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: www.andreascarpino.com