You've spoken with former contestants. What do they tell you?
WEBER: Yeah. I think that there's a don't-ask-don't-tell policy going on. I mean, one of the things that people I've talked to who've participated on "The Biggest Loser" in particular have shared with me is that the way the show positions time on the show is inaccurate and so the weigh-ins are not weekly, which means you can amass bigger numbers in what looks like a smaller amount of time. And then everything that you talked about with Kai, right, that once they're off the ranch, all bets are off and they do everything they possibly can do in order to bring those numbers down.
YOUNG: Well, Brenda Weber, I could just hear people saying, what do I care? Who cares if people decide they want to go on these shows? Who care if some young woman lost too much weight and is now being, you know, heavily discussed in social media? Everybody who participates buys into it and deserve whatever they get in the end, and no good can come from this. But I'm thinking of the recent study that show that MTV's "Teen Mom" series, another reality show in which teenage mothers really show how hard their lives are, led to a decrease in teen pregnancy. Do you think there is a social benefit of "Biggest Loser"?
WEBER: These shows aren't isolated. They're all participating in a larger network of conversations about how we ought to behave, how we ought to look. You don't pay attention to this popular culture at your own peril. If you're not willing to be critically engaged with it, then you're likely to be manipulated by it.
In terms of the causality, "Teen Mom" in particular actually shows a very complicated version of what does it mean to be a teenage mother, and sometimes it says much about glorying and how cute these children are as it is, ooh, look how hard these girls have it. And similarly, I think "The Biggest Loser," it's one of the hugest and has been the hugest rating draws of reality TV's offerings for the last 10 years. I haven't seen that there's been a huge decline in obesity rates. There's been some, but that's much more of a systemic kind of awareness, right? So "The Biggest Loser" may have contributed to that, but I don't think it alone has caused people to either gain weight or lose weight, or to be less tolerant of large bodied people.
YOUNG: Hmm. Or, as we're seeing, thin people. Brenda Weber, associate professor of gender studies at Indiana University. Her book is "Reality Gendervision: Sexuality and Gender on Transatlantic Reality TV." Professor Weber, Brenda, thanks so much.
WEBER: Sure. It's my pleasure.
YOUNG: And if you have thoughts, go to facebook.com/hereandnowradio. Everyone else is. Or you can leave a comment with this story at hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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