AMERICA IS THE BIGGEST LOSER
(Here comes another rant. This one's the result of a weight loss study covered in the New York Times and the finale of "The Biggest Loser." Oy. Here it comes.)
According to the New York Times, a new study “finds little evidence that commercial weight-loss programs are effective in helping people drop excess pounds. Almost no rigorous studies of the programs have been carried out, the researchers report. And federal officials say that companies are often unwilling to conduct such studies, arguing that they are in the business of treatment, not research."
They cite Weight Watchers as an example as the most livable of the weight loss plans, since it involves changing your eating habits and weekly support meetings. It was apparently the only "diet company" (which is not how they refer to themselves) that actually does any research.
…with the exception of Weight Watchers, no commercial program had published reliable data from randomized trials showing that people who participated weighed less a few months later than people who did not participate. And even in the Weight Watchers study, the researchers said, the results were modest, with a 5 percent weight loss after three to six months of dieting, much of it regained. [Emphasis mine]
The Weight Watchers study, published in 2003 in The Journal of the American Medical Association, involved 423 people who weighed an average of 205 pounds. Half the participants were randomly assigned to attend Weight Watchers meetings and follow the program. The other half tried to lose weight on their own. After two years, the participants in Weight Watchers had lost an average of 6.4 pounds. The other group had lost no weight. Neither group showed a change in blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose or insulin.
[Side note: one of their sources is a Dr. Stifler, who I believe spends a portion of each day cursing the careers of the Weitz brothers, who created a memorable American Pie character who shares his last name and who emphatically is not a doctor. I’m sure that Dr. Stifler is also not enjoying the implication that his mother is a MILF.*]
What have we learned so far (if any of you are still with me)? That there’s no program that works for everyone, and the only one with any kind of success rate combines sensible eating with exercise.
Moving on to the not wholly unrelated topic of “The Biggest Loser” (which ended its high-ratings run Monday night on NBC).
The title itself reminds me of the episode of Friends where Monica gets mad at her mom for saying that she “pulled a Monica” (meaning that despite her best efforts, everything went wrong). Phoebe suggests that they change the meaning of the phrase, converting “pulling a Monica” into something good. Later, Mrs. Geller (which was actually the name of my high school librarian, but I digress) gives Monica a compliment on her chef-work. Phoebe says, “You might even say she ‘pulled a Monica.’” There’s a beat as Monica glares at Phebes, and then Phebes responds, “oh, she doesn’t know we changed it.”
Growing up, if someone called you “The Biggest Loser,” there was no doubt it was a barb, hurled solely to maim you. And even if no one called attention to it, an overweight child felt like he or she had been publicly crowned “the Biggest Loser.” It was a double insult: socially, you were a loser, and if you were involved in some sort of weight-loss program, the term also functioned as a mockery of your inability to lose the life-ruining pounds and attain the weight standard as set by doctors and the popular Benetton-rugby wearing class elite. Loser…bad.
But this NBC show essentially attempts to play on this double meaning, and to reclaim the term within a weight loss context, reframe it and make it positive. Essentially, they encourage contestants to pull a Monica and officially become The Biggest Loser--after years of feeling like the biggest loser--but Phoebe forgot to tell everyone that being a Big Loser on this show is the whole point, and that it means something different now.
I’ve watched two episodes (both while I was at the gym on the elliptical). And I can tell you now why it’s a) an abhorrent concept, and b) riveting television.
It wouldn’t be reality TV without three essential elements: competition, a useless host, and public humiliation. The Biggest Loser has all three, in spades.
The participants have been broken into teams (red and blue), and are asked to perform various challenges. I only managed to watch two of these challenges: one involved the teams being forced to make pastries and then sell them at a theme park. Of course, the secret purpose of this assignment was to test their ability to restrain themselves from tasting the batter, licking the spoons, etc. They were told after they’d completed the task that they’d be penalized for any BLTs (as Weight Watchers calls “bites, licks and tastes”) that they might have taken during the process. (How many of us could pass such a test?) But this is nothing compared to the challenge in which contestants are forced to climb the stairs of a ninety-floor building and the first complete team to reach the top wins. (Maybe it’s just the irrevocable warping of my brain, but I don’t hear, climb stairs in a 90-story building without thinking about 9/11.) People collapsed in tears, one woman was rushed to the hospital, I believe. Even most gym regulars aren’t in the kind of shape that allows them to sprint 90 stories.
