Happiness by the Pound:
An Ideological Analysis of The Biggest Loser
In today’s culture, it is normal to be bombarded with images of what perfection looks like. Perfection is trendy clothes, shiny hair, money, the thigh gap, a smile and a life that shows others around them they are succeeding with all their goals and ambitions. In other words, perfection equals happiness. In the reality television show, The Biggest Loser, obese contestants go on a journey to achieve this ideal, which reveals itself in the before and after format episode of Makeover Week. The contestant’s lives are better. They are more confident, and they have been put through a makeover that would make Mike Tyson look like a million bucks. They are perfect in their portrayal of happiness. Using the makeover episode from the latest season, I will prove that The Biggest Loser construes the ideal that happiness and fulfillment can only be achieved through weight loss and the adherence to society’s standards of looks.
On October 18, 2004, NBC premiered a reality television show about achieving weight loss in the quickest amount of time possible. Its opening credits had contestants describing what they did not like about themselves: “I hate my thighs” or “I hate my stomach” followed by the announcer, “These twelve people all have one thing in common…they’re fat” (Bartley, 2004). In those few sentences, The Biggest Loser was born. In the ten years since its inception, the show has built a weight loss empire that is unrivaled by anything else today, including an online program, food brand, diet books, cookbooks and four resorts across the United States (NBC Universal, 2011). It airs in 90 countries and there are 25 different versions throughout the world (Vogel, 2009). Millions of people tune into this show every week, but the one show besides the finale, which garners the most attention is the makeover episode. This season, the average viewership was around 5.5 million viewers a week. The makeover episode, which aired on January 21, 2014, had a reported 6.72 million viewers (Bibel, 2014). This show is ripe for an Ideological Criticism.
The method of Ideological Criticism asks that a person look beyond the surface of an artifact, in this case The Biggest Loser, and uncover what the real message is. Foss (2009) explains, “A dominant ideology controls what participants see as natural or obvious by establishing the norm” (p. 210). As we will see in the proceeding paragraphs, The Biggest Loser promotes the norm of thinness and perfection as the way to a happy and fulfilled life.
Why would this show about obese individuals be so popular? It could be that it resonates with the overweight and obese population of the United States. Ten years before the show premiered, 1994, the US had a slight overweight problem. For more than three fourths of the county, less than 15% of its population was obese. Fast forward 16 years and half the country has an obesity rate of over 30% (Thompson, Manore, & Vaughan, 2014, p. 8). With a population of 308 million (Schlesinger, 2009), that’s up to 100 million individuals who are not achieving the ideal set forth by respected institutions (CDC, US Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy People 2020), let alone what is socially acceptable.
What are the standards of looks and fulfillment in today’s society? What are these 100 million individuals facing every day? They face a world obsessed with things like the thigh gap (or lack of as Target has shown with its Photoshop debacle). They face fashion magazines or online celebrity gossip sites that show unrealistic weight loss or a reality television show that portrays seemingly normal peers achieving what they cannot: change from one extreme to the other.
With all of this pressure to look and act perfect and happy, it is no wonder that the makeover episode garnered more than a million more viewers than the average episode this past season. The basic set up of a makeover episode involves the remaining contestants of The Biggest Loser, in this case seven, meeting Tim Gunn, a style guru, and Ken Paves, a celebrity hair stylist. They are whisked away to try on different designer outfits, then get their hair cut, colored and styled. After they have been remodeled, the contestants reveal themselves to close family members. There are shots of videos “before” the transformations and then “after” dispersed throughout the episode.
What first needs to be set up is how awful the lives were “before” The Biggest Loser. There was unhappiness, disease, embarrassment, loss of hope for a long life, hiding who they really were from their family and the world at large. In this particular episode, the “before” videos were strikingly different from the “after.” Each were almost sepia in color. They were muted with a dark tinge around the edge. Some went all the way to black and white. This represents the bleakness in their lives. The lack of vibrant color represents lack of life being lived. The shots were very isolationist. If the contestants were not alone in the shot, then they were seen off to the side, unable to participate in the given activity because of their weight problem. There was a sad and defeated look on their faces to demonstrate this isolationism.
