The Biggest Loser has entered its ninth Australian season with a vow to trim the waistlines of the residents of Ararat, in Victoria’s north-west. It has been described as the state’s “fattest town” with a 60% rate of obesity.
The first episode supplied shocking statistics about Ararat leading the country in the incidence of stroke and diabetes. Trainers Shannan Ponton and Steve “the Commando” Willis began the episode with a deep conversation about the gravity of their mission: “you will be saving an entire town”.
The most spectacular demonstration of what precisely the town was being “saved” from came in the form of a dump trunk laden with eight tonnes of “fat”. What looked like animal offcuts were dumped into a towering mountain of repulsion in front of the Ararat town hall. Local residents looked on in disgust at the malodorous pile, which represented the fat consumption of the town in just one month.
While there are uncontroversial reasons for encouraging people to eat a range of nutritious foods and to keep fit, The Biggest Loser is a product of relatively recent shifts in attitudes towards fatness.
The emerging field of “fat studies” has begun to analyse the ways in which we see, and the attitudes we have towards, fatness*. In particular, researchers in this field look at how fatness has been medicalised and pathologised, especially in the past two decades during the so-called “obesity epidemic”.
Abigail C. Saguy, in What’s Wrong With Fat?, points out that the current measures used to label someone as overweight would have put more than 50% of the US population in this category in the 1970s. Those who adopt a critical biomedical perspective argue that there has been no shortening of our life expectancy, and only a modest increase in average weight in recent decades.
According to these scholars, a substantial proportion of people in the West has been fat for some time and the public health crisis surrounding obesity is a recently manufactured phenomenon. Saguy suggests that medical research, public health campaigns, and the media now “contribute to a ‘cult of thinness’”.
As part of this fetishising of thin bodies, there is a stigma associated with fat bodies that aims to shame fat people into “normality”. There is a certain irony to this in that fatness is the norm in some parts of the world, including the town of Ararat.
In her book Fat, Deborah Lupton says we understand fat people as both pitiable and contemptible. She also sums up how we construct fat people as “culturally repellant”:
Fat people are lonely, unloved, emotionally volatile and sad; they deserve punishing exercise routines and stringent diets as part of their weight-loss efforts; they are childish and need a stern authority figure to force them into proper weight-loss habits.
All of these imagined traits of fat people are played up in The Biggest Loser. There are tears as we watch contestants describe their failure to find a partner, or recount their embarrassment on behalf of their children who must be seen in public with a fat parent. This season has introduced the sorrowful story of 48-year-old Mary Reed who was unable to have children because of her weight and is now too old to do so.
Gruelling workouts are at the core of the programme. In this season’s debut episode, potential contestants with limited physical fitness were compelled to climb a steep hill that the trainers admitted would be a struggle for most people. The sheer difficulty of the task, set despite the potential health problems of the contestants that the programme talks up, provides the opportunity for the trainers to act as the tough, authority figures Lupton mentions.
Fat bodies are also seen as shamefully grotesque and disgusting. They are associated with illness and a lack of self-control, discipline and pride. In many instances, there are class and racial connotations to the judgement of fat people as lazy.
The wealthier we are, the thinner we strive to be. And, indeed, as Lupton notes, fat people are more likely to live in poverty, be unemployed, or have a low income; they also tend to have had less education. Just like many of the people who live in Ararat, who are already being disparaged as “bogans” on Twitter.
Yet we, and shows like The Biggest Loser, lay the blame squarely on the fat individual’s failings and weaknesses, rather than the social and cultural reasons that might also have contributed to their size.
The Biggest Loser displays its contestants’ fat bodies in the manner of a freak show to encourage the viewer’s repulsion. There is no technical need for the contestants to appear at the televised weigh-in with their bulging stomachs exposed, as the actual weighing occurs off-camera. Nevertheless, singlets begin to appear late in each season when major weight loss has occurred but hanging aprons of skin would trouble the story of magical transformation.
This season the grotesqueness was ramped up with the dumping of tonnes of stinking animal fat that was intended to symbolise what sits inside the bodies of fat people. The presentation of fat bodies as disgusting contributes to the sense that fat people are unworthy people, and that only thinness will bring them respect from their families and the community.
The Biggest Loser is symptomatic of a society that places an excessive focus on dieting, despite the continual failures that many people experience in keeping weight from returning. Movements such as Health at Every Size aim to shift the focus from dieting for weight loss, which does not necessarily lead to an increased lifespan, to eating in a way that responds to the bodies’ hunger and fullness cues and becoming “physically vital”.
While there is no doubt The Biggest Loser’s contestants could benefit from eating better foods and moving more, the show is part of a wider pathologising of fatness. It participates in the blaming and shaming of fat people in a way that we wouldn’t imagine doing in response to any other “public health crisis”.
* N.B. I use the terms “fat” and “fatness” as is common in the field of fat studies, where the aim is to strip the words of their negative associations.