Whatever your opinion of it, like it, love it, or hate it, I personally found that watching The Biggest Loser was a huge source of inspiration to me. When George and I moved to Ecuador we didn’t have a television, or a stereo, and we lived in a tiny village at the edge of Quito. We started to watch the American version of The Biggest Loser on George’s laptop and I loved it. As a television show, a brand, and the catalyst that led to international fame and fortune for its hosts Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper, it has been a staggering success. What I loved about it was that, in a society where we are very quick to judge overweight people as being lazy and ugly and where to be called fat is deemed to be a worse insult than most, it gave a voice to obese people. Through the show we learned that many of the contestants had suffered horrific traumas and the fat that they carried on the outside of their bodies was just a visible symptom of the inner pain and turmoil they were suffering.
One example that stands out for me is Abby from series 8 who lost her husband and two children (one of whom was a newborn baby) in a tragic car accident. Having worked for many years with people addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling, it seems clear to me that obesity is just that. An addiction to food that can lead to devastating and debilitating consequences. If you dismiss obese people as simply fat and lazy, or perhaps worse, mock them, then you need to learn something about compassion. Whilst I never reached such extremes as the contestants on the show, I could relate to the feelings of despair, frustration, anguish and disgust they felt with themselves, and how marginalised from society many of them had become. I had experienced the humiliation of my fat squeezing out of my clothes like the meat from a sausage. I had wanted to die in the summer as I poured with sweat from the slightest exertion and winced with pain as my thighs rubbed together. I had wanted to be invisible so that nobody could see how disgusting I had allowed myself to become and I had felt hurt and frustrated when I was invisible to people, when they would look through me as though I was nothing. I am not saying for one moment that all obese people feel that way, but it is not unusual.
I am not a fool. I realise that The Biggest Loser is an extremely manipulative show that intentionally pulls at our emotional heart strings but at the centre of it are real people that are laying themselves bare, physically and emotionally. I cried with them when they told their stories of pain and loss and I laughed and cheered with them as they shed the weight and found strength that they never knew they had. As they transformed from the old, broken version of themselves into happier, healthier people, amazed at what they were capable of and what they could achieve. Yes, I was manipulated by the emotional music and clever editing but it helped me with my struggles because I realised that I was not alone. I was not the only person who was ashamed, and scared and who ate their feelings so that they were numb.
Our favourite contestants of all time are sisters Olivia and Hannah. We loved their humour, their honesty and their grit and determination to succeed. Olivia and Hannah are true Biggest Loser success stories. Maybe because they have each other; or because Olivia’s husband Ben took the journey alongside them at home to enormous success, or because they have maintained a close friendship with their coach Bob Harper. Some people may even attribute their success to the discovery of CrossFit and the support and guidance that the community provides. Whatever the reason the two women have managed what a lot of contestants have not, they have maintained their weight loss and truly changed their lifestyles. How can you not be inspired by that?
This year, for the first time since we began watching in 2009, my husband and I gave up on The Biggest Loser. After the first couple of episodes we stopped watching, so I was particularly shocked to see the footage of the latest winner Rachel Frederickson looking frail and emaciated. Opinion seems to be divided with many criticising Frederickson and the show’s producers, whilst others defend her weight loss as just being ‘part of the game.’ What I always loved about it was that at the end the winners, both men and women, stood on the scale flexing their muscles and appeared to have become mentally and physically stronger through their experience on the show. Having not watched the whole series I can’t comment on her personality or experience but I do not think that this year the person standing on that scale was a picture of health and well being and I don’t think many people do. I fully understand that the prize money is huge. It is as much a life changing factor of The Biggest Loser as the weight loss, and maybe if I was in that situation I too would do whatever it took to go for gold. I hope not. I hope that I would prioritise my health above all. That the lessons I had learnt along the way had taught me to veer away from extremes and look for balance.
I don’t agree with body shaming. To me curvy is not better than skinny, and skinny is not better than fat. I don’t think that the internet trend for comparison ‘when did this become better than this’ is helpful in the ongoing struggle for women, and men, to find happiness and contentment with their bodies amidst the constant assault of criticism and judgement. We are all naturally different shapes and sizes and that is great. All I know for myself and the people that I love is that I want to be strong and healthy, and I want my role models to be just that.