The Biggest Loser has toyed with fans' emotions for sixteen blockbuster seasons. On one hand, it's undeniably inspiring. On the other, its been accused of treating contestants like, well, losers—shaming them into shedding pounds, while parading them around in spandex shorts. But hey, it’s for their health, so it’s okay. Right?
Anyone who justifies watching the show for virtuous reasons may rethink its redeeming value now that season three contestant Kai Hibbard has revealed that she’s writing a book about the presumed horrors she faced. Hibbard had previously called the show a “fat shaming disaster” and said it even led her to develop an eating disorder. Now, she's shopping around a project titled Too Fat, Too Thin, Can’t Win that explores “how shame is not a motivator but a paralytic—from someone who has regretfully been there and done that.”
While The Biggest Loser has faced criticism before, Hibbard's latest comments made us wonder: Are fat makeover shows doing any good when it comes to body acceptance? We posed this question to body-image activists and TV executives, and here's what they told us.
The health argument
America is facing an obesity crisis. More than one third of adults in this country are obese, according to the CDC, which predisposes them to a host of serious diseases. The Biggest Loser and similar weight-loss shows are doing their part to combat this epidemic, but at what cost?
Dave Broome, co-creator and executive producer of The Biggest Loser, didn't address the specifics of Kai Hibbard's claims, but he denied the show involves fat shaming, saying it promotes health.
“The priority and focus on this show has always been to get people healthy, not shame them for what happened before they came to the ranch," he told Fusion in an email. "It’s about celebrating their decision to change their lives for the better and giving them the tools, knowledge and the environment in which to do that."
Broome also said he is proud of The Biggest Loser, pointing out that the show has "inspired millions of viewers to make healthy changes in their own lives." Indeed, books by trainer Bob Harper have hit bestseller lists, and fans across the country have signed up for Biggest Loser events.
Jonathan Hogan, a rep for ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss—one of the few copycat shows that has endured—sees his show in a similar light. (Full disclosure: ABC is a parent company of Fusion.)
“Extreme Weight Loss appeals not only to people struggling to lose weight, but it also appeals to anyone who has ever attempted to do something daunting,” Hogan told Fusion. “We are very proud of the show’s success ratings-wise, plus, more importantly, helping to change the lives of the participants as they transform themselves in a profound way.”
The shame argument
The body acceptance activists we spoke with told us flat-out that shows in the model of The Biggest Loser—shows that celebrate massive weight loss over a relatively short period of time—do more harm than good.
“These shows perpetuate the idea that you can only be a better person when you reach a smaller number on that scale,” said Claire Mysko, director of programs for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
“Some people find the The Biggest Loser to be incredibly toxic to watch,” she told Fusion. “The message that is sent is weight loss at all costs, but when larger bodies are shamed, it doesn’t do anything to inspire healthy behavior. It encourages bullying.”
Ragen Chastain, a speaker, fat activist, and woman behind the blog Dances With Fat, agreed: “The Biggest Loser is a show in which people are allowed to physically and mentally abuse fat people, and say that it’s for their health,” she told Fusion.
“If you replaced the contestants on The Biggest Loser with dogs, people would have been appalled and the show wouldn’t have lasted a single season,” she said.
Pouya Shafipour, a physician and weight-loss specialist in Los Angeles, told Fusion that patients are most successful when their desire to lose weight comes from a positive place—“when they have a clear vision and goal of why they want to lose weight, how much and what value the weight loss is going to bring in their lives."
Of course, the contestants on The Biggest Loser do typically express a desire to lose weight that goes beyond “winning” the show, but the path to achieving their goals can be painful.
Still, aren't some fat people on TV better than no fat people?
Not necessarily, according to Mysko. When TV shows equate fatness to a disease that needs purging from the earth, they hinder progress. While some overweight individuals should lose weight for health reasons, being fat doesn’t always equal being unhealthy.
Outside of makeover shows, the TV landscape for fat issues is equally bleak, with overweight people often relegated to playing a specifically fat character—shown gorging on donuts a la Homer Simpson or acting as comic relief. And rarely, if ever, do overweight characters play the romantic lead.
“The ingénue is always a white skinny actress,” said Savannah Dooley, co-creator of ABC Family’s Huge. When the show was announced, some fretted the show would “glamorize being fat,” Dooley explained, since it starred an overweight leading lady. God forbid, right?
Even though Huge didn’t make it past its first season, in 2010, Dooley was grateful ABC Family at least took a chance with the show.
“Weight diversity on TV is just as important as racial diversity. It affects how we see ourselves and says that our stories deserve to be told,” she said. “Growing up, for me, I was a little chubby and I never saw a girl look like me getting the guy. She was either a joke or a sidekick. I know that affected me in a really major way.”
What can TV do better?
The National Eating Disorders Association’s Mysko agreed that putting more overweight people on TV is not enough—they need to be shown in a positive light. Not as jokes, or comedians, or in desperate need of weight loss. But as real human beings.
“I talk to a lot of young people, they feel really bad about the way that they look, and it takes up a lot of energy and time,” she explained. “And it’s always reinforced by the media.” Thirty million people in the U.S. suffer from eating disorders, with binge eating disorder topping the list.
Mysko said many young people bring up actresses like Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham as positive role models, because they aren’t stick-thin, but their characters aren’t solely based on weight. They have actual storylines.
Studies have shown that the more a person is exposed to something—whether it’s race, sexuality, violence, or yes, body type—the more accepting of it they become. So it's up to networks to make a push, to change the landscape and create a medium of fat acceptance, say activists.
Amy Savitsky, SVP of programming at TLC, told Fusion she’s trying to make this push. “The weight issue is very important to me. I lost about 100 pounds two years ago, so when weight-diverse shows come in, I think, these are my people,” she said. “It’s a very relatable struggle.”
Earlier this year, TLC premiered My Big Fat Fabulous Life, a show that offers a glimpse into the life of Whitney Thore, who first became famous through her YouTube videos, “Fat Girl Dancing.” The videos went viral not only because Thore was obese—she’s 380 pounds—but because she’s a very good dancer.
Thore told Fusion that she's proud of the work the show is doing to try to change how audiences perceive fat people. “We’re showing a fat person in a way that has not been done before,” she said. "It shows that I’m happy."
Any weight loss on the show is about her wanting to become healthier, on her own terms, she said. It’s not shaming her body or fulfilling a desire to be skinny.
“I want to bend down and tie my shoes, I want to lose enough weight so I can do those things, and so I can dance,” she said. “That’s it.”
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.