The crux of the “before” comes from the actual dialogue chosen. The negativity of the words are very evident: “I get upset.” (Tanya) “I can’t face the embarrassment of going to a store and not being able to fit in the clothes.” (Bobby). “I’m tired of being lonely.” (Rachel) “I am severely self-conscious about my arms. I have bat wings.” (Marie) “I really don’t like to look at my body. I’ve hated what I’ve seen in the mirror.” (Chelsea). This negative dialogue forces the idea that being overweight is something that will make for a sad life, an upsetting life. Being overweight means that the viewer will never be able to go into a store that sells stylish clothes and the proper emotion should be embarrassment for not being able to fit into these clothes. If an overweight person desires love and companionship in their life, it isn’t going to happen very easily, if at all. Loneliness is just a staple fact in the life of the obese according to Rachel’s “before” clip.
The final two examples of self-conscious and hated are especially damaging. Those two negative words combined with the ideal of thinness equaling happiness are potent proponents for disordered eating, depression and a generally unhealthy lifestyle. Disordered eating is defined as, “a variety of abnormal or atypical eating behaviors that are used to keep or maintain a lower body weight” (Thompson et al., 2014, p. 549). Disordered eating, which includes anorexia nervosa and bulimia, can be caused by many things. Two prominent ones are the “influence of the media” and the “influence of social and cultural values” (Thompson et al., 2014, p. 551). The Biggest Loser has an influence on this society and with comments being aired that promote self-hatred due to obesity, there is potential for viewers to take extreme measures to prevent that from happening. Unfortunately this effect was seen very publically on the finale episode where Rachel, looking gaunt and unhealthy, took to the scale to be crowned winner of season 15. She was only 104 pounds (Bartley, 2014). This weight is considered underweight, which is as unhealthy as being obese, yet does not carry the same stigma as being obese (Thompson et al., 2014, p. 532). These “before” effects are damning and shameful when compared with what comes next in the episode.
In the “after” shots, it is immediately certain that life has become fantastic for these contestants. The lighting is full of color and brightness. This full color approach indicates a richness not present in the before shots. It indicates that life is somehow fuller now that pounds were lost and fashionable clothes are fitting correctly. The light is brighter indicating that life is brighter. These people no longer have to live in darkness or embarrassment. They have changed for the better and the color and lighting match that attitude.
The “after” shows perfection is achievable. After a day of grooming from celebrity stylists, Tim Gunn and Ken Paves, the contestants are introduced the world as perfection. Their dresses are expensive and trendy. The women’s legs are waxed and shiny with their pedicured feet strapped into heels perfectly matching the dress. Their faces are glowing with perfectly applied make-up and hair that has not a strand out of place. The men have suits that are perfectly tailored for their bodies. Their previously untamed head and facial hair is now under control or gone. They all look…perfect. Perfect as to what society has deemed perfection: expensive clothing on a thin body.
In response to the loneliness that was a “before” aspect, the perfectly groomed contestants are then introduced to their loving family members. The loneliness and isolation of having an obese body are gone. Each contestant is embraced by their loved ones and comments of “beautiful” and “surprised” and “wow” are thrown around. One contestant’s daughter, Tanya’s, comments that she will have to start looking for a boyfriend. “There’s no reason why she shouldn’t be going out and finding herself a man” (Bartley, 2014). Now that she is thinner, she deserves the kind of happiness that doesn’t belong to the obese. Loneliness is no longer a problem that needs to be fixed by weight loss.
