Map and Compass —
Trigger warning: This post thoroughly discusses an The Biggest Loser and weight loss.
First of all, I want to apologize because I will not be posting the episode 8 recap until Monday. This is the beginning of a very busy time of year for me, which limits the amount of time I have for writing. These recaps are incredibly time consuming to prepare because I want to document everything wrong with this shows and there is a helluva a lot of wrong going on.
To do it right, I have to spend a full day watching the show, while transcribing and screen-capping, which means I have to pause and rewind, pause and rewind, pause and rewind most of the day. After that, it’s a matter of sorting through it all and piecing it together, which is what I spend the rest of the week doing.
Except this week, I got hung up on two bits of information I stumbled upon while preparing this week’s recap. I had intended this to be the intro to the eighth recap, but by this morning, I realized there’s no way I can give the recap itself the attention it deserves.
It is for the best that I give myself the weekend to work on the recaps, so I don’t feel rushed and turn in a shit product, right? Right. So, expect Biggest Loser recaps on Mondays from now on, instead of Fridays.
But these two peeks into the sausage factory will lay the groundwork for Monday’s recap.
The first was an interview with Conda Britt, the third place winner from Season 13. I didn’t watch that season (and will sure as shit not watch another after this), but I remember hearing about how five contestants walked off after week 14 (the episode prior to the semi-finals) because all of the eliminated contestants would have an opportunity to return to the ranch for the final episode and be eligible to win it all. NBC lawyer helpfully pointed out that it was even in their contract:
All contestants, including all eliminated contestants, will be invited to participate in the final challenge for the series, and the one contestant who wins it will be automatically eligible to win the grand prize.
The lawyer also reminded them of their contractual obligations to the show, and the contestants dutifully returned, minus two defectors, who were kicked off. Britt was one of the lead instigators of that coup and has been called “the biggest bully and troublemaker on the show.” She also went on to take third place, having lost 115 pounds, or 40% of her starting weight.
So, drama aside, Britt is an ideal representative of TBL’s success, yes?
So in reality, it’s more like this…
And in this interview, Britt discloses a few details of the audition process. I’m sure this has been revealed in one way or another elsewhere, but this is the first I’ve heard it, so I’m sharing it for context.
According to Britt, to become a Biggest Loser contest, you first have to attend an open casting call, followed by a two-hour sit down interview with the casting director. This is followed by months of back and forth emails, which leads to a two-week sequester in a hotel. Britt says she was locked in the room with her brother Jeremy, who was also a contestant. During that time she had “numerous interviews with NBC executives and people involved with show.” On top of all this, they have to take a 500-question psychological test, an IQ test and meet with a psychologist.
The whole point of all this is that there are no surprises from the contestants. But could it also be that the psychological profile they develop is used to manipulate contestants once they’re on the show? They know their weak spots, they know how to push their buttons, so why not use that to gin up the drama?
As for the show itself, Britt said they filmed for 12 hours a day and that there were cameras in the contestants’ bedrooms. With that much footage to manipulate, the “reality” of Biggest Loser looks heavily edited.
Again, not surprising, but given the way the show molds the narratives to make certain contestants villains or heroes, it’s important to know how much material they have to work with in shaping those stories.
The other enlightening info comes from former contestant Austin Andrews, who made it to week 19 before being eliminated the week before semi-finals.
From a starting weight of 396 pounds, Austin lost 174 pounds, or 44% of starting weight, by the finale.
As a result, he and his father, Ken, founded RetroFit Ministries, where faith and fitness unite. Both men are available as speakers, of course. But one thing that interested parties should know is that Austin doesn’t quite look like the After above any more, as evidenced by a photo taken one week ago.
In fact, I think Austin and I are probably about the same size now.
So, once again, the ads should look a little more like this:
This isn’t meant as a diss to Austin in the least. I have it on good authority that he eats healthy and that he and his dad are giving health and wellness seminars (though in the photo from that seminar, his dad seems to have put some weight back on as well), so if anyone knows how to stay healthy it’s Austin. If Austin put some weight on, but he’s still exercising and eating healthy, then guess what, he can be just as healthy as a thin person.
But for all we know, he could have stopped exercising and started eating ten boxes of Twinkies a day. Of course, that wouldn’t surprise me either because that’s what Biggest Loser sets people up for. Nobody can lose that much weight that quickly without eating 1,200 calories or less, PLUS six hours a day of what seems to be mostly vigorous exercise. To put that in perspective, the American College of Sports recommends 20-60 minutes of vigorous exercise three days per week.
Unless a person’s career depends upon maintaining a slender physique, then it becomes nearly impossible to keep up with 30 hours of exercise per week (assuming they take the weekends off, which they probably don’t). As British pop star Claire Richards said, getting and staying thin is a full-time job. In order to maintain the weight loss from Biggest Loser, former contestants would essentially have to maintain the 1,200 calorie, 6-hour-exercise lifestyle indefinitely.
