fitness

Wait. Can we please acknowledge that The Biggest Loser was the most f**ked up thing on TV?

Content note: This article deals with themes of disordered eating and fat shaming. We have chosen not to mention any weight or calorie intake information. For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE, or visit their website, here. 

It's 2006. 

A time before Facebook or Instagram or TikTok. 

Mum is cooking something terrible in the kitchen. No one is sure what but we think it might be burnt bolognese. I'm on MSN and I have too many emoticons in my username. Then I hear it. 

It's Shannon Noll.

I know you do, Sir. 

He knows how hard it can get. But, he implores, you gotta lift. YOU GOTTA LIFT. 

It's time for The Biggest Loser and, rather bizarrely, we sit down as a family to watch. We interrogate the work ethic and resolve of the contestants, and watch week by week as they become smaller and smaller. We anxiously await the finale, where the deciding weigh in will reveal that the winner has lost almost 38 per cent of their body weight. 

For the next decade, we watch season after season. Families, singles, couples, the next generation - the show does it all. One contestant loses over 50 per cent of his body weight in a 12 week season. We get to know the different training styles of Michelle, Shannan, Commando and Tiffiny, watching as contestants vomit, fall, cry, injure themselves and share their psychological distress with an audience of one million. 

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That audience believes they're genuinely invested in the health and well-being of these every day Australians. But years on, the truth is unavoidable: The Biggest Loser had very little, if anything, to do with health. This was a show about shame. 

***

It's season three, episode one.

We begin with double the amount of people the show can actually fit in the competition. There are 30 potential contestants and only 15 can make into The Biggest Loser house.

Trainers Michelle and Shannan arrive, and instantly, Michelle is frustrated. She doesn't understand why these men and women look so happy and excited to be here. "They have no idea what they're in for," she says. 

Addressing the potential competitors, the trainers lift the lid on a silver platter placed on a table. Underneath is a card outlining that a gruelling workout will be the decider of who stays (to achieve their dreams) and who goes home (to try to achieve their dreams on their own but with minimal support and likely with less success). This training session, they explain, is the single most defining moment of these people's lives.

For some reason, despite the rain and wind, the contestants are made to complete the workout outdoors. Within moments, they're covered in mud, while being yelled at to GET ON YOUR GUTS to do PUSH UPS. 

Reflecting on the workout, Shannan tells the camera, "blood, sweat, tears, vomit - we were going to find a way to get all of them."

When the successful 15 are chosen, Michelle assures the others: "All of you are coming to the finale, a whole lot slimmer." Not fitter, not healthier - slimmer.

Listen to this episode of Cancelled, where Clare and Jessie discuss The Biggest Loser. Post continues after podcast.

In the following episode, we have our first weigh in. Almost every contestant cries when they're weighed. 

People describe their weight as 'embarrassing,' with one man strangely referring to his size as 'unAustralian'. 

Host Ajay Rochester questions each contestant. 

Are you worried about dying before your children grow up?

Other than yourself, who have you let down? 

Do you think your weight is robbing you of your youth?

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It was the perfect formula for reality TV. The stakes are high. The outcomes are significant. The emotions are authentic. The ethics, however, are a problem.

For a season in 2015, my sister and I recapped The Biggest Loser. By this stage, the theme song was Shake It Off by Taylor Swift, and the challenges had become even more bizarre. In one episode, contestants pulled an aeroplane to try to win the privilege of a 5kg weight penalty that could be given to a team of their choice. 

In another episode, Temptation was introduced. One by one, contestants were taken to a location with three food trucks, full of ice cream, crepes, and hot dogs, and told that the person who consumed the most calories was the winner, gaining an advantage in the competition. 

We wrote at the time about the problematic idea of 'Temptation':

"It’s the final straw in destroying the contestants’ relationship with food.

"Eating well requires us to have a good relationship with healthy food, but also requires us to maintain a balanced relationship with unhealthy food. The difference between a diet and a healthy lifestyle change (and the reason diets fail) is that you are going to eat unhealthy foods from time to time. There are birthdays and weddings and, you know, Friday nights where somehow you end up with a large frozen coke, KFC, and 3 packets of m&ms. All these things happen, and are out of our control.

"If this show suggests that eating an ice cream is ‘failing’, they have created the perfect environment for a problem with binge eating. What causes binge eating is flawed cognitions about having eaten something ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, which leads to guilt, and ultimately abandoning one’s ‘diet’ for the comfort of emotional eating."

Even while logically knowing the problems with the show, and being acutely aware of its damaging messages about food and weight, I couldn't stop watching. 

It was addictive. 

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And clearly, millions of Australians agreed.

***

"I always said I thought someone was going to die on that show."

Tracy Moores appeared on the first season of The Biggest Loser in 2006. In 2019, she spoke to The Feed for an investigation into reality TV. She described what it was like to film one of the first episodes. 

"[We were in this room] and we were all blindfolded. And they took the curtain down and there was all this food. They basically made us out to look like a bunch of pigs. I was quite distraught about the whole thing. We were quite traumatised to the point where I was crying."

