If Christmas is the time to be merry and binge, then New Years’ is the time to focus and fast. January sees the highly lucrative weight loss industry ramp up its’ seductive promise that if we commit ourselves to grueling exercise regimes, detoxing, and to counting calories with religious zeal, we can begin a new life. The weight will be over.
For ‘thinspiration’ we need look no further than reality television’s The Biggest Loser, and its new counterpart Excess Baggage, which profiles celebrity weight loss.
But how helpful are these programs? And how honest is it to perpetuate the myth that a new body will equal a new life?
According to Michelle Bridges, personal trainer from The Biggest Loser, “eighty per cent of people who go on a diet will lose less than 10 per cent of their body weight, and be back where they started or heavier in five years… So don’t put yourself on a diet; instead, try implementing small, achievable, healthy changes to your lifestyle”.
Ignoring the fact that the 80 per cent failure rate figure is wrong (the figure is even higher at 95 per cent*), if the majority of people who go on a diet end up heavier in five years, then it seems unethical for the trainers to be putting already obese people on diets which- by their own admission- are highly likely to fail long-term. It is also unclear how an extreme boot-camp experience fits with the prescription of “small, achievable” change.
AJay Rochester was chosen as The Biggest Loser’s original host as she had lost a large amount of weight after years of dieting. Tellingly she has now joined Excess Baggage as a contestant after piling her own weight back on.
The results depicted in these programs are almost impossible to replicate at home where one does not have the luxury of a full-time trainer, a personal chef, and a home gym (not to mention months off work, away from the family and its demands).
But it seems that the results we see on screen may be misleading anyway.
In 2010, Kai Hibbard, a contestant from season 3 of the American Biggest Loser, breeched her strict confidentiality contract, speaking out against the show. Hibbard, who lost 54 kilograms in 12 weeks, claimed that the producers often gave the contestants more than a week to achieve their losses prior to the weigh ins, and that she learned some alarming weight loss tactics including “how to dehydrate to manipulate a scale” and that a cup of coffee counts as an entire meal. When she left the show, she stated that she loathed herself, was suffering hair loss and suffered from a “very poor mental body image”. Nor was the weight loss maintainable. At the time of speaking out, Hibbard had re-gained 32 kilograms.
Australian Biggest Loser contestants have echoed Hibbard’s accusations claiming that they too were weighed every 12-14 days (not weekly) and also used dehydration tactics.
It’s little wonder the Loser franchise has come under fire by experts who question the validity of the advice dispensed.
Psychologist and Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia, Lydia Jade Turner says that “we need to look beyond the show’s manipulative emotionalism [and look] at exactly what messages it promotes about health and dealing with weight-related issues…One contestant collapsed two days after filming ended, having lost 40 kilos in 12 weeks. His gallbladder was removed after being rushed to hospital. Another contestant was hospitalised for low pulse rate as a result of starvation. Yet another was treated for dehydration. And these are just the cases we’ve heard about.”
So why do audiences seek instruction from these dangerous weight loss shows? And why do we postpone everything from our weddings to buying swimwear, putting our lives on-hold in the belief that it will all begin once we hit a certain magic number on the scale?
Ironically, the slogan for The Biggest Loser this year is “Love Yourself.” An admirable sentiment yet self-acceptance should not be conditional on the fact that we must first take up less and less space. The excess baggage we are all carrying around is not our weight. It is our preoccupation with size – at any cost.
Good health is an important goal, but let’s remind ourselves that this may take on a variety of sizes and shapes.
The only thing being boosted by the current culture of fat -phobia and body shaming is the profit margins of the weight loss industry.
* This figure was recognised at the Australian New Zealand Obesity Society 2009, and again at the International Obesity Summit 2010.
This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti–sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting”, teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald 9/1/12.