When ABC renewed “Extreme Weight Loss” for a fifth season last week, body positivity activists everywhere clenched their fists tight, shook them toward the sky, and bellowed “Why?!?!?”
It should come as no surprise that reality weight loss television is extremely destructive. Major news outlets like The New York Times and past contestants on programs like "The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Weight Loss” have already spoken out about the shows' disastrous medical consequences.
Yet the idea that these programs are anything but bastions of inspiration still has not taken hold in the popular consciousness.
Part of this disconnect comes from the shows themselves, which cling to the narrative that their missions are to improve the health of those that appear onscreen. They enlist fat contestants under the guise that fat itself is unhealthy, and suggest that they are righteously giving these “diseased” bodies a chance at redemption. They use the same rhetoric to contextualize viewers’ experience: Those at home should, they convey, tune in to cheer on others in their quests toward vitality. They should feel inspired watching major TV networks give ordinary people the chance to improve their lives.
But the general perception of reality weight loss television as noble also stems from its existence in a society that regularly demonizes fat people, and normalizes the food-shaming heaped on its citizens of varying sizes. The newest force to take hold in such a landscape (one that also brought fist-shaking from writers on body positivity) is the recently viral Instagram "You Did Not Eat That." The account, run by an anonymous creator with ties to the fashion industry, posts picture of thin (mostly) women posing with food which, the Instagram intimates, they could not possibly have eaten due to the small sizes of their bodies. As it’s impossible to tell someone’s eating habits from the way he or she looks, the Instagram misses the mark with its “You Did Not Eat That" angle. But it does pick up on a trend in American society that helps to contextualize the false justifications behind the insistence that fat people lose weight: the worship of thin women depicted eating foods that we would not traditionally consider nutritious.
The Skinny Girl Eating a Cheeseburger, as I like to refer to such portrayals, is an icon we see not only in the fashion blog images on which the Instagram focuses, but also in our TV shows, movies and commercials. Examples include Lorelai and Rory on "Gilmore Girls," Mary in “There’s Something about Mary” and Kate Upton in a Carl’s Jr. ad. Pieces have already been written about the figure's problematic implications for women. In short, it creates an environment in which women are only valued if they are both thin and making no effort toward that goal, leaving those with naturally larger bodies to either get flack for not being thin, or get flack for being thin but only with a constant vigilance. It also creates a space in which the basic process of eating is sexualized for those who do match the traditionally attractive, thin norm.
But we can also look to the Skinny Girl Eating a Cheeseburger to challenge the claims that the policing of larger bodies on shows like “Extreme Weight Loss” And “The Biggest Loser” is out of a societal desire to ensure the best health for all our citizens.
Mounting evidence suggests that lifestyle and nutrition, rather than weight itself, determines a body’s level of fitness. Healthy bodies come in sizes fat and thin, as do unhealthy ones. Therefore, a thin person who never works out and eats junk food, and a fat person who never works out and eats junk food would be of relatively comparable health statuses. If we as a society were invested above all in making sure all of our citizens were as fit as possible, we would inflict pressure upon both these bodies similarly in our quest toward that end.
But as anyone generally familiar with the different ways fat and thin bodies are treated in our society knows, we don’t. A fat person with culturally-considered poor eating habits (and even a fat person with culturally-considered great ones) is labeled “obese,” by a doctor, and enlisted by television networks to try, against nature, to shrink down her body at an incredible speed for public viewership. A thin person with culturally-considered unhealthy eating habits is praised for her carefree, nonchalant attitude toward her diet, and elevated to the status of sex-icon. If a skinny person who never works out and eats cheeseburgers is lauded, and a fat person who does the same is chastised, it’s not the practice of eating the “unhealthy” cheeseburgers that the public feels the need to police. It’s the size of the body that’s doing so.
Once we divorce reality weight loss television programs from their "improving health" narratives, we can see their actual purpose is to shrink fat bodies down to a culturally preferred size, no matter the cost. And in that process, the shows both inflict danger upon their contestants, and promote hatred toward the types of bodies featured onscreen. It is not beneficial, for example, to subject a person to a public, shirtless weigh-in in front of dozens of strangers, as “Extreme Weight Loss,” does at the beginning of each episode, or to exercise a person to the point of vomiting, and then have that person continue her workout, as “The Biggest Loser,” does on a regular basis. These practices only manage to dehumanize fat people to the viewing audience and imply that they do not deserve the basic right of control over their own bodies. Additionally, the shows further existing stereotypes by suggesting those with larger bodies are lazy, have no control over their lives, and are only fat due to pounds put on in the wake of emotional traumas. All of these measures contribute to the show's overarching misguided philosophy that thinness is both achievable and desirable for all.
Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. But if we as a society can’t get enough of Kate Upton munching on fast food, then we really don’t care about health in the first place. And we well shouldn't: health is a personal choice that should in no way be culturally monitored. We need to move towards an environment in which all people -- male and female, fat and thin -- can consume whatever they please, be it carrots or a cheeseburger, without sexualization, castigation, or any input at all from members of the general public. The way the media represents bodies directly influences the way we perceive them in real life. If we're ever going to move away from a place of rampant size discrimination, we need to challenge the one-note portrayals we see on reality weight loss television shows -- or better yet, get them off the air altogether.