Well, thank the programming goddesses above that ABC's airing two episodes of Better Off Ted tonight. It is indeed better to thrill to the antics of corporate shark Veronica (played to perfection by Portia De Rossi) than to watch two hours of the eminently depressing and dehumanizing The Biggest Loser.
O, the objections I have to that show! Where to begin, where to begin ... I'll just start with:
-- Treating the overweight contestants like circus sideshow freaks. In any reality TV competition, the competitors are already reduced to easily-identifiable narrative types, but this show adds the extra filip of stressing how very abnormal these people are. Why, they're hardly people at all! So it's okay to stare and mutter about how, thank god, you're nothing like that.
-- Promoting unrealistic, unsustainable and unhealthy practices in a blind pursuit to drop the weight. Contestants often fast, willingly dehydrate themselves, and lose an unhealthy amount of weight weekly. As this article notes: "Medical professionals generally advise against losing more than about two pounds a week. Rapid weight loss can cause many medical problems, including a weakening of the heart muscle, irregular heartbeat and dangerous reductions in potassium and electrolytes." TBL contestants routinely clock double-digit weight reductions each week.
-- Shrugging off those unrealistic, unsustainable and unhealthy practices as something the contestants are doing to themselves because "it's reality TV."
-- Perpetuating two weight-related myths: First up is the popular "fat equals unhealthy" with its unspoken corollary "therefore, thin equals healthy." The truth is, "healthy equals healthy," where "healthy" is defined by a broad variety of factors including blood pressure, resting heart rate, blood chemistry, mental and emotional states, etc. "Healthy" does not begin and end with a low body-fat percentage.
The second myth the show perpetuates is what Kate Harding so aptly pegs as "the fantasy of being thin." As she puts it:
[T]he Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has.
I recently watched Erik Chopin's "Confessions of a Reality Show Loser" on the Discovery Health channel (I know! They took out time from the "The uterus is a mystery chamber filled with surprises and drama!" programming!) and the fantasy of being thin was in full evidence. The erstwhile season three winner was within a few pounds of his pre-reality show weight, and he cited his weight (re)gain as the cause for everything from his strained marriage to his career woes to his self-esteem troubles. And he actually said, more than once, that the problems would go away once the weight did (again).
The fantasy is pernicious, because it disempowers people at their current weight and it leaves them unable to comprehend that their problems will still be there when the weight is gone.
-- Leaving its contestants unequipped to handle responsible health maintenance after the show. Reading this account of Kai Hibbard's post-show life was pitiable:
When she got pregnant, the power of her hunger petrified her. She would eat, and then run hard.
The doctor told her to tone down her workouts but she kept them up, and that caused bleeding. Soon she was confined to bed.
How is being afraid of your gestation-induced appetite, and exercising so much you're endangering your health supposed to be "healthy"? If this is the legacy the show leaves with its competitors, it's only preparing them for a lifelong struggle with the fantasy of being thin.
So why is this a feminist issue if TBL showcases male and female contestants? Because an estimated 72% of TBL's audience is female, and of those female viewers, three-quarters are ages 18-54. Because this show and its attendant empire of products are all aimed at women shoppers. Because this show underlines and reinforces the pernicious pseudofitness philosophy put forth in women's service magazines.
I love me some celebration of human potential made manifest through physical activity. I do! But you're not going to find that on TBL. I'll be back Thursday to tell you where you can look for it instead. Stay tuned ...