Published: Sept. 19, 2007
Updated: Apr. 16, 2010
As the new season of NBC’s The Biggest Loser unfolds, ask yourself this: Would I want to watch my loved one -- who struggles daily with the physical, mental, and emotional ramifications of a life-threatening illness -- treated this way?
The program, which capitalizes on one of the country’s fastest-growing epidemics, and ABC’s recent introduction, Fat March, are the latest examples of how the sideshow mentality and sensationalistic abuse of reality television has gone too far.
Several years ago when The Real World and Survivor started placing real people in contrived situations with cameras rolling, America sat transfixed as “unscripted” human drama unfolded. Despite arguments over the shows’ questionable taste, their presence was justified by the opinion that putting consenting adults in front of cameras did little real harm.
Unfortunately, as the entertainment value of preying upon human frailties became apparent, programmers looked for more dramatic situations. This has resulted in one of the more alarming and distasteful trends in reality television to date: The exploitation of obesity.
Overweight and obesity now affects 65 percent of all Americans and is one of the most serious public health crises in modern history. Many people affected by this often debilitating medical condition suffer discrimination at school, work, and other public settings. They frequently deal with a lifetime of blame, ridicule, and shame.
In addition to being the target of social stigma, people who struggle with excess weight also end up being victims of irresponsible business ventures devoted to selling all manner of ineffective, unsafe and unregulated weight loss products that contribute to a perpetual cycle of misinformation, false hope, failure, and desperation. Reality television programs prey on this desperation too by enticing people to watch and participate in a theatrical scenario reminiscent of a circus sideshow.
When the Biggest Loser first aired four seasons ago, I tried to approach it with an open mind. However, the title’s double-entendre made it difficult not to see that exploitation was right around the corner. I watched in disgust as tables replete with cakes and foods were there to tempt participants -- only perpetuating the stereotype that overweight people are gluttonous and lack self-control.
I watched as so-called fitness experts spread the “no pain -- no gain” message and encouraged participation in fitness challenges that pushed people beyond any reasonable medical risk and continued the misguided notion that in order to be successful in weight control, grueling and painful exercise is required.
I was alarmed to see the participants’ medical and emotional well-being placed at risk. I quickly realized that The Biggest Loser was yet another missed opportunity for television to educate and help curb this growing epidemic. I hoped the public would reject this distasteful exploitation of human suffering.
Unfortunately the opposite has occurred. To gain market share and rise above the competition in this now crowded field, the entertainment division of ABC recently stooped to an all-time low: The exploitation of obese children.
This past summer, I reacted with disdain to the announcement of a new show: Shaq’s Big Challenge. While some people hoped it might take the high road and reach millions of parents and families who struggle with obesity with a healthy and balanced message, we knew better.
Healthy, balanced, sensible, and medically responsible does not sell entertainment television. Instead, in Shaq’s Big Challenge, we saw children coerced into emotional submission, humiliated in front of millions, and their struggle with weight turned into a public spectacle.
I do not intend to diminish the accomplishments of those who have been able to, despite these inappropriate methods, improve their lives, their health, and lose weight. Nor do I wish to diminish the inspiration that some have derived from watching these programs. However, in working with people who struggle to achieve a healthier weight, it has become clear that the potential for harm in approaching the issue the way these programs do far outweighs the benefits. There are better ways to help and inspire without humiliation, pain and shame.
Those of us in the medical community who have made battling this epidemic our life’s work know that education is key. It is the foundation of any responsible approach to weight loss. My colleagues and I value our relationships with media organizations because of their power to reach and educate millions about appropriate and healthy ways to battle excess weight. We are encouraged to see many newspapers, magazines, and network news programs putting forward valid and scientifically sound information.
It’s unfortunate that the entertainment divisions of the nation’s television networks haven’t followed suit.
-- Martin Binks, PhD, is a consulting professor in the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.