The Biggest Loser Wasn’t the Answer to Changing People’s Lives
I am about to do a bad thing. I’m going to link to the Daily Mail.
Ug. So dirty now.
Commonly referred to as the “Daily Fail,” it is far from being a reputable news source, but they’re the ones with the story alleging the fat-shaming train wreck of a “reality” game show The Biggest Loser is finally done. If it’s to be believed, I heave a sigh of relief.
When the show first appeared in 2004, it was subject to vocal criticism by physicians, trainers and dietitians alike. Soon, former contestants joined in criticizing the practices on the show and the negative impact it had on their lives. Over the years, the calls for the show to be cancelled grew. I began writing about the horrors of TBL back in 2010 in the Los Angeles Times, and have written a number of additional articles about it since then, with one of my final ones appearing in the Guardian early 2016 on the day of the 17th season premiere, where I asserted this should be the show’s final season. Apparently, it was.
A Facebook commenter used the term “entershamement” to describe TBL. But public shaming of obesity isn’t the answer to losing weight, because it’s never just about the weight.
In researching and writing about the show, examining the casting Facebook page and commentary of TBL hopefuls, many desired to go on the show to change their lives. They professed Jillian or Bob or whomever was their only hope. They’d tried everything and the only way to save themselves was to go on a dangerous game show and be humiliated into starvation and endless exercise.
Unfortunately, “trying everything” often translates into falling for a lot of the gimmickry rife in the weight loss industry. Because research reveals that, when done in a thoughtful, science-based fashion, sustainable weight loss has a decent success rate.
Regarding The Biggest Loser, some former contestants are grateful for the experience. Some made a career out of having lost weight and it motivated them to keep the pounds off. And I’m happy for them. But so much human carnage took place to permit those few to be successful. I mean, beyond the success in terms of generating piles of money for the producers.
Because TBL has always been about making money rather than helping people, and creating a spectacle = $$$. Unfortunately, the fat shaming spectacle seen across so many screens was the opposite of help.
In a 2013 paper published in PLOS ONE, researchers from Florida State University asserted not only does stigmatizing obesity lead to poorer mental health outcomes, but the authors stated: “Rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, weight discrimination increases risk for obesity.”
And another study published in 2014 in the journal Obesity looked at 2,944 UK adults over four years and discovered those who reported experiencing discrimination over their weight gained more pounds than those who did not. After accounting for baseline difference the study found, on average, those who faced fat shaming gained weight, while those who didn’t lost weight. See how that worked? Shaming = weight gain / no shaming = weight loss.
Part of the reason stigmatization of obesity doesn’t help people lose weight is due to the comfort eating it such discrimination engenders, but a 2008 study of 100 women published in the Journal of Health Psychology also found experiencing weight bias puts people at risk for lower levels of activity.
Because being made to feel like shit doesn’t promote healthy eating or active living. And sometimes, we beat ourselves up. We make ourselves feel like shit all on our own.
Taryn Brumfit is a body acceptance advocate and director of the documentary film Embrace. I interviewed her for the Los Angeles Times and she said of the need to not descend into self-loathing: “I have never met a single human being that has made lifelong, meaningful change that came from shame or guilt.” Conversely, she told me, “I have seen so much positive change that results from self-care, self-love, self-esteem, and self-respect. I’m asking people to embrace their positive qualities, because when they do that, they make good choices for themselves and their bodies.”
But the reason for The Biggest Loser being a failure at helping people succeed at weight loss goes beyond the shame and into the mechanics of motivation.
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation
At a base level, intrinsic motivation comes from within, whereas extrinsic is more from an external source.
Curt Lox is a professor specializing in the psychosocial aspects of exercise, rehabilitation and health at Southern Illinois University. In his 2010 book The Psychology of Exercise (Holcomb Hathaway) he created a graph explaining the two types of motivation, which I’ve recreated below:
Examples of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators for exercise behavior
|Fun||Health (e.g. prevent heart disease)|
|Sense of challenge||Social recognition/praise|
|Personal improvement||Tangible reinforcers (money etc.)|
Guess which one TBL qualifies as.
Later in the book, Lox provides research revealing intrinsic is generally a better form of motivation. Those who are intrinsically motivated have better adherence rates, stronger intention, higher confidence in their abilities and greater willingness to overcome barriers to success. They also have greater self-worth and lower physique anxiety.
Which isn’t to say extrinsic motivation is worthless. A person can pull from both. The problem with The Biggest Loser is that in focusing so hard on extrinsic motivation it kills intrinsic before it has a chance to develop.
Everything to do with TBL is about external pressure. You’re on TV. Everyone knows your name and expects you to lose weight. Trainers yell at you continuously in a prison-like labor camp. You have teammates you don’t want to let down. A lot of money rides on winning. Even after the show is over, there can be lingering extrinsic motivation to keep the weight off by having been on the show. It’s all about high pressure. Pressure to lose on the show, and pressure to not regain to avoid public “embarrassment” for being a “failure.”
None of that is what I’d call “fun.”
There aren’t any life skills taught on TBL either. You don’t learn how to become competent at a given physical activity. You don’t learn how to enjoy shopping for and preparing healthy meals. Rather, it’s all about the spectacle; seeing how much torture a contestant can endure. And torture doesn’t build intrinsic motivation.
That’s because it’s lacking in self-determination. The show is something that’s done to you. You’re forced to go along. But it goes deeper.
TBL just looks at the scale, but people are more than what effect gravity has on them. Humans are complex beings and obesity is a multi-factorial condition. There are myriad reasons why people fail to exercise and overeat on high-calorie foods. There are issues of genetics, finances, emotional trauma, abuse, anxiety, depression, medication, disabilities, upbringing, access … Sometimes, the root causes of one’s obesity needs to be addressed prior to figuring out the best, self-determined path to success.
Or sometimes, you just need to take a walk. Even a short one.
It is fine to embrace positive extrinsic motivators such as improving one’s health. If you’re a risk for heart disease, as an example, you may feel a sense of duty to take better care of yourself to be there for your family. You may wish to be able to perform better at your job. You may desire recognition for a changed physique. These are not bad ways to push you along a new path, but you can’t ignore the importance of creating an internal desire to follow a new path because you enjoy doing it for you.
I know people who load up podcasts they look forward to listening to, and create a rule that they can only listen to them while out walking. And so, they come to enjoy those walks. They plan for them by scheduling them into their day and selecting the podcast they’re going to listen to in advance. It’s intrinsic motivation, and adherence is high.
A bonus to this approach is the potential for spillover effect.
Human beings don’t live their lives in silos of accomplishment. When you’re not externally tortured into motion but instead choose your own way on your own terms, it often affects other areas of your life in a positive manner. It’s about developing skills to work on you and your life in a way that makes you happy, makes you feel like you’re improving, provides you with a worthwhile challenge. Success tends to beget additional success.
Rather than standing on a giant scale on a syndicated TV show, choose to do your weighing in private; or perhaps don’t weight yourself at all. You are far more than the numbers on a scale, so look inside to find your determination to take action that fulfills you, rather than fulfills the ratings quota of a network executive.
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first book was published by Random House Canada in 2014. He is currently working on his next book, which is about life-changing moments.