This week a chirpy ABC News piece described how actor Mark Wahlberg lost 40lbs to achieve a weight goal of 150lbs for his latest movie, The Gambler where he plays an academic with various addiction issues. The article notes that the "former Calvin Klein model" looked extremely thin in set pictures and that Wahlberg recently joked in an interview that his diet was so sparse he was tempted to snag his daughter's blueberry muffin for a little relief. Oh, actors!
On the same page there was another story about weight loss. This one about Rachel Frederickson, the, now notorious, Biggest Loser winner who dropped 155lbs to go from 260lbs to 105lbs, taking 60 percent of her body weight along for the ride. This young woman's weight loss journey has been met with reactions that range from anger, dismay, and deep concern to praise and accolades. What's the difference?
Wahlberg is an actor, you might argue. He is in the public eye, which makes his self-presentation fair game for gossip and news. Also, he gets paid to transform his body if necessary, it's part of his job.
Frederickson is a participant on a reality television show, which we all know is utterly real: no scripting, no emotional or psychological manipulations, no acting, no editing, no coercion on behalf of the producers to stage a "moment." No paycheck or payday at the end of the reality TV ride, right? Right, except for the $250K that Biggest Loser contestants vie for. Except for the way that these individuals become public figures by virtue of the saturation of the reality medium, making their self-presentation fair game for gossip and news. To stay relevant (i.e. lucrative), these people must maintain those images and reputations, you know, almost like it's a full-time job. Oh. Right.
The responses to Frederickson's dramatic reveal have less to do with concern for her welfare and more to do with the way we process our culpability as consumers and shapers of reality entertainment. Unlike conventionally scripted films, television, and web shows that announce their fiction (and why we feel less anxious or invested in a star who loses or gains weight for a single role), reality media passes itself off as hitting close to home. The mythology of reality television depends upon an endless replay of the classic Cinderella story: the unknown individual (just like me or you!) plucked from the masses and endowed with the extraordinary. When that "extraordinary" chafes against our beliefs, values, or morals we recoil. How could The Bachelor's Juan Pablo be so skeezy? How could Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson be so ignorant? How could The Biggest Loser be so irresponsible as to push their cast members to potentially unhealthy weight loss? A better question: Why does any of that surprise people whose viewership fuels these shows and supports these franchises and all the commodities they produce? Frederickson may have lost the weight, but when it comes to owning our desire for outrageous spectacle regardless of the way it effects real people, we're the real losers.
It's fruitless to speculate and spar over Frederickson's health, her motives, or her emotional or psychological well-being. These are conversations that distract us from considering the roles we play in keeping reality entertainment in big business, for taking as much responsibility for the seedier side of this medium as we do for relishing its silly outrageousness and escapism.
I do feel for this young woman who willingly undertook this experience, but cannot possibly be prepared for what lies ahead, not just the rigor of keeping off the pounds or as she has said in numerous interviews "finding balance" in her new body, her new life, but in adjusting to her new identity as the public repository for our misplaced sense of moral indignation. A commenter on the feminist pop-culture site, Jezebel, summed it up best: "If she is happy, I am happy. Let's lay off of this poor woman who did what she was supposed to do to win a contest."