by Milly Morris
The young woman leans over, sobbing and shaking, begging Jillian to make it stop. Jillian only gets closer to her face and screams: “UNLESS YOU FAINT, PUKE OR DIE…KEEP WALKING!” The woman continues to walk, tears and sweat dripping down her face as Jillian shouts directly into her ears. (The Official Biggest Loser Season 6 Channel, 2008).
Another man is bent over wheezing as Jillian tells him that she will “break every bone in his body” unless he continues to run. A look of contempt and disgust crosses her face as the man begins to vomit, she tells him to “do it in front of her” so that she knows that he isn’t faking it (Jillian Michaels is god, 2008).
No, these are not clips from a bad prison drama. They are scenes that fans will recognize as normal to the prime-time reality show, The Biggest Loser. The premise of the show is that a group of “morbidly obese” individuals are sent to a ranch where they will compete to lose weight with the help of Jillian and Bob, the show’s personal trainers. Viewers of the show will recognise the “scale” scenes in which the contestants are stripped, weighed and forced to look at “what they have done to their bodies.” Likewise, on YouTube, fans of the show can be treated to an array of clips from past shows showing the contestants “first workout”, which usually involved the group crying and vomiting to the sound of Jillian’s “motivational” screams. At the end of each season, contestants are brought out in front of a live studio audience to show-off their achievement of re-shaping their bodies.
The Biggest Loser sets the standard outline for weight-loss TV; shows such as You Are What You Eat, Secret Eaters and Fat Families all follow this narrative of an “inspirational journey” where contestants can “better themselves.” Along the way on this journey, the audience relishes in the public belittling of bodies that have strayed from the norm. In scenes that are reminiscent of spectators at a Victorian circus, we gasp from our sofas at the up-close shots of their naked flesh, crying: “how could you let yourself get like that?!” and “why don’t they just stop eating?!”
Yes, fat is unhealthy. But why is it that we allow the humiliation and dehumanisation of people because it is “good for their health?” Can it be good for an individual’s health to have “entertainment” shows repeatedly insinuate that someone of your body type is lazy, gluttonous, out of control and – that all important catchphrase – a “drain on the NHS”? Why is it that we prioritize the physical over the mental, ignoring the fact that self-hatred and body-shame are not good for one’s health either? For example, Secret Eaters supports the notion that fat people are not to be trusted, claiming to show individuals “what they think they eat and what they really eat” for the benefit of a smug audience who can rest assured that the fat woman in the office who eats a salad at lunch “isn’t just eating that.” Likewise, Fat Families – a UK reality show based around Steve Miller’s attempt to “wipe out the obesity epidemic that is sweeping the UK” – shows Miller travelling around the country raiding fat people’s fridges as “proof” that being overweight is the responsibility of the individual. As Miller states, they need to “get off their wobbly bums and melt that lard”, implying that fat people need a stern hand to guide them towards the right way of living (Kaibigan, 2015). Once they have completed their weight loss, the “new” individual is subsequently cast off into the sunset to live their more-fulfilled lives “re-born” as a hetero-normatively attractive citizen, reminding the audience that they too can escape the “threat of obesity” and lead a “cleaner” life.
Since the rise of social media, individual’s “weight-loss journey” has been easier to document. One only needs to type in the hashtag “#beforeandafter” or “#weightloss” to find an array of images documenting an individual’s “journey” to a new and shiny body. Whilst these posts can act as a connector to a community struggling with body-shame, they can also obsessively document an individual’s “journey” to a more socially acceptable body and their “re-birth” as a health-conscious citizen that will no longer be a “drain upon society.” Alongside these images, the “clean-eating” movement has become a prevalent part of Instagram; kale and chia seed smoothies, avocado on toast and no-sugar diets all represent individual’s documentation of their “pure” existence. Whilst it must be stated that there is nothing wrong with enjoying a healthy lifestyle, the posts all possess religious undertones that allude to the moral superiority of the “clean eater.” For example, the notion of “clean” foods – vegetables, fruit and grains – compared to dishonest or “sinful” junk-foods play into the concept that those who possess a slimmer body are living a more virtuous life.This can be seen in posts by “clean-eating” Insta-famous individuals, such as Clean-Eating-Alice. Her book, “The Body Bible”, aims to support dieters on their journey to a “cleaner” life and her Instagram feed is decorated with an array of colourful foods to “cleanse” the soul (clean_eating_alice, 2016).
Thus, it is no wonder that we feel it is acceptable to shame fat bodies into “cleansing themselves” of their sins. We have given meaning to each morsel of food that we eat; a chocolate bar is laden with gluttony, shame and weakness whereas a piece of kale represents truth, confidence and will-power. Yet, why is it that the person that relentlessly documents their salads and smoothies online is considered to be any healthier than the person who secretly eats chocolate late at night? The glorification of thinness that pervades our culture has allowed us to view the former as acceptable, as a trait to be praised as inspiring. Social media is based upon the presentation of the “best” version of ourselves, a “highlights reel” in which we gloss over the tarnished aspects of our characters with a pretty filter. The documentation of a “clean-life” or a “journey” to thin body simply reflects the sentiment of what shows like The Biggest Loser – as well as the wider media’s obsession with the “obesity crisis” – have drummed into us about how we are supposed to be happy. However, perhaps the time has come to reconsider our stance on health and happiness with self-acceptance being prioritised over what clothes we can fit into. Likewise, in 2016, compassion and empathy shouldn’t be determined by one’s body size and so rather than pointing and gasping at the fat people trying to run on TV or struggling in the street, maybe it is time for us to look inwards and ask why we are tuning in to watch in the first place?
clean_eating_alice. (2016). clean_eating_alice. Date accessed: 6th August 2016. Retrieved from: www.instagram.com: https://www.instagram.com/clean_eating_alice/?hl=en.
The Official Biggest Loser Season 6 Channel. (2008). Biggest Loser 6 – Jillian’s Hell & the Yellow Team. Date accessed: 5th August 2016. Retrieved from: www.youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAAPKdQg9hk