The Biggest Loser and Skinny Shaming

By now, we’ve all heard the news about Biggest Loser winner Rachel Frederickson. I believe she is about five feet and four inches high, and, at 105 pounds, she is underweight. Personally, I can’t imagine that. I’m a couple of inches shorter than her and weight about ten pounds more. I can’t even imagine being at 105. My first reaction to her photo was similar to what you’ve seen in the news. She can’t be healthy; she doesn’t look well.

My initial reaction was wrong and short-sighted. Not too long ago, I wrote about a period in my life where I had an unhealthy relationship with food. At my worst, I was eating less than 1000 calories a day and stepping on the scale at least once per day. Doing all that took a huge amount of effort. If someone would have pointed a finger at me and judged me, I may have collapsed under the emotional weight. I thought I was doing something that was healthy. Health was all I wanted. To be told that all my efforts, all the weight lost, was for nothing would have haunted my dreams.

This photo, “Body Image. The subjective concept of one’s physical appearance based on self-observation and the reactions of others.” is copyright (c) 2014 Charlotte Astrid and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license

The worst part of my journey in health was the day a friend told me “my mom told me someone asked her if you were shoving your finger down your throat.” At this point, I had overcome my obsession with calories and had moved on to experimenting with food and fitness. It was during this time I discovered how much I like avocados, for example. Until my last year or so of college, I’d never eaten an avocado before. It hurt to be judged and it especially hurt that this judgement was coming from people who didn’t notice when I was truly struggling.

What does my story and Rachel’s story have in common? I don’t know if there is a term for it yet, but I’m going to call it skinny shaming.

There’s a lot of discussion surrounding fat shaming. Just because someone is fat, does not mean they should be judged, disrespected or treated with less dignity than anyone else. Yes, they might be unhealthy, but that’s a conversation between them and their doctor. For a second, consider why people fight for freedoms such as equal marriage and safe, accessible abortions. Of the many reasons people strive for these rights, one is that of bodily autonomy. A person should have the right to choose who they love and who they sleep with. It’s their body and their life. A woman should have the right to choose what she does to her body for the same reason.

You don’t have to agree with those decisions. As such, you can choose something different for your life and your body. Health is very similar. Even if someone is fat to an unhealthy degree, they have a right to do what they want to their body. You can’t force them to be healthy. Even so, they still deserve your respect. 

A person who happens to be skinny, even to an unhealthy degree, is also the same. They are worthy of respect and dignity just like anyone else. Skinny shaming is just as wrong and can be just as damaging as fat shaming. Honestly, I don’t have a ton of experiences to add as examples. That comment by my friends stands out more than anything else. I can still feel the hurt those words caused.

This photo, “Barbie’s Dinner IV” is copyright (c) 2014 Laura Lewis and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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There was a girl in my high school who looked similar to Rachel. She ate a lot, but always looked like skin and bones. We weren’t very close, so I don’t know if hurtful comments ever effected her. I did hear people pass their judgement saying that she clearly wasn’t healthy.

We all need to stop taking it upon ourselves to determine how healthy a person is. Body shape is a very bad indicator of overall health. When you look at someone, you’re not getting the whole story. There are a large amount of conditions out there that have a side effect of weight gain. There are also various conditions that can cause weight loss. Since we have no way of knowing why a person is shaped the way they are, we should avoid passing judgement.

Rachel was once overweight and now, she is underweight. Her journey in health continues and I wish her the best. I hope that she hasn’t let the judgement of others injure that journey.

With that said, I am judging… The Biggest Loser. I do enjoy the show. It’s entertaining and the trainers do provide some great advice to viewers. The show has done a great job at bringing health to the attention of the public. Unfortunately, The Biggest Loser is horribly unhealthy for the contestants. Promoting weight loss at any cost is misguided. Pushing people until the vomit and forcing them to work out while injured isn’t healthy (although, an injured person can still work out, they just have to modify what they do so they don’t stress what they’ve injured).

My biggest problem with the show is in how they judge contestants. Percentage of body weight lost is a horrendous way to judge people. It doesn’t take into consideration the amount of fat loss versus the amount of muscle gained. A person could lose a great amount of fat, but gain muscle and lose the game. Another person could widdle their way down to 50 pounds if they wanted and win it all. The show needs to work on promoting health to their contestants as well as the public. I think judging contestants on body fat percentage would be far more healthy. Regardless of what they weigh, the number that matters should be the percentage of fat lost and there should be a limit. I’m not sure the right way to set a limit. All I know is that no contestant should win a show, which claims to be focused on health, if they are unhealthy.

I know I just spent a lot of time condemning fat shamming and skinny shamming. That stands, but it doesn’t mean that being of a unhealthy weight should be celebrated. We should be able to discuss what is and isn’t healthy without shamming people.

Have you ever faced fat or skinny shamming? How did you react? What was your reaction to Rachel Frederickson’s transformation? Do you have any recommendations for discussing the health of a person without shaming or judging them? Is it acceptable to both enjoy and criticize The Biggest Loser?

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12 thoughts on “The Biggest Loser and Skinny Shaming”

  1. I had a huge rant about something similar on my facebook yesterday to be honest.

    In my news feed I came across a meme that had a photo of a fuller figured female in bed with just a sheet drapped over her and wrapped tight around her hips. Along the top it said: “Curves” Along the bottom it said “because nobody likes to snuggle a stick…”

    Now as a fuller figured woman, I took absolute offence to this. I do not agree with the other shaming to make yourself feel better about your own shape.

