Seventeen Shapeshifters —
It seems like in every episode of Biggest Loser, there’s this thing called the Biggest Loser Challenge which I guess is TBL’s version of “The More You Know.”
I guess theirs would be “The Fatter You Are.”
Sometimes they’re infomercials for the “healthy” processed foods Biggest Loser endorses, sometimes they’re just healthy recipes, and sometimes they’re glimpses at community wellness programs that are supported by TBL sponsors. I don’t really get what the “challenge” actually is in these cases.
Other times, the “challenge” is absolutely clear, but it makes you shake your damn head anyway.
During episode 8 (the episode of Jillian’s massive tantrum), there’s a Biggest Loser Challenge that features Jillian getting serious for a minute with the camera:
Did you know that only 11% of girls feel comfortable calling themselves beautiful? Well Seventeen magazine has partnered with The Biggest Loser to help teens everywhere be confident on the inside and out. Through Seventeen‘s Body Peace Treaty, anyone can take a vow to focus more on healthy lifestyle and attack their goals instead of their looks. Together we’re challenging America to sign the treaty.
Did Jillian Michaels, Queen of the Bullies, just say “anyone can take a vow to focus more on healthy lifestyle and attack their goals instead of their looks”?
Jillian “Why did you get fat to begin with?” Michaels?
And The Biggest Loser is promoting body peace? The same Biggest Loser that uses contestants’ insecurities against them as “motivation,” like the time Bob told Alex, “You stood on that scale day one saying that you were disgusting and that you don’t want to feel this way any more”? That Biggest Loser?
In response, Seventeen‘s editor-in-chief Ann Shoket responded:
She said the entire staff signed the eight-point pact, in which the magazine promises that it will “never change girls’ body or face shapes” and will include only images of “real girls and models who are healthy.”
Shoket also pledged that Seventeen would also post the “images of the shoots on the magazine’s Tumblr blog so readers could see the progression of the pictures.” Sounds good, right?
And then there’s this Body Peace Treaty, which anyone can sign and contribute their own pledge. Here’s the original version of the pledge:
This pledge is a step in the right direction for Seventeen, but a huge fuckin’ leap from the basic premise and entire execution of The Biggest Loser.
So how do they bridge the gap?
They use 16-year-old Sunny Chandrasekar, one of the three child contestants on this season’s Biggest Loser. On the show itself, they didn’t begin talking about the kids’ weight loss on camera until the second-to-last episode. Instead, they talk about “getting healthy” and making “lifestyle changes.” They don’t weigh the kids and if you didn’t know any better, you’d guess they weren’t trying to lose weight at all.
But if you read Sunny’s journal on Seventeen‘s website, you find a different story. In her first entry, Sunny talks about getting healthy and says that by “making healthy choices, I’m respecting my body.” By the second entry, she’s starting to sound like a dieter when she says, “When you’re truly hungry, almost anything tastes good, and I feel really proud of myself for choosing carrots over chips.” For the fifth entry, she talks about how her improved endurance boosts her self-confidence, which is positive. Then, she gives an interesting recipe:
By using pita bread for a base, low fat cheese, and loads of yummy veggies, we enjoyed some delicious pizza — and didn’t feel guilty afterwards!
But… I thought… the pizza… the sun still rises…
Week six is when you start to realize what’s going on:
This week has been really gratifying because I’m starting to see the results of my hard work in the gym. At the start of the week, my trainer re-took my body measurements, and it turns out that I lost some major inches all around. I lost four inches from my thighs, and six inches from my waist since December 2012! No wonder my jeans were falling off!
By week seven, she seems to be going overboard:
So far weight loss had been going great — I was putting in the work and felt like the weight was just melting off. This week however, was not so easy. I had a particular goal in mind, and worked my butt off aiming for that goal, but when I stepped on the scale, I was terribly shocked to find that my weight hadn’t moved an inch! I stepped off, took a deep breath, gave the scale a little kick, and stepped on again — but my weight didn’t budge. I felt terrible! It just didn’t make sense to me, because my diet and exercise had been spot-on. My trainer told me I hit a plateau in my weight loss, but I didn’t want to hear it.
As a result, she tried “upping the intensity” of her workout by skipping rope. The next day her calves were so cramped she couldn’t get out of bed, despite trying ice, heat, massages and medicine. ”I had over-worked my body and it was letting me know that it needed a break,” Sunny says. She took a day to recoup, which is probably the best thing she could have done. Of course, contestants on The Biggest Loser aren’t afforded such a luxury.
