Weight loss shows are sending the wrong message

25 Mar

Before I get on my soapbox and have a rant about why I think the weight loss and “transformation” shows are doing the wrong thing, I should probably first start out by admitting that I’ve become a bit of a “transformation show junkie”. Yeah, I know it’s probably not good for me to be sitting in front of the TV watching something that I know will end up annoying me before the credits roll, and yet I can’t help getting my little “reality TV” fix.

So the thing that triggered my urge to write about this topic came last night as I sat to watch the Biggest Loser (Australian edition), and I saw Michelle Bridges doing something that I feel was completely awful. Now before you think I’m simply going to be trying to tear Michelle down, I want it on the record that I admire her achievements and her commitment to her career. Even while I question how commercially focussed she appears to have become – and yes I know that the public view of famous people often doesn’t reflect their true nature, I still admire how well she has done and how focussed and committed she is.

So back to the story I’m trying to tell, where I saw Michelle trying to show a little tough love to a contestant. Now I don’t know if she’s turning up the intensity for the camera, or if she was simply having a bad day and getting frustrated with this particular contestant, but rather than showing him that she had his best interests at heart she instead came across as the worst sort of bully you could imagine. Her whole approach was aggressive rather than assertive, and she used insults instead of support or coercion. Naturally the contestant got angry, and I think that Michelle was lucky that this guy only left the room with a little foul language behind him!! Sure it makes good television – if you like that sort of thing, but what message does it give to the contestant and to the viewers who are watching the program? That the fat person can still be denigrated by the fit person even when that fit person is supposed to be helping and supportive? That it’s OK to be abusive towards the fat person simply because they don’t wish to do what you want them to? That personal trainers have some sort of right to insult their clients?

From my “armchair quarterback” position, I think that it wasn’t so good for Michelle to display what I believe is such a great degree of unprofessionalism, and such a lack of respect for someone who – competition or not – was at that moment her client. If I was show that video as my only view of what a personal trainer does, I wouldn’t want to hire one, or I wouldn’t want to hire the person who I saw behaving that way. Sorry Michelle, as great as I think you really are, I don’t think you are really helping either your client, or our industry in general when you behave that way, no matter how good it might be for the show or the ratings.

Which brings be to the other part of my rant, and the heart of the topic that I wanted to write about, and that is that these TV personality trainers have it in their power to do some real good in the world, and to really spread the message not only about how important it is to be healthy, but that it is also possible to undo the damage done by years of self-neglect, and the sad and truly silly thing about this is that these people are squandering this opportunity and allowing themselves to get sucked in to the commercialism of there TV shows, and I believe doing more harm than good with the mixed and often wrong signals that they send out to their adoring public.

Those mixed messages started even before any of these shows first aired. Yes, I’m saying they – The Biggest Loser people – got it wrong the moment someone first pitched the idea of having a variation on the Survivor style of reality TV program where you get a bunch of overweight people to compete in a situation where – from the public’s perspective – elimination ends your journey and with it the education that you need in order to do something that from the obese person’s perspective could literally save your life! It trivialises not only the journey that each of the contestants needs to take, but also the risks and reasons that have led the contestants to take part in the competition, and week to week, you get to see people who will get kicked off the show because they were unable to keep up with the others – regardless of whether it was due to physical difference, poor mental preparation, or sheer laziness. And they’re not just booted out of the show for coming last in a weekly competition, they get voted off by the very same people who are supposed to be a part of their support network during the show!

Even worse in my mind is that there is even a competition at all. You have a bunch of people who have come to a point in their lives as a result of hardship, depression, and self-loathing just to name a few of the reasons for their poor physical condition, and instead of building a supportive environment where they can be encouraged to learn and grow beyond the barriers they have had to getting healthier on their own, these people enter into a competition, where losing means they will not only not win the prize money at the end of the season, but that they will likely also not be anywhere near achieving any of their goals, nor likely to be any healthier or happier unless they are lucky enough to survive the competition long enough to make it reasonably close to the end.

Competition is great if you have the mental fortitude to deal with defeat, yet when you feel the whole world is against you and that a loss will just validate your own self-loathing, why would anyone risk subjecting you to the sort of pressures and behaviours that probably led you into such a negative mental state in the first place?!! Seriously, it’s disgraceful that these poor people are subjected to any of this, let alone the sort of unprofessional abuse which I described earlier. I really find it disgusting, and a part of me feels ashamed that in spite of all of this, I find myself drawn back time and again to watch with an almost morbid fascination as a group of people compete to be insulted, bullied, pushed and prodded for the amusement of the viewing audience, and the ratings of a television station.

There is one show that I have seen that seems to try to break the reality TV nightmare mould a bit, which is Chris Powell‘s Extreme Makeover. Instead of following a bunch of people for weeks on end, you get to see one person transform in each episode, which covers a year long journey. I have a lot of respect for what it is that Chris does, and for how his show generally comes across in trying to show a very difficult and personal journey with a great deal of decorum and sensitivity towards each individual that Chris helps. I like that you not only see the great successes, but that you also see the not so great successes, and even a few of the failures as well. It’s a little more real, more confronting for the viewer as well as the person being transformed, and I can’t recall seeing Chris behaving as anything other than professionally in the gym, and otherwise as a really nice human being, a mentor, and a friend when he is dealing with his clients at other times.

