The Biggest Loser

The Biggest Loser showcases the threat of fat. At the start of Season Two, premiering 13 September, 14 contestants charge through the gate of their desert enclave, determined to win the $250,000 prize and the dubious moniker that goes with it. The isolated setting functions as a liminal space, where contestants can focus on losing weight free from distractions and temptations.

It’s also a boot camp. The first episode reproduces many stereotypes associated with fat people, establishing fat as pathology, not only of individual, but also national. The antidote, it suggests, is militaristic discipline and hard work.

The conception of fatness as sickness is articulated by the New Jersey physician, Jeff, who notes that he’s lost the confidence of his patients because of his obesity. He announces, “Obesity is a national epidemic,” a belief repeated by others, including a young father who says, “I want to see my son grow up.” Several vomiting scenes only underline the point. One male contestant vomits after a tough workout; another gets airsick onboard an airplane. The show intimates that the men have underlying “psychological issues,” and trainers Jillian and Bob promise to work from the “inside out,” metaphorically and literally.

The first episode shows the contestants escorted to a lavish buffet. Host Caroline Rhea likens the food to an “old friend,” urging contestants to “say good-bye.” The buffet table is wrapped like a ballerina in pink tulle, fastened to taffeta with jeweled brooches, suggesting a beautiful, and perhaps illicit, lover. Mounds of sloppy junk food — fried chicken, pizza, nachos, hot dogs, and pastries — sit atop pedestals. The camera zooms in on one woman snapping her teeth in anticipation of biting into a slice of pizza. Another woman gives the chocolate fondue a lascivious lick, giving rise to a remark by one of the men, that “it was scary” how the women attacked the food. In the aftermath, as the camera pans over the buffet table, it is as though locusts had descended. The contestants stand on the perimeter rubbing their stomachs, moaning about how ill they feel. The message is clear: they have an unhealthy relationship with food.

The dangers of fat are also suggested by the fact that two police officers are contestants, one male and one female. The woman talks about the challenge of running up several flights of stairs in pursuit of a suspect, and the risk to her fellow police officers if she can’t perform. The other officer demonstrates how his bulletproof vest no longer provides adequate protection because it doesn’t cover all of his flesh.

If a significant part of the show is devoted to the pathology of fatness, the rest is focused on the value of setting goals and working as a team. On display in “the room of dreams” is a clothing item for each contestant. For one, it is a size eight wedding gown; for another, skimpy lingerie; for a third, a dapper white suit. The doctor wants to fit into his scrubs, the police officer his vest, the former athlete his jersey. The contestants express related goals on their t-shirts, namely, to be different selves: “An inspiration to my patients,” “A stud (again),” “A princess,” “An athlete.”

But these individual ideals are secondary to team objectives (at least during this early part of the contest, before one “loser” wins). Eliminations each week are decided by who contributed to the team and who did not. In the first competition, the blue and red teams emerge from a hangar in flight suits, much like a team of astronauts from The Right Stuff, ready to confront the first of many challenges. The contestants are given the opportunity to experience weightlessness when the Diet Rite jet takes a nose dive. The goal is to gather as many free-floating balls as possible during the episode of weightlessness. No individual wins, just the team.

This emphasis on teams is exacerbated by the military framing: hard-bodied trainers yell at their charges to get moving, not to be “girls,” goading them to get up the hill, to keep going. And so it appears that, just as dieting is not much fun, the show is not very entertaining. It laces together repetitive litanies of self-loathing, self-motivational mantras, images of overweight people running and sweating, and frequent weigh-ins on a huge scale that one contestant observes could “probably be seen from Mars.”

Even in its banality, The Biggest Loser hints at some complexities of obesity. The U.S. government’s current health care policy makes the treatment of obesity, the primary cause of diabetes, a top priority, primarily because diabetes leads to enormous losses in workplace productivity and accounts for recent escalations in health care costs. The struggle with fat is more than aesthetic; it has to do with strength and safety, not only for individuals, but for the nation. The show also reveals the shame fat people feel, in contrast to national health care policy, which shows no concern for individuals, only for the national implications. One woman describes herself as “disgusting” after hearing her weight. Others weep when they describe more desirable, hidden, “real” selves or former selves.

In this reminder of the isolation felt by fat people, the show thus turns its boot camp setting into a kind of colony for undesirables. Obesity, like the “red peril” of the 1950s, must be ferreted out and purged. The Biggest Loser tells us, in keeping with federal policy, that we must combat fat as we would any national threat — with resolution, know-how, and unity.