There was a time in the mid-2000s when I was a huge fan of “The Biggest Loser” (no pun intended), a weight loss competition show that aired on NBC for 17 seasons from 2004 to 2016. I wasn’t alone: Throughout its run, the show, which featured teams competing to lose the largest percentage of their original weight under the guidance of a seemingly sadistic personal trainer, brought in 5 million to 10 million viewers an episode.
When I was watching the show, I was unsurprisingly as consumed with losing weight as the contestants were: I did everything you saw on the show, from keeping a meticulous food and exercise journal to counting Weight Watchers points to obsessively weighing myself throughout the day. I also hid diet pills in my sock drawer, I went on “cleanses,” and I misused laxatives to prevent myself from absorbing calories properly. Some days, I wouldn’t eat at all — eventually collapsing into bed lightheaded and deeply proud of myself.
And the whole time, I’d be watching “The Biggest Loser” for the sweet validation that everything I was doing to my body — much of which was dangerous — was for my own good. I, like so many others, believed that my weight “problem” was about my weakness, my lack of self-control, my failure.
I eventually let go of my obsession with becoming thin, and NBC seemingly let go of “The Biggest Loser” when it faded out without ceremony after its final season in February 2016. But now NBCUniversal (the parent company of NBC News) has revived the show on the USA Network this month as “a new holistic, 360-degree look at wellness.”
Perhaps NBCUniversal executives hope that we’ve all forgotten that the show’s “weight loss program” doesn’t work in the long term: The majority of contestants gain the weight back and ruin their metabolisms. Or maybe the executives who approved its return to our airwaves think we don’t care about the litany of former contestants’ testimonies detailing the verbal abuse, eating disorders, mental illness and drug abuse that they experience on or after the show.
Ryan C. Benson, the show’s first winner, warned about the dangerous fasting and dehydration he experienced while on the show, “to the point that he was urinating blood.” Season Two’s Lezlye Mendonca reported that contestants would use “amphetamines, water pills, diuretics, and throw up in the bathroom.” Former trainer Jillian Michaels — who most recently made headlines for concern-trolling Lizzo — admitted that she gave her team caffeine pills to give them “more energy” to exercise. (Michaels, who was among the worst offenders among the trainers, seemingly took particular joy in berating the contestants, saying things like “it’s fun watching other people suffer like that” — a quote NBC thought was so great that it put it in that season’s promo.)
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Joelle Gwynn from the 2008 “Couples” season reported that the show’s doctor gave her “yellow and black pills” — which, according to the New York Post, she later found out were most likely ephedra, a weight loss supplement banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 2004 after it killed over 150 people — to help her lose weight (he denied it) and that trainer Bob Harper (the host of the USA Network reboot) encouraged contestants to consume fewer calories than the doctors deemed safe and that he even supported vomiting.
One of the most outspoken former contestants has been Kai Hibbard, the second-place winner on the third season, in 2006. A year after her season ended, she would become one of the show’s biggest critics, eventually calling her participation “the biggest mistake of my life.”
I spoke with Hibbard, who is now a social worker and activist and the author of “Losing It: A Fictional Reimagining of My Time on Weight Loss Reality TV.” She said, “I had hoped with all the studies, all the other contestants who have spoken out — I thought it was enough to kill” the show.
“When I joined the show, I was like most other people: I was spoon-fed this myth my entire life that being thin meant you were healthier,” Hibbard added. “Then I went through the whole process of the show and discovered the techniques they gave me to be thinner. I realized how sick, how physically ill they made me. That connection between thin and healthy was broken for me.”
Hibbard said people still feel entitled to comment about her body, particularly because she’s remained straight size because of a battle with lupus. “When people praise me for my body now, it’s a reminder of how much size is not related to health, because right now I’m the sickest I’ve ever been,” she said.
Dr. Lindo Bacon, author of “Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight,” told me: “The misinformation that the show gives about dieting is abhorrent. We know these tactics aren’t successful to lose weight that will be maintained in the long term. All it is doing is helping people feel bad.”
Unlike dieting, the negativity the show encourages about fat people does work. A 2012 study found that watching just one episode of “The Biggest Loser” exacerbated people’s dislike of fat people and heightened viewers’ belief that weight is controllable. Another study in 2013 also found that watching the show reinforced beliefs that weight gain is entirely in one’s individual control — thus the idea that fat people are to blame for not taking personal responsibility for their health.
“It’s a myth that we have any data to support losing weight is going to be helpful,” Bacon said.
Another 2013 study reviewed the literature on how dieting affects health indicators like cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels — pretty much every area of concern that trolls purport to be so worried about when criticizing fat people. It showed that across all studies, virtually nothing improved with weight loss. The authors were unequivocal: “Weight, as we reviewed here, turns out to be an inadequate proxy for health outcomes.”
While there’s no proof that losing weight does anything for a fat person’s health, we have plenty of evidence that anti-fat bias and weight discrimination — compounded by shows like “The Biggest Loser” — contribute to fat people being paid less, facing a higher risk for suicide and depression and receiving terrible medical care.
If people like former trainer Jillian Michaels really care so much about fat people’s health and well-being, perhaps they should start by attacking anti-fat bias, rather than attacking fat people.
As a fat person, you’re bombarded with messages that you are something to be fixed, rather than someone to be loved and accepted. “These outside messages are telling you that you would be treated better if you changed yourself,” Bacon said. “No matter how much we hear this, the problem is not you. It’s our culture.”
In the new trailer, a contestant says: “I’m hoping to gain confidence. I’m hoping to gain self-love.” Those words broke my heart, because I know exactly how he feels. Diet culture and shows like “The Biggest Loser” thrive on the lie that fat people are unhappy, unhealthy and unmotivated; there is no space in “The Biggest Loser” for a happy fat person. But we don’t have to live like that.
Despite everything she’s been through, Hibbard is optimistic. “When I went on the show, I wanted to change myself to fit into a society that told me I was wrong. At this point in my life, I want to change society,” she said.
I’m hopeful, too, because now, for every executive who greenlights a show like ” The Biggest Loser,” there are people like Hibbard, Bacon and me insisting that fat people are worth more than just a number on a scale.