Most people can’t keep that kind of lifestyle up, and once they regain some of the weight, they figure they may as well buy up all the Twinkies they can. People often ascribe that to being weak-willed or a quitter, but there are actual hormonal riots going on inside the body of a Biggest Loser contestant. And if you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, then you best educate yourself before you decimate yourself.
So not only does TBL’s weight loss approach tamper with the hormones leptin and ghrelin (which control hunger and appetite), but the show is basically a bunch of people who came together and said, “Hey, let’s teach people that exercise only works if it’s miserable, merciless torture!”
And that’s why Biggest Loser makes their contestants sign the infamous non-disclosure agreement. Now, it’s not surprising in the least that this non-disclosure agreement exists, but what fascinates me is how they choose to enforce that agreement. This bit of information I learned from Austin, who has been pretty straight-forward about his experience on the show.
You can read the Storified version here, but the gist of it is summed up in two of Austin’s tweets (which have since been deleted, but you can see them in the Storified version, still):
I would say that a lot of comments made by many contestants could be considered violations.
the only people threated with suits were the negative ones to my knowledge. I have never been threatened…
Then Yoni Freedhoff got to the heart of the point:
— Yoni Freedhoff, M.D. (@YoniFreedhoff) February 19, 2013
Austin points out that it’s a branding and marketing issue, which is absolutely true. But isn’t the marketing problem that in order to get the results necessary for the show, they had to endure some pretty terrible shit? And this is a show that wallows in terrible shit! The cruelty on display is dehumanizing enough. Just imagine what we’d learn if we pulled back the curtain.
We already have Golda’s epic three-part interview with Kai Hibbard, one of the final four contestants from Season 3. And we certainly know that Biggest Loser has a terrible long-term success rate. That is unless, of course, you ask NBC. The Today Show has an undated “Where are they now?” article that features contestants from every season up to 11.
At first glance, it’s a pretty impressive list with 56 former contestants, most of whom have supposedly kept off the weight since they were on the show. But perspective is important. That’s 56 out of 201 former contestants. If this were an experiment, a 25% follow-up rate would not be considered all that impressive.
Even so, what taints this cohort even further is that 46 of those 56 former contestants have leveraged their appearance on the show into some kind of career or enterprise. Many are available as motivational speakers, while others have written books. One way or another, 82% of the “Where are they now?” contestants are financially rewarded for keeping the weight off, which provides an incentive not available to most dieters. That certainly frames this “proof” in an interesting light.
But what absolutely devastates this body of “evidence” is the fact that some of the contestants are no longer the same weight. For instance:
Michael Ventrella won season 9 with the distinction of having lost the most weight in the show’s eight year history.
But as of last January, Michael’s put some of the weight, as you can see in the series of photos below.
So I think we can safely say that at least one of the “Where are they now?” bios is out of date, yes?
And then there’s this one.
This says she weighs virtually the same as she did the day on the season 4 Biggest Loser finale.
And yet, here she is at a Biggest Loser casting call last July.
Clearly, she does not still weigh the same anymore.
And yet, they aren’t alone. The following are contestants who appear on the “Where are they now?” list, and who I have been able to find pictures from 2012 or later. For example, you’ve got Dr. Jeff Levine from season 2.
And the Germanakos twins from season 4.
Jerry Lisenby from season 4.
Trent Patterson from season 5.
Michelle Aguilar from season 6 (you can see her in this 2012 video, where I got the screen cap).
And Roger Shultz from season 5.
In fact, Roger, took a double dip and was a spokesperson for the weight loss product Sensa between the After above and the “Five Years Later,” as evidenced in this interview from October.
And finally, we’ve got season 8 contestant Abby Rike, who is promoting her weight loss book even as she seems to regaining the weight from the show.
So where are they now? It seems some of them are on their way to regaining the weight they lost on the show. The remaining “success” stories are profiting off their weight loss, and so have an added incentive to maintain the strict lifestyle necessary to maintain that loss.
Perspective is everything, and NBC fights to control the perspective that Biggest Loser is a great experience that leads to a life-changing amount of weight loss. If a former contestant attempts to convey anything less, they’re sued.
This is just the glimpse behind the curtain that we’ve been able to force our way to seeing. It makes me wonder how much worse it actually is behind the scenes.
- Prequel — Paging Dr. Dolgoff
- Episode 1 — The Biggest Dickweed
- Episode 2 — Reclaiming Worth
- Episode 3 — Crossfire Hurricane
- Episode 4 — Cognitive Dissonance
- Episode 5 — Abracadabra
- Episode 6 — Mystery Tramp
- Episode 7 — Valentine’s Day Massacre