Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
UPDATE: Yesterday, The New York Times released a damning feature on what happens to Biggest Loser contestants after they lose weight. Of course, many already knew of the dark truth behind this show — and the alarming ramifications. In 2014, Rachel Frederickson's win drew unprecedented attention to what's really going on behind the scenes (and in contestants' bodies). This story was first published on February 5, 2014.
Last night's finale of The Biggest Loser sent Internet chatter into high gear when winner Rachel Frederickson took the stage. Showcasing a 155-pound weight loss, the 5-foot-4-inch, 105-pound Frederickson is now just beneath what medical professionals deem a healthy BMI. But, it wasn't the numbers that alarmed viewers so much as her dramatically thin appearance. Tweets and several fitness blogs alike responded by attacking Frederickson herself for "going too far" and turning into "a horrible example for girls looking to get healthy." Aside from the misguided tone of criticism, which looked a lot more like body shaming than actual concern, Frederickson isn't the only one we should be looking at.
In 2010, season-three finalist Kai Hibbard spoke with intuitive-eating and body-image coach Golda Poretsky about the eating disorder she developed after filming the initial three months on the ranch (before returning months later for the live finale). Receiving daily emails from the producers checking in on her progress, demanding she account for all the exercise she'd done and calories she'd eaten, "I got to a point where I was only eating about 1,000 calories a day and I was working out between five and eight hours a day... And, my hair started to fall out. I was covered in bruises. I had dark circles under my eyes. Not to get too completely graphic, but my period stopped altogether, and I was only sleeping three hours a night. I tried to tell the TV show about it, and I was told, 'Save it for the camera.'"
Though Hibbard is now in recovery, she still struggles with both the physical and psychological effects of an eating disorder, as well as the repercussions of being on the show at all. "I'm still pretty messed up from the show. It doesn't help that when I go in public...the first thing they usually ask me is, ‘What do you weigh now?'"
But, the reported incidence of anorexia or bulimia among former contestants is not the only alarming statistic to emerge after 15 seasons of The Biggest Loser. Since the first season, participants have reported the alarming disconnect between what the audience is told about medical supervision and what actually occurs at the ranch. As early as season one, participants confessed to resorting to extreme dehydration in order to keep their numbers dropping. First-season winner, Ryan Benson, told The New York Times that he, at one point, was urinating blood due to this practice. Trainer Jillian Michaels responded by saying this was "the dark side of the show.”
Each episode concludes with the disclaimer: "Our contestants were supervised by doctors while participating in the show, and their diet and exercise regimen was tailored to their medical status and their specific needs. Consult with your own doctor before embarking on any diet or exercise program." However, one former contestant, under the condition of anonymity, released the waiver that the cast was made to sign at the start of filming to the Times. It included the passage: "No warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals who examine me or perform any procedures on me in connection with my participation in the series, or their ability to diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series."
It's no wonder with these alarming reports that medical professionals have consistently attacked The Biggest Loser and its regime of extreme caloric restriction combined with five-plus hours per day of exercise — a practice which often leads to heart-muscle damage, as well as severe electrolyte imbalance. (At least two contestants have been hospitalized during filming.) It's also not surprising that at least half of the participants, including Ryan Benson, gain the weight back within three years.
We all know, at this point, that reality television is not nearly a reflection of real life. We all know that losing 12 pounds in a week is not a feasible or healthy goal. But, when it comes to the thrill of this particular ratings monster, millions of viewers have managed to collectively, conveniently forget. We cannot seem to look away. Perhaps Frederickson, whether she's a victim, a success story, or a red herring, will force us to finally see the story we're really watching.
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