Friday, March 4, 2011

The Biggest Loser: Why I Love to Hate Yet Love To Watch

Ell-Leigh says:
I love it, I hate it. It’s trashy and degrading for its contestants, it’s repetitive and awfully over dramatic, it’s heartbreaking, it’s nauseating. It makes me cry, want to go to the gym, eat carrot sticks, throw the remaining carrot sticks at my television screen, make out with a loud, angry, muscular army babe wearing sunglasses (is it just me?), all the while making me wish I never started watching.

I love it for all its authenticity – every so often a jewel comes from a contestant’s mouth that is too good to have been scripted, or a situation occurs that could have only sprouted organically. The change made to the contestant’s lives, their newfound health and new habits are legit.  The care the trainers show for their teams is real and touching. It’s the tacky challenges, the crassness of some of the tactics used in the training sessions and the never-ending, m-effing, stupid cliffhanger ad-breaks that make me so angry I could projectile vomit all over Shannan’s  huge, shiny brown muscles. We have a very complicated relationship, The Biggest Loser and I, as you can see.

It’s like having a bogan friend who, despite how much you might try to disown her, you always come crawling back to because, gosh darn it, you always seem to have so much fun together. Every time she mispronounces words you cringe, or when she talks too loudly about how she isn’t homophobic, all the while being kinda homophobic, you wish you weren’t there; but when you’re drinking and having a good time with her, the kind of good time your other friends never seem to be able to emulate, that’s when you know why you’re still friends, and all the embarrassment just melts away. The Biggest Loser is the Bogan you have to love.

It isn’t only that they type cast overweight and obese people as pitiful, depressed, and purposeless, (except those who have family, the dears, those poor poor children, etc… (on another note, whatever happened to fat people being jolly? i.e. Santa Clause? or being peaceful and contented? i.e. Buddah? Or even evil? i.e. many Roahl Dahl villains?)) but also that the trainers are shown to live the ideal life. They are placed on pedestals as beacons of health, illuminating a barren landscape of fatties. These gods among men have been sent down to teach the importance of calorie counting and working out until you puke. But really the trainers seem to be way more into health and fitness than is really necessary, even if they do work in the industry. Tiffini (or how ever you spell it) had her first ever beer in the first week of the show and cried when her stomach was bloated. If they never, ever eat anything but salad (and not the type with creamy dressing and bacon, I assure you) when they eat out, where is the joy? Where is the appreciation of the deliciousness of food?

This isn’t to say that the contestants enjoy food to begin with. Enjoying food requires a balance which they clearly haven’t got – as the Commando pointed out, it’s been a long time since they had felt physically hungry, as opposed to emotionally hungry, or, it’s lunch time and that potato bake smells good, thus I’m hungry, type hunger… he didn’t use those words, but it was something like that I’m pretty sure… But instead of teaching the contestants how to enjoy food, how to naturally eat well, they shove the opposite down their throats – how to be scared of food. Counting calories, memorizing diet books, challenges that place bravery, excitement and daring next to being reckless with what you eat. Sigh, the bogan rears it’s ugly face again.

They are transposing the fear of failure and change that lead them to become the weight they started off at, into a slightly more dangerous fear of failure and fear of food. The fear of failing to live, the fear of not making every minute count, which springs into a recklessness in the opposite direction and the fear of eating too much is what then becomes installed. There is no balance.

This, of course, is all in the editing. Perhaps they are preaching balance, behind the scenes, but we see none of it on our tv screens. In four episodes a week I doubt we see very much of it at all, especially when so much of what we see is so cheesy and tacky, or scenes we saw already before the last ad break.

It comes down to this – the reason I love the Biggest Loser is the same reason I love Wife Swap. Place polar opposites in an arena together, play god and you’ll be entertained. Two opposing life views come into orbit with one another and undoubtedly collide. Watching it is the fun part; it’s entertainment, entertainment that also reminds us to be grateful for and take care of our health. As long as we remember that, we’ll be fine.

Lauren says: 

Here’s how it is; watching The Biggest Loser makes me want to get really, really fat so that I can then get really, really skinny again. I watch and develop twisted fantasies about conquering both rowing machine and scales, making crop top and bike pants somehow so attractive that they become fashionable and, of course, getting my name in gold on the ‘Loser Board of Fame’. Ridiculous as it may sound, I find myself becoming jealous of the contestants for the ‘opportunities’ they are presented with on the show, and I find this a little concerning.  So, is it the magic of television or just deep seated psychological issues at work here?

As well as Loser, I also like to tune in to reality shows MasterChef and So You Think You Can Dance. Happily, I find these shows as easy to deal with as I would expect; the biggest change they inspire in me is to use French words in the everyday more often, like croquembouche and plié, and try my hand at thrice baking something containing far too many egg yolks.  I have noticed that both of these programs, plus ‘Loser’, involve watching people sweat a lot, but I am glad to say I haven’t felt any anxiety about increasing my perspiration levels.

While my cooking and dance programs just make me slightly more douche-y, The Biggest Loser inspires in me something ridiculous, stirs longings verging on the unhealthy. I want to be on that show. I want to take part in ridiculously long training sessions and dramatic weigh-ins. I want to run through an obstacle course, chasing immunity* and getting covered in mud whilst carrying a tyre stack on my head that I’ll fill the back of a ute with when I reach the end. And, you know, I’m already half-way there. I like exercise and I’m interested in nutrition. I’m perfect for the show. All I need now is about fifty extra kilograms. Therein lies my problem.

One thing that Reality Television does really well, that has completely opened up and changed the world of marketing, is industry promotion. Since So You Think You Can Dance has been on television, dance class registration across the world has soared. MasterChef has prompted millions of house cooks to rapidly expand their repertoire, diversify their ingredients list and stock up on must have tools. Unlike fictional entertainment, which often involves characters of superhumanly astounding talents, Reality Television has allowed us to become like the people we are watching, to really try and emulate what it is they can do. After all they’re just like us. They’re just like me.

Except for the contestants on The Biggest Loser. Who aren’t just like me.  They’ve got something I haven’t; they’re doing something I physically can’t achieve. Because they are obese, they have the ability to shed what is sometimes my entire body weight in the space of a few months. They can have physical transformations that render them unrecognisable, that change the entire way they can live their lives. I’m a small girl. If I lost the amount of weight that some of the contestants lose in a week, I’d be pretty close to dead. The most I can do that’s comparable is get a new haircut, and trust me, the nation doesn’t exult you so much for that, in fact most people don’t even notice.

Now, I’m not really saying that I want to become obese. Obesity is a really serious health issue within our society and I’m incredibly grateful to have been given opportunities to develop healthy habits while I’m young, so that maybe it won’t be a struggle I have to deal with myself.  But when I watch The Biggest Loser I can’t help but feel just a little bit of longing to join in.

People constantly tout the opinion that skinny people watch The Biggest Loser to laugh at contestants. Not me. For me it is the ultimate way to live vicariously. While I watch Loser I morph into a warped version of the pushy showbiz mother, intent on having the contestants push themselves to the limits because I’ll never get that far myself. And it all makes me wonder, just what other odd desires could/are clever marketing and dramatic ad breaks inspire in me?

*A note on ‘Immunity’: I’ve always thought this an interesting play on words considering that obesity is considered a disease. By winning the challenges and being allowed to stay in the ‘Loser House’, are they in fact winning a week of immunity from obesity itself? Intended clever word choice?

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