    I called my friend who posted it out on it by posting it on my facebook wall and asking my other friends who else found the meme offensive and why. I snuggle people of all shapes and sizes. It’s not what a person has on their outside that makes me want to wrap myself around them. It’s their personality that urges me to koala them to death.

    The same thing goes for shows like The Biggest Loser. I just can’t watch them. Not only do they promote unhealthy way to loose weight (who on earth looses 5+ kilo’s in a week?) they force emotion on the contestants to make them more viewable. It turns my stomach that they use the excuse of getting healthy to make money off these people.

    To date I’ve lost 10 kilos. In 5 months. I exercise every other day. I run, cycle, walk, swim… Some days my weight goes up and some days it comes down. But never have I lost over a kilo a week. It’s a slow process, it took me 2 years to put on all this weight, I expect it to take me just as long to move it off. If I’m lucky.

    My sister on the other hand, is so skinny she’d blow over in the wind. Yet people judge her all the time and it’s not because she doesn’t eat. She does, unfortunately she’s also suffering a form of Chron’s disease which means she has a lot of trouble putting weight on.

    So I hear you on all those fronts.

    1. The contestants on the Biggest Loser have their metabolism and probably their whole outlook on health ruined by the show. I still think it has the potential to be more of a force of good, so I can’t hate it. I hope it improves.

      I’m not an expert on weight loss, but my understanding is that people who are extremely overweight lose weight faster in the beginning, even following a healthy plan. I think it has something to do with reducing calories to a healthier level (since they’d been over eating) and also working out. This slows down fast, though. For the average person, I think 2 – 3 pounds per week is the max you should be losing for a healthy weight loss. You are right on track. It took a long time to gain and it takes time to lose.

      I’m sorry for your sister. No one should have to put up with this kind of judgement.

      1. No, they shouldn’t! And neither should you.

        I hate that we live in a world where everyone is more focused on what size clothes you wear instead of what kind of person you are.

  2. I’d never heard of the Rachel person but good for her in losing the weight. If we’re gonna be honest, the average person lives such an unhealthy lifestyle here in the U.S. and at some point we’ve got to acknowledge more seriously this problem.

    I’m currently about 7 pounds overweight and its driving me nuts. Everyone tells me I’m out of my mind and that I need to ‘gain’ weight but obviously they wouldn’t know what is best for my body. Ultimately., if ya ask me people need to spend less time telling others what they think about their weight and more time focusing on themselves.

    And as to your last question I’ve never seen the show so I couldn’t say…..i’m too busy watching the Bachelor to watch another reality show 😉 (ha ha but I’m two episodes behind on that so maybe I need to finally give it up)

    1. My chiropractor frequently talks about health and discusses current studies with his patients. He has posters all over his office, one of which says being just 11 pounds over weight significantly raises your chances for heart disease. If I felt like doing some Googling, I’m sure I could find the study or studies he got that number from. Not that 7 pounds is a death sentence. I think a lot of people are just uninformed. They don’t know what an extra 7 pounds does, they just know it’s a small number.

      When I was in high school and first learned about what my healthy weight range was, I found I was 5 – 7 (depending on the day) pounds over weight. Nothing I did seemed to change that (until I got the flu). I wish I could offer advice to help, but I’m sure you already know the drill. Eat healthy and work out. Funny how those two things can be so difficult sometimes.

  3. I feel like everyone is out of line in talking about Rachel. The show’s name is THE BIGGEST LOSER. The purpose of the show is to LOOSE THE MOST. Rachel was competitive and wanted to win. I am going to be honest, put in the same situation, I would have done everything in my power to win that money too! Was it healthy? No, doesnt look like it. Is it ever healthy to loose that much weight in that little amount of time? I dont think so.

    I have never seen the show because it just sounds ridiculous to me. I feel they are ruining people’s minds on how to loose weight the right way without becoming obsessive. I think Jillian is a badass in the fitness world, but she is kind of mean. I have her 30 Day Shred dvd and she says stuff like “I have 400 lb people doing jumping jacks, so can you.” I don’t find that one bit encouraging.

    Either way, I agree with you. We all need to stop judging others and just let it be. We don’t know the whole story.

    1. I’m with you. If I were in the same situation, I would have done the same as Rachel. When the shows over and the money is mine, I can get myself back to a healthy weight. That’s probably easier said than done with all the contestants go through, but that would be my thought process.

      I have a friend who is obsessed with The Biggest Loser. I participated in one of their run/walk events last year and it was pretty great. I saw people who were clearly over weight running or walking right along side people who were in shape. There was no time limit and the contestants that came were very encouraging. They kept saying it doesn’t matter who you are or how long it takes you to finish. By simply being here, you are doing more for yourself than everyone else who decided to sleep in today. I didn’t see anything discouraging or unhealthy there.

      The other thing I took away from the event was the type of people they put on the show. The contestants discussed how they got on the show and what their motivations were. The big thing is that the show is looking for the most desperate people in the country. They want the people who feel they have tried everything, who have nearly given up and who would be willing to endure all the pain in the world to lose weight. On one hand, you can say they are using emotionally vulnerable people to make TV. On the other hand, I wonder if those types of people would be able to lose the weight any other way.

      I don’t watch the show regularly, but all this is to say that I still think it has the potential to be redeemed. I think, if they want to, they could turn The Biggest Loser into a real show about health for the contestants. Certainly there’s a way they can promote healthy weight loss and make good TV.

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