The 2012 season of the Australian The Biggest Loser focused on the loneliness and despair endured by the contestants. Not only were the contestants forced to expose their semi-naked bodies to the viewing audience as part of the ritual weighing-in process, they were also encouraged to bare their souls. Thus, for example, a promo for the series showed one of the male contestants sitting on a stool gesturing to his fat body and saying “Look at me – no-one loves this!” Another male contestant said, “I’m ready for love” and the words ‘Love yourself’ scrolled across the screen.
The episodes featured the now-familiar visuals of the contestants pushed to exercise hard, shown sweating, red-faced and out-of-breath, grimacing in pain, crying and losing their temper as the hard-bodied and hard-faced instructors shout at them to force them to persist. Scenes involving the temptation of the fat people were also part of this series. The contestants in one episode were faced with a room full of junk food and sweet treats – chocolates, cakes and the like — as a means of testing their self-control and ability to resist temptation.
The underlying meanings of this program are all too clear. 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; they find their gluttonous desire for treats difficult to resist. The focus on love in this season combines two ideas: that fat people do not love themselves, or else they would not have allowed themselves to become fat, and that no-one else is sexually attracted to them because of their fat bodies. Such people are represented as objects both of pity and contempt.
Recent critiques in the social sciences and humanities have drawn attention to the ways in which obesity is represented in medical and popular culture. In response to massive publicity given to obesity in western countries, including Australia, new areas of study focused specifically on the social and cultural aspects of obesity have emerged, entitled variously ‘critical obesity studies’, ‘critical weight studies’ or ‘fat studies’. They refer to a ‘fat-phobic’ society, in which fat people are excoriated and humiliated for their size, where it is assumed that fatness is the direct result of greed and lack of self-control and that fat people are inevitably unattractive to others.
Members of the fat acceptance movement have engaged in political activism in the attempt to overcome this discrimination and to reclaim the term ‘fat’, which they prefer to the ‘o’ words – overweight and obese.
Some social scientists and nutritionists have examined the obesity science literature and argued that much of it is characterised by generalisations and speculations, and that the contention that overweight (as distinct from morbid obesity) automatically poses health risks has not been scientifically proven. It is further argued by these critics that continual attempts by fat people to lose weight can actually be negative to their health status if it involves extreme diets, being caught in a cycle of losing and gaining weight or poor dietary habits.
Partly as a response to this critical position, a movement called Health at Every Size has emerged which champions the idea that good health may be experienced at a range of body weights if attention is paid to regular exercise and eating healthy foods. From this perspective ‘loving yourself’ may well involve relinquishing the desire to lose a lot of weight and instead acknowledging that a healthy lifestyle may be achieved even if one does not conform to the cultural ideal of slenderness.
The critical position and the Health at Every Size movement raise important questions for how the public is educated about the health effects of overweight and obesity. In the meantime, programs such as The Biggest Loser continue to profit from perpetuating negative representations of fat people in a fat-phobic society and humiliating and punishing their contestants for their sin of being fat.
Fat Studies journal (http://www.tanf.co.uk/journals/UFTS)
Michael Gard and Jan Wright (2005) The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology. London: Routledge.
Michael Gard (2011) The End of the Obesity Epidemic. London: Routledge.
Deborah Lupton (2012) Fat. London: Routledge (due for publication in September)