The Biggest Loser (DOC)

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					                The Biggest Loser
The     Biggest    Loser:   Who's     Really   Winning?
This week's guest post for Pop Health was written by
Elana Premack Sandler, LCSW, MPH. Elana writes a
popular blog for Psychology Today called, "Promoting
Hope, Preventing Suicide". Written from both personal
and professional perspectives, her blog explores suicide
prevention, intervention, and postvention. Often using
current events as a starting point, the blog poses
questions about what could be done better or differently,
what contributions research can make to practice, and
challenges    and opportunities inherent       in new
technologies. Elana earned a Master of Social Work and
a Master of Public Health at Boston University and is a
licensed social worker in the Commonwealth of

There’s a lot of TV I don’t watch, but there’s one show in
particular.         “The           Biggest          Loser.”

It’s true - I systematically avoid watching one of the most
popular reality TV shows in history. What seems to have
drawn in viewers is what bothers me so much about most
reality TV. It’s like a car wreck you can’t stop staring at,
even       though      you     know    it’s   a     tragedy.

But watching a car wreck is watching an accident,
something that wasn’t designed for an audience. With an
accident, there’s something very human about wanting to
see what’s happened, wanting to know if everyone’s okay.

That’s very different from what I think happens when
people      watch        “The      Biggest     Loser.”

The few times I watched (I kept trying - people I love and
trust told me it was such a good show!), I just wasn’t able
to get behind the premise of the show. Yes, I believe that
people who have struggled to lose weight can benefit from
personal training and major lifestyle changes. Sure, the
power of competition can drive some people to work
harder      than    they    ever    imagined      possible.

But, shame? Does shame really help people change their

When I watched, I witnessed trainers shaming
contestants, over and over, in different ways. I heard
contestants talk about the shame they experienced as a
part of being obese or overweight. The whole show was a
shame-fest. Which made me extremely uncomfortable.

Because, when it comes down to it, “The Biggest Loser” is
a game show. And I just can’t watch people shamed into
losing  weight    just  to    win    a    game    show.
 “But it’s not just a game show!” my friends-who-are-fans
would      say.      “People   change      their   lives.”

Oh, wait, you’re right. It’s not just a game show. It’s a

So, I guess what I really have a hard time with is people
being shamed into losing weight to support a game show-
Wii-resort-1,200     calorie-a-day     diet    franchise.

At my professional core, as a public health social worker, I
know shame doesn’t work to change behavior. I had
thought it was just me who thought that way, until I started
reading researcher Brené Brown’s book, “I Thought It Was
Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About
Perfectionism,       Inadequacy,        and         Power.”

Brown has been researching shame for the past 10 years.
But, even before she was a shame expert, she was a
social worker, working with people. What did she learn?
“You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their

She   explains    in   the   introduction   to   the   book:

Can you use shame or humiliation to change people or
behavior? Yes and no. Yes, you can try. In fact, if you
really want to zero in on an exposed vulnerability, you
could actually see a swift behavior change.
Will          the         change             last?         No.
Will it hurt? Yes, it’s excruciating. [I cringed when I read
that                                                     part.]
Will it do any damage? Yes, and it has the potential to
sear both the person using shame and the person being
shamed.                     [More                    cringing.]
Is shame used very often as a way to try to change
people?      Yes,     every    minute      of    every    day.

“The Biggest Loser” gets exactly how to use shame to
motivate people to make a “swift behavior change.” Body
image - for people struggling with overweight and obesity,
and for people at healthy or “normal” weights - is a
tremendous source of shame. Obesity is even worse. I
wouldn’t be the first to say that oppression - hatred,
bullying, and discrimination against - overweight and
obese people is one of the last acceptable oppressions in
our                                               society.

What’s extra-disturbing about how “The Biggest Loser”
uses shame is that it doesn’t limit shame to contestants.
The show projects shame into the viewing audience,
reinforcing biases against people who are overweight or
obese. The audience doesn’t root for contestants to work
within the challenges inherent in their bodies to figure out
a healthy, sustainable way to lose weight and maintain
overall health. The audience roots for contestants to not
be fat. (Please excuse my lax grammar- I hope it’s worth
making                      the                       point.)

Finally, the drama of the show revolves around shame.
There’s a big reveal every episode, when viewers find out
who won’t continue to compete to be The Biggest Loser. If
contestants can’t lose weight within the show’s
parameters (which include unhealthy weight loss
practices, like dehydration), they get kicked off. So, the
ideal of working with a supportive trainer goes out the
window - and you are shamed, shamed, shamed into
returning home, still fat, and, well, not a winner. A loser.

“The Biggest Loser” raises several questions for me:
Should a game show be allowed to promote unhealthy
weight                   loss                    practices?
What kinds of messages does the show send to young
people     about      their     worth       and      value?
In what ways are people at a healthy weight influenced by
“The                    Biggest                     Loser”?
But, the most important to consider is this one: How much
money is being made off of shame?

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