While the ideology of happiness through weigh loss is implied through lighting and makeovers, it is proven through the positive comments chosen on that episode. “The second chance represents freedom…it will allow me to be whoever I want to be for the first time in my life” (Bobby). “That confident girl is back. I’m not hiding anymore” (Rachel). “It will allow me to feel confident in my marriage. It will finally allow me to have a family” (Marie). “This is the beginning of so many amazing years” (Chelsea). “I get to be there for my girls long term” (David). “I will not go back to the old me…I’m just in love with myself right now” (Tanya).
There is no freedom in being obese. Options are limited because obesity is a limiting factor in life. According to Bobby, this is no longer the case for him because of his weight loss. Because this quote was chosen and the implication given, there is potential for a viewer to limit their own life because of the realization that he cannot be whatever he wants given his weight, either overweight or obese. It should be noted that Bobby is a lawyer. He was a lawyer before The Biggest Loser, and he is still a lawyer. Since it was a big aspect of the show, it should also be noted that Bobby was gay before the show, and he will continue to be gay after the show. His freedom did not depend on his losing weight, but it was captured on film that he thought it was a direct factor.
Confident was a word that was thrown around the episode like it was going out of style. Almost every contestant that revealed themselves during the “after” shots reported a feeling of confidence. In the first example given, Rachel is reporting that her confidence due to her weight loss will allow her to come out of her shell. This implies that if a person is overweight or obese, she should remain in her shell. That showing confidence about her body should be shamed and not allowed.
The second example of confidence comes from Marie, who is young, but has determined that because she is overweight, she will not be able to have children until she loses the pounds. While being obese does carry come risk factors with pregnancy, the fact that millions of babies are born healthy to obese mothers does not seem to come into play here. Plus, it would seem that Marie is confident that since she has lost weight, there is no question as to her fertility. A baby is surely in her future with no issues attached. To the women of all shapes and sizes that struggle with infertility, this comment is almost audacious. Losing excess weight may or may not help when it comes to infertility.
Long term health and wellness is guaranteed for these contestants now that they have lost weight. Healthy weight is important. That is a scientific fact, but it is not the only contributing factor to a long and healthy life. Smoking, doing illegal drugs or having a promiscuous lifestyle where an STD, like HIV, is caught have greater consequences to the lack of a long and healthful life. Nor is losing weight right now a guarantee for future success in maintaining weight loss. The fact that these contestants lose their weight so fast is actually detrimental to future success at maintenance. There is no crystal ball that says their life will be any longer than it would have been if they had remained overweight, but the words “beginning of so many amazing years” and long term would suggest otherwise.
That brings us to the last word to discuss: love. This is the opposite of hatred, a “before” term. Love symbolizes goodness and wholeness. Tanya uses it to describe a self-love she now has for her thinner self. This implies that love for one’s self can only be achieved through weight loss and looking like what society says is appropriate. In anorexia nervosa and bulimia, two eating disorders mentioned above, the desire to be thin is so overwhelming that it is classified as a psychological disorder (Thompson et al., 2014, p. 549). Anorexia nervosa is “the leading cause of death in females between the ages of 15 and 24 years” (Thompson et al., 2014, p. 552). These women, girls, men and boys do not have love for themselves even though they are thin. The attitude of trying to find happiness, fulfillment and self-love only in the way a dress fits or the size of clothes worn or the numbers on a scale can lead to these disorders.
Images of the happy and successful are plentiful everywhere whether it be online, in print or on a television screen. The Biggest Loser, while seemingly promoting health and wellness on the surface, does not. Their use of negativity to feature “before” items is indicative of their negative sentiment towards the obese and those who do not fit the mold of today’s societal norms. Positive coloring, lighting and comments for and from those who have achieved weight loss and visual perfection in “after” shots show The Biggest Loser places a much higher regard to the ideal stated. Their use of negativity and promotion of thinness is a detriment to the health and well-being of its viewers. If a show is promoting this ideal of happiness, fulfillment and love through extreme weight loss, it is doing the world no favors by existing.
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