Moores went on to recall a challenge where contestants were withheld cold water. "We were on a tarmac and we had to pull a plane and I think it was like 40-something degrees," she said. "We looked over and we were all standing in the sun and we were given hot water. The crew were under umbrellas with bottles of water with ice. I actually went over and said, ‘Can we get some cold water?’ And they said, ‘No, your water’s over there’."

To lose weight, Moores said contestants were "on a treadmill for hours on end... three hours sometimes."

"Some of the contestants had enemas, they shaved all the hair off their body, they didn’t eat," she said. "They looked like the walking dead."

Moores' comments point to an inevitable outcome of a show like The Biggest Loser. When weight loss becomes a competition, it leads people to disordered eating and exercise. 

But even the competition itself wasn't as it appeared. Writing for News Corp in 2014, former contestant Andrew 'Cosi' Costello from 2008 shared that the 'weekly' weigh-ins weren't weekly at all. "The longest gap from one weigh-in to the next was three-and-a-half weeks," he said. "That's 25 days between weigh-ins, not seven. That 'week' I lost more than nine kilos."

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Watch: Remember the budding romance between Mel and Pablo? Post continues after video.


Video via Channel 10. 

Costello also shared the reality of the finale, which he says took 12 hours to film. "Before going on stage, there was a person behind the scenes whose job it was to help gaffer tape any 'flabby' bits of skin."

Former host Ajay Rochester has made disturbing allegations about the lengths contestants' went to in order to lose weight. In an interview uncovered by TV Blackbox, from a 2014 episode of the podcast I Love Green Guide Letters, Rochester claims one contestant "would just stop eating and then dehydrate and arrive deathly ill, not able to stand up, shallow breathing, basically at near risk of death."

She also pointed out the inherent irony of the show's challenges.

"Here’s the irony of The Biggest Loser; we’ve got all these people and we’re trying to tell them to change their lives and help them and lead them to lose all this weight. Then, we give an immunity challenge where they have 30 minutes to eat up to 150 liquor chocolates - the person who eats the most gets to stay."

It sounds like a recipe for an unhealthy relationship with food.

***

Emma Duncan won The Biggest Loser Families in 2011. When she saw applications were open, she encouraged her siblings to enter with her. She put on about 30 per cent of her body weight before filming started.

"I knew we were going to get on, so I just let loose a little bit and ate too much," she told Mamamia last year. "I was like, 'Right, I need half my bodyweight to lose if I’m going to win this show'."

Duncan did win. But she says she "hated" being the weight she was when she won. 

"I felt too thin, looked too sick," she explains. "Being six foot tall, I just didn’t like it. I needed a little bit of curve, being a woman, for me. My boobs were like cracked eggs on my chest. They were very saggy. My skin was really loose."

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Within a matter of weeks of "normal everyday living and eating and drinking fluids", Duncan had put on 20 per cent of her body weight.

"I liked my body at [that weight]. I felt confident. I felt happy. That was an easy maintainable weight. I’m [that weight] now.”

However, Duncan hasn’t stayed at exactly the same weight for the past nine years. She says she’s still an emotional eater.

That's one of the big problems with the show, says Costello. "[It] doesn't address the reasons why people like me are so obsessed and addicted to eating excess amounts of food; it doesn't get to the root of the problem." 

When the former winner reflected in 2014, he observed "75 per cent of the contestants from my series in 2008 are back to their starting weight. About 25 per cent had had gastric banding or surgery. I sit in the middle somewhere... and my lifelong battle with weight continues."

***

In 2017, The Biggest Loser had a rebrand. The Biggest Loser: Transformed - with trainers Shannan Ponton and Libbie Babet, as well as resident psychologist Glenn Mackintosh - tried to show that healthy living was about more than just weight loss. 

The problem, of course, was that no one watched. Ratings were so low that the season was swiftly moved from its prime-time slot, with the winner being revealed to the smallest audience of the show's history. 

By attempting to raise the ethical standards of the show, the creators had lost the show altogether. The Biggest Loser was cancelled, and it's difficult to imagine any version of it airing again. 

But for a decade, millions of Australians absorbed dangerous messages about weight from the disguised comfort of a reality TV show. It had the inspiring opening song. The competitive tension between contestants. The 'emotional breakthroughs'. All crafted carefully into the tapestry of a show that ultimately f**ked up our understanding of health. 

The messages were as unequivocal as they were fundamentally false.

Exercise is pain. 

Food is temptation. 

Fat is shameful. 

Your weight is a perfect proxy for your health. 

Extreme weight loss is not only possible, but encouraged.

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For its time - the peak of diet culture - The Biggest Loser wasn't radical. It was almost inevitable. And the fact that Australia watched it for years without mass outrage speaks volumes. 

But it's worth considering how the weight stigma and fatphobia of one of Australia's most popular reality shows was absorbed by those who watched it, and continues to impact those living in fat bodies. What do we believe when it comes to weight and health? Where did those beliefs come from? 

On those weeknights at home, Australia was primed to associate fat with shame. 

It's impossible to know how long that will take to undo. 

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected] You can also visit their website,  here.  

For more about the real story behind The Biggest Loser, listen to Cancelled, hosted by Clare and Jessie Stephens. For more from   Clare Stephens, you can follow her on Instagram. 

Feature Image: Network 10.

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