I wouldn’t be writing this however if I didn’t find something that doesn’t sit quite right with me, and this is one of those mixed messages that the other weight loss shows make an even greater deal about and where they fail quite spectacularly, and that is the correlation made between weight and health instead of dealing with the problem as one of fat vs health. These should not be weight loss shows, but should instead be Fat-loss shows. It isn’t weight that kills obese people. It isn’t weight that causes metabolic diseases and other life threatening complications. These problems are the result of poor dietary lifestyle, inactivity, stress, depression, and on top of all of that it’s ultimately due to an excess of body fat that obesity occurs.

So while I really love what Chris does with his show, the message is all wrong. We don’t need to be bullies as I’ve said earlier, but we also should not be so scared into political correctness that we can’t admit that it is fat that is the killer, that being fat is a big part of the problem for so many people, and that mental health is also something that needs to be addressed, and not this focus on how many units of weight you have gained or lost over time. To Chris’s credit however, and it is one of the reasons that I really like his show, he makes use of the scale, but doesn’t make the scale the focus of everything that his clients do. For that alone I’d admire his work, certainly a lot more than I do with that other show that I mentioned.

Another mixed message which comes from these shows, is that they make it seem as though you can only get the kind of help that these TV shows show from your famous weight-loss TV show celebrity, from personal trainers, or that you need to be obese before you can get that kind of extreme help or intervention. While I can’t claim to have ever reached the massive weights of those contestants and others shown on the TV, I do know that both the mental journey and the physical one have been very intense for me, and I am sure that there are millions of other people in the world battling similar demons of their own. The real help comes from the network of supportive people that you choose to surround yourself with, whether it’s family, friends, your local doctor, your psychologist, nutritionist, or even a bunch of people on-line who read your blog from time to time (Yes, that’s probably you the reader as well!!). Ordinary people with day to day problems sometimes need help too, and this help is available all around them, and shouldn’t require extremes in order to be dealt with.

Your personal trainer is one person out of many, and no matter how much I grow as a personal trainer, I hope that I never forget that I am only one of many people who are there to provide support for my clients. While my skills may be important in helping a person to travel their journey, and even while those skills may touch on other areas such as psychology, nutrition, and general health, I should always keep in mind that there are others better qualified to focus on such areas, and it will remain my job to provide my clients with assertive yet compassionate support, physical training, appropriate advice within my areas of expertise, and the  professionalism that that they deserve, with a direct and simple message minus all of the misdirection that they end up getting from the TV.

Life isn’t a competition, and your problems aren’t trivial or wrong just because someone else doesn’t understand or can’t relate to them. This is certainly  apart of the message that I am focussed on getting out there into the world, and so to is that we are all entitled to live healthy and happy lives. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is or what the reasons are for becoming unhealthy or unhappy. Help should always be available for those who need it, and no-one should learn to hate themselves just because they were unable to recognise their problems or for being ill-equipped to handle them.

If you want a better show, show a person’s journey from start to finish. Show how we can learn from our failures, celebrate our victories, and what sort of help systems there are in the world for those requiring more extreme forms of help. For Chriss Powell, I’d suggest that he follow up on those he felt he couldn’t help, and to see after a year or two whether those people were able to find other ways to overcome the physical and mental barriers that prevented them being successful in their journeys. Did they seek a support group, or counselling, or some other intervention process? Did it work? Did it help? Would these things make a difference to a person who tried to reboot their journey after they had learned a few more skills?

For all of those shows, change the message. Focus on health and fat management more, and less on competition and on having people turn on each other in order to win. Show us that everyone can be successful with a little love and support, and that everyone who has struggled with their health in life deserves another chance to be healthy again without the risk of bullying, abandonment, or showing that the entitlement of health only belongs to those who fight hardest for it, even though we must sometimes fight with ourselves in order to ensure we maintain our physical and mental health.

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2 Responses to “Weight loss shows are sending the wrong message”

  1. kristeeh 26 March 2013 at 15:11 #

    I actually am into watching the Biggest Loser (haven’t seen Extreme Makeover yet). The reason being is that it is quite inspirational to see their weekly progress and what they could accomplish in such a short period of time. It’s true that “normal” folks like us could hardly accomplish the same, unless you were given the luxuries they had. So in this sense it most definitely is misleading. I also agree that the voting off process by one’s own teammates is a horrible process and the part of the show that I didn’t enjoy watching. Regardless, it has inspired many to change their lives although we never really know what goes on behind the cameras.

    • Sean Robins 26 March 2013 at 16:33 #

      Personally I’d prefer to think that us ordinary folk really CAN do what the contestants on the Biggest Loser do, regardless of the “luxuries” available. While I agree that the winners do get to provide us with an inspiring story to follow, I worry for the other people that the show seems to effectively “abandon”, particularly those people who leave the show early in the series, and I worry that these are really the people who needed the most help, and required the most intensive psychotherapy in order to overcome the barriers that will continue to keep them so unhealthy.

      Perhaps I’m looking to deeply into this sort of thing and perhaps I worry too much, but in this day and age survival of the fittest is a poor message to send when we have so many people around us in such great need of a little compassion and understanding, and when we have it within our power as a community to change all of this for the better.

      As always though, thanks for commenting, and I like how your comments encourage me to think a little more carefully about my position.

      🙂

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