Now let’s up the humiliation ante…with a public weigh-in that doubles as another chance to torture the contestants, but this opportunity provides for emotional torment. As each contestant stands on the scale, clad in shorts (and for women, a sports bra), the screen they stare at, was well as the screen over their head, projects their weight escalating and then going down in an effort to create dramatic tension for the audience and contestants alike. The number is giant, on the screen over their heads, like a scarlet number they’ll have to wear in the town square for all to see. The number fluctuates…260…262…245….252…258…230 before finally arriving at…250. This scale is literally PURE EVIL. And once the show is over, it SHOULD BE DESTROYED (via a potion by the Charmed Ones if necessary. Do not make me involve Alyssa Milano). This episode with the scale made me so mad that I stayed at the gym an extra half hour to see every contestant get weighed. (I ellipticaled so hard that my quads ached in the morning.)
But wait, there's more humiliation ahead.
If the team has lost enough weight as a whole, they’re technically safe. The losing team (which, if you’re following, did not lose enough, and therefore they lose that round and feel like big losers for not losing…) is forced to “vote someone off the island.” Those who are unpopular, who have any kind of weight gain or plateau are up for review by their teammates. There’s a vote: team members unveil their choices by lifting up the lid of a fancy silver serving tray that you might expect would reveal duck a l'orange, but instead contains a folded index card with a player's name on it. If a player is voted off after losing twelve pounds the week before but only one pound that week, she must face useless host Caroline Rhea (who is apparently the biggest loser of her own sense of humor, which is completely absent on this show), who says “You are not the biggest loser. Go home and good luck.” Then, the camera pans to a corner of the room with ginormous refrigerators, each labeled with the name of a contestant. When the contestant is eliminated, the fridge goes dark. (To recap: here, on this show, you want to be “the biggest loser.” A total of 13 pounds in two weeks, unrealistic bordering on miraculous in real life, is scorned on the show. And your presence is represented by a refrigerator. Like I said, this is not a nice show.)
But even as the show sucks, it also sucks people in. Because in America, we all think we’re fat. And, according to BMI guidelines and Supersize Me, many of us are right. But with self-esteem and health of national concern, no matter what our weight or the depth of our revulsion of the concept and execution of “The Biggest Loser,” we’re hooked. But why? I hope it’s not because we enjoy the torture of others, I assume that we watch because we are appalled. These people are bigger versions of us—larger than life because they are on TV, publicly struggling with their size. We compare our bodies to theirs; even though we often suffer from a mild body dysmorphic disorder and don’t really know what we ourselves look like next to anyone else, the comparison engenders either comfort, that their weight problem is more serious than our own (“at least I’m in better shape than she is”), or a mixture of contempt and jealousy (“if I spent two months with a trainer and dietitian, not working or in my regular environment, I could lose a hundred pounds, too!”).
Maybe it is this “awesomely bad” quality that draws us in. They are us, so we can relate. Yet they are not us, so we can bear to watch.
Many of these people were extremely overweight when the show began. And now, they are thinner. They've probably learned a lot about healthy eating and exercise. And while it’s encouraging to see people have success in their weight loss battles, the cynic in me credits not their hard work, but the advantages that they’ve had: personal training, the luxury of working out all day, every day in preparation for weekly weigh-ins, nutritional counseling, the competition looming over them like Big Mother, watching everything they put in their mouths.
I admit it, I’m a little jealous. But I wonder what will happen once they really get back to their normal lives. Donuts in the morning at the office, birthday parties for family members, trying to incorporate exercise into a packed schedule…these are the ongoing challenges of weight loss and a healthy lifestyle. What’s unclear is if they’ll still see themselves as losers once they’ve been reimmersed in normalcy. And we won’t know how they feel about the title of loser--whether it will be their scarlet letter or red badge of courage.
Tonight, The Biggest Loser was declared. And I missed it. I just decided not to tape it. I know my ratings points don’t matter to NBC. But even though this show won’t feel my bite (I’m even blogging about it too late for it to have an impact), I don’t want to expose myself to the reality that there is such a thing as The Biggest Loser, Who Is Also The Winner. It’s too confusing.
Although, for some reason, when they begin advertising the next season, I know I’ll find myself wondering what the application process is like.
*Yes, I am fully aware the mention of Mr. Stifler and his mother is going to increase traffic to my blog, if only via keyword searches. I do understand the nature of the internet. As it is, the search term that most frequently leads people to My Urban Kvetch is “Portia diRossi Ellen Degeneres lesbians.”