The Biggest Loser


Picture of police with water cannon attacking fat man


By Andrea Scarpino


The Biggest Loser—a group of “overweight” contestants shipped to a ranch in Southern California to learn about nutrition, exercise fanatically, and compete for the most weight lost and a $250,000 prize. Reality television at its—finest? 

I only started watching in the past several weeks, and only reruns I can download from hulu, but I find it fascinating—the physical transformations, yes, but more than that: the show’s language about the body, societal body norms transmitted by the trainers and contestants, what those norms tell us about other aspects of the body, about health, ability, disability.

First, the construct of weight, the numbers we’ve decided demonstrate “normal,” and the numbers “over” those norms. There is actually very little medical evidence linking a larger body with more disease and a smaller body with less—and the standard BMI measurement of acceptable body weight has been widely derided. Of course, you wouldn’t learn this from watching the show.

Then there’s the body as object, fetish. There’s no reason we need to see the contestants weigh-in wearing nothing but a sports bra and shorts. Except that we want to see their flesh, want to compare our bodies to theirs, want to feel superior—don’t we?

And the language of the body: how much success and failure is personally attributed to each contestant’s “work” or lack of work. All the contestants talk about having “done” their weight to themselves—and are encouraged to accept responsibility for what they have done. Of course, I generally believe personal responsibility is a good thing. But I also try to be realistic about how much power I actually have in the world, how much power any of us has.

And the way we construct power and responsibility through language often has a hidden downside: if we see ourselves as responsible for every aspect of our body, then what does it mean when our body does something unexpected? If we get cancer, are “overweight,” are raped—then doesn’t that mean we have failed?

This worries me. Last week, I went to a new doctor in Green Bay who was openly shocked by my breast exam. He doesn’t see women with as many calcified cysts as I have until they’re “much older, at least post-menopause.” This puts me at a much higher risk for breast cancer, among other things. And yet, I’m a vegetarian eating organic, exercising almost daily, trying every possibly solution from specialists and international medical journals. Does my body’s “failing” mean I’m not working hard enough? That I don’t want badly enough to be healthy?

Or should we balance personal responsibility with an awareness that our bodies work in mysterious ways, ways science doesn’t understand? That our bodies are partly social constructs, that our “norms” are chosen by us. It may be true that The Biggest Loser contestants have lost sight of healthy eating and exercise habits, but it’s also true that there is a limit to how much personal responsibility can alter our body, how far “hard work” will get us. And there are dangers with thinking that health, success, ability, etc. derive only from how hard we’re willing to work, derive only from ourselves. 


Poet and essayist Andrea Scarpino is a frequent contributor to POTB. You can visit her at:

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

0 thoughts on “The Biggest Loser”

  1. I watched “Loser” for the first time this week–the final episode, no less. I was ashamed and horrified that a former NFL player would subject himself to the public scrutiny of standing on a scale for a national audience. The irony is in the public eye: as a professional athlete on the field, his weight would have been displayed proudly as he ran a play (never watched him, don’t know his stats). As a contestant, he was stripped to his shorts, made to stand on top of a tower with his “starting” weight and photo, and then the calculator subtracted to give a final weight and percentage lost. The goal? To be the one to receive all the confetti along with a lot of money to pay for trainers and nutritionists for the next few years in hopes of not gaining weight again. Either way, as an athlete or a contestant on a show, his weight was displayed for a national audience. But the social aspect of how it was displayed–as a respected, powerful, well-trained athlete, or as an uneducated, irresponsible sloth–that is far more indicative of our society’s perception of weight.
    I recently wrote a late-night raging tangent on a friend’s facebook post. He routinely advertises his weight loss products by posting, “real health is only a decision away.” My question is, “what is ‘real’ health?” Is obesity a disease or a choice? Or a choice that causes diseases? Or a disease that resulted from other physiological complications, such as medications with the known side effect of weight gain? From personal experience as a person with a chronic medical condition requiring a medication that causes extreme weight gain, I can honestly say that “real health” for me includes the medication. Obese? So be it. I’m not flopping on the floor like a fish with seizures all day, I can drive my son to and from school, and I can take a shower without having someone supervise. For the sake of space and time, I won’t discuss all the alternative medications and treatments that I have already tried.
    The last thing I would like to bring to the discussion is “real mental health.” How healthy are we, as a society or individuals, when we obsess about physical health? Does anyone else remember the ranches, retreats, inpatient centers where people (mostly women) would go for months to find supposed cures for eating disorders, which were primarily defined as anorexia and bulimia? As our nation looks to redefine health, especially with regard to weight, perhaps we should revisit the ’80s and the research done on eating disorders. Obesity isn’t as simple as eating too much and exercising too little.
    The psychological damage done through the imposition of norms, especially physical and bodily appearances, can be deadly. I worry less about the physical damages that people are hyped about, such as Type II diabetes and heart disease. I worry more about the mental health issues that arise from such abnormal thinking. Which health care institute is following the suicides from depression as related to a person unable to achieve expectations (please note the absence of the term ‘norms’). I think the severity of impositions on the psyche regarding weight is far more unhealthy than obesity in and of itself. I suppose research and time will tell. As a nation, we can only weight and obsess.


  2. It might be difficult for people who have never been overweight to view the “responsibility” factor as an unrealistic approach, or even unfair approach to one’s being over weight. In this case, carrying too much body fat is one of the only controllable things in the life of an obese person, as long as they realize that they do indeed have the power to change their own lives through more responsible food choices. As far as one’s body doing unexpected things despite taking good care of it, this is quite different.
    Cancer may very well be an unexpected bodily event despite how the owner of the body takes care. I would argue that cancer is different than obesity and should not be compared to “diseases” that are for the most part controllable by personal choice. Some say that cancer cannot live in an alkaline environment, so perhaps body acidity/alkalinity can be examined, different food choices could be made etc. As far as failure, yes, I would say that the body’s inability to stop reproducing cells, despite killing the body in the process is a kind of failure. So what?
    I would also say that not getting the correct “tools” to stop yourself from overeating is also a failure (tools might include therapy, nutritional education, exercise, etc). I personally have learned quite a lot from my failures and have been very motivated by them at times. Yes, I like to compare my body to others to feel better. I use this behaviour as a gauge, just like I like to compare how well I dance compared to my dance instructor. I like a standard, a measure. I do not however like to put others down or criticize personal choice. Everyone makes changes for themselves when they are damn well ready, and not before.
    Rape, well I have no idea why you chose to bring that up, (perhaps for shock value?) I don’t understand how that fits into this conversation.


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