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I watched the first few seasons of The Biggest Loser avidly. The show offered the ultimate fat girl fantasy—go to a “ranch” for a few months, and under the pressure of intense personal trainers, low caloric intake, the manipulations of reality show producers and the constant surveillance of television cameras, lose the weight you’ve never been able to lose on your own.
During those first few seasons, I often toyed with auditioning to appear on the show though, realistically, that could never happen. I’m too shy. I would go through Internet withdrawals. I can’t work out without music. If trainer Jillian Michaels screamed at me I would shut down. As a vegetarian, I don’t eat Jenny-O turkey. Appearing on the show is simply not workable for me.
The longer The Biggest Loser has been on the air, however, the more the show has disturbed me. There is the constant shaming of fat people and the medical professionals taking every opportunity to crow about how near death these obese contestants are. There are the trainers, with their perfect bodies, demanding perfection from people who have, for whatever reason, not had a previously healthy relationship with their bodies. There is the spectacle of the contestants pushing themselves in inhuman ways—crying and sweating and vomiting—visibly purging their bodies of weakness.
This is not a show about people becoming empowered through fitness, though on the surface, the show’s slick marketing would have you believe that. The Biggest Loser is a show about fat as an enemy that must be destroyed, a contagion that must be eradicated. This is a show about unruly bodies that must be disciplined by any means necessary, and through that discipline, the obese might become more acceptable members of society. They might find happiness.
When we watch shows like The Biggest Loser and its many imitators, we are practically begging some power beyond ourselves: “Take these all too human bodies, and make what you will of them.”
If you watch enough daytime television, particularly on “women’s networks,” you are treated to an endless parade of commercials about weight loss products and diet foods—means of disciplining the body that will also fatten the coffers of one corporation or another. In these commercials, women often swoon at the possibility of satisfying their hunger with somewhat repulsive foods while also maintaining an appropriately slim figure. The joy women express over fat free yogurt and 100-calorie snack packs is not to be believed.
In her latest commercial for Weight Watchers, Jessica Simpson says, “I started losing weight right away. I started smiling right away.” This commercial is one of many weight loss advertisements that equate happiness with thinness and, by default, obesity with misery. In her commercials for Weight Watchers, Jennifer Hudson shrieks about her newfound happiness and how, through weight loss, not, say, winning an Oscar, she has achieved success.
Gossip magazines keep us constantly abreast of what’s happening to the bodies of famous women. Their weight fluctuations are tracked like stocks because their bodies are, in their line of work, their personal stock, the physical embodiment of market value. When celebrity women have babies, their bodies are intensely monitored during and after—from baby bumps to post baby bodies.
Women, for that is whom these ecstatic diet food commercials and celebrity weight loss endorsements are for, can have it all when they eat the right foods and follow the right diets and pay the right price.
They are the unachievable standard toward which we must, nonetheless strive. They are thinspiration as the parlance goes—thin inspiration, a constant reminder of the distance between our bodies and what they could be with the proper discipline.
Part of disciplining the body is denial. We want but we dare not have. To lose weight or maintain our ideal bodies, we deny ourselves certain foods. We deny ourselves rest by working out. We deny ourselves peace of mind by remaining ever vigilant over our bodies. We withhold from ourselves until we achieve a goal and then we withhold from ourselves to maintain that goal.
My body is wildly undisciplined and I deny myself nearly everything I desire. I deny myself the right to space when I am public, trying to fold in on myself, to make my body invisible even though it is, in fact, grandly visible. I deny myself the right to a shared armrest because how dare I impose? I deny myself entry into certain spaces I have deemed inappropriate for a body like mine—most spaces inhabited by other people.
I deny myself bright colors in my clothing choices, sticking to a uniform of denim and dark shirts even though I have a far more diverse wardrobe. I deny myself certain trappings of femininity as if I do not have the right to such expression when my body does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like. I deny myself gentler kinds of affection—to touch or be kindly touched—as if that is a pleasure a body like mine does not deserve.
Punishment is, in fact, one of the few things I allow myself. I deny myself my attractions. I have them, oh I do, but dare not express them, because how dare I want. How dare I confess my want? How dare I try to act on that want? I deny myself so much and still there is so much desire throbbing beneath my surfaces.
Denial merely puts what we want just beyond reach but we still know it’s there.
Recently, my best friend and I were drinking wine in a hotel room. She grabbed my hand to paint my fingernail. She had been threatening to do this for hours and I was resisting for reasons I could not articulate. Finally, I surrendered and my hand was soft in hers as she carefully painted my fingernail a lovely shade of pink. She blew on it, let it dry, added a second coat. The evening continued.
I stared at my finger the next day, on an airplane hurtling across the country. I could not remember the last time I had allowed myself the simple pleasure of a painted fingernail. I liked seeing my finger like that, particularly because my nail was long, nicely shaped, and I hadn’t gnawed at it as I am wont to do. Then I became self-conscious and tucked my thumb against the palm of my hand, as if I should hide my thumb, as if I had no right to feel pretty, to feel good about myself, to acknowledge myself as a woman when I am clearly not following the rules for being a woman.
Before I got on the plane, my best friend offered me a bag of potato chips to eat on the plane, but I denied myself that. I said, “People like me don’t get to eat food like that in public,” and it was one of the truest things I’ve ever said. Only the depth of our relationship allowed me to make this revelation, and then I was ashamed for buying into these terrible narratives we fit ourselves into and I was ashamed at how I am so terrible about disciplining my body and I was ashamed by how I deny myself so much and it is still not enough.
With the dramatic reveal of Rachel Frederickson, the latest winner of The Biggest Loser, we finally have a reason to be outraged about the show and its practices, even though the show has been on the air and offering a damaging narrative about weight loss since 2004.
When her season began, Frederickson weighed 260 pounds. At the final weigh in, on live television, she weighed 105, a 60 percent loss in mere months. She had disciplined her body the way she was asked but, apparently, she disciplined her body a bit too much. There are so many rules for the body—often unspoken and ever shifting.
During this reveal, even trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels gaped at Frederickson’s gaunt body. In an interview, Harper would later say, “I was stunned. That would be the word. I mean, we’ve never had a contestant come in at 105 lbs.” The biggest loser, we now know, should lose, but only so much.
There was a wide range of responses in the wake of seeing Rachel Frederickson’s new body. Her body, like most women’s bodies, instantly became a public text, a site of discourse, only now, because she had taken her weight loss too far. She had disciplined her body too much.
In the two months since that reveal, Frederickson has gained twenty pounds and is at, apparently, a more acceptable but still appropriately disciplined size. She has explained that she lost so much weight because she was trying to win the $250,000 prize, but those of us who deny ourselves and try so hard to discipline our bodies know better. Rachel Frederickson was doing exactly what we asked of her and what too many of us would, if we could, ask of ourselves.