Sunny’s insights throughout the season have been pretty good, even though it’s in the context of Biggest Loser and weight loss. It makes me think that some day, Sunny will learn about Health at Every Size® and finally get it. For now, we’ll have to settle for the insights she comes up with on her own, like this:
While this frustrated me at first, I had to think back to the reason why I did this in the first place — to get healthy. By making the decision to listen to my body and give it the rest it needed, I made a healthy and wise choice. This week I learned that a number on the scale has nothing to do with how successful I am on this journey. I want to feel amazing and love myself, and the only way I can do that is to take care of my health. I’m going to be just fine!
During week eight, we see the journal crossover with the show when Sunny says, “My family is vegetarian, and while you might think this is healthier, it turns out that we we’re actually carbotarians!.” As you may recall, during episode 3, Dr. Splenda told Sunny, “What I see very often is kids telling me they’re vegetarians, when actually they are what I call carbotarians. They’re turning mostly to carbohydrates.”
Sunny agrees. “A lot of what you’re saying rings true, like we eat a lot of rice because we use that a lot in our Indian cuisine.” And since Dr. Dolgoff knows better than traditional Indian cuisine, she told Sunny to decrease her carbs and increase her intake of lean proteins. The result? “For a guilt-free pizza I use portobello mushrooms as a base, instead of bread.”
Remember when Sunny had a pita pizza without any guilt? Now, Sunny has to revamp her guilt-free recipe to adhere Dr. Dolgoff’s low carb/high protein diet. Now pita bread causes guilt. When does it end?
The answer: it doesn’t. Ever.
Once Sunny goes down this path, there will always be a collection of “guilty” foods. If she eats them, even the slightest nibble, she will feel like she has committed a grave offense. And yet the first bullet on the Body Peace Treaty is “Remember that the sun will rise tomorrow even if I had one too many slices of pizza…”
But there’s Sunny reminding girls that they must choose between guilt-free pizza and guilt-laden pizza.
I’m not saying that Sunny shouldn’t make portobello mushroom pizzas. If she likes it, awesome. My point is that the Body Peace Treaty is being undermined by Sunny’s own weight loss mentality. And she is absolutely, 100% crash dieting during this journal. (SPOILER ALERT TO THE RESULTS OF THE BIGGEST LOSER FINALE) The fact that she lost nearly 30% of her body weight in 22-24 weeks is not possible without engaging in serious restriction and massive amounts of exercise.
As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff summarized in this awesome post, even Dr. Splenda says that rapid weight loss is dangerous. Her idea of “sensible” weight loss is a half pound to one pound per week. In the end, Sunny lost 51 pounds, meaning she lost at twice the rate Dr. Splenda recommends. But even if they didn’t spend the first 10 episodes talking about it, Biggest Loser still wants the kids to get eye-popping results like the adults. And that means the kids had to crash diet. Nothing about Sunny’s journey on Biggest Loser is compatible with the Body Peace Treaty. Particularly week nine:
A typical birthday for me in the past would have involved lots of junk food and treats, and of course, cake. This year, I stepped into the gym and was immediately greeted by my trainer Lisa, who was holding something behind her back with a mischievous grin. She revealed a tiny, sweet mandarin orange with a birthday candle stuck into it. As I blew out the candle I felt a sense of immense gratitude for the opportunities I have been given.
This is how Biggest Loser has kids celebrating their birthdays. It’s her birthday and she can’t have cake. Why not? Because she needs to lose two pounds a week, which won’t happen if she eats her birthday cake. The fact that her trainer encourages this mentality bothers me as well.
That anti-cake mentality requires the dieter to convince themselves that a mandarin orange tastes better than cake. Mandarin oranges are delicious, for sure (especially when frozen a bit so they get icy and cold), but compared to a slice of your favorite cake in the world (or pie or whatever your ideal birthday treat would be), you have to be deluded to say a tiny mandarin orange is tastier.
Very few times in life do you get the chance to make a difference, and this year I have been given that chance. After an exhausting workout, I ate the orange and it was, hands-down, the best birthday cake I’ve ever tasted.
On your birthday, you get a slice of cake, and it’s very good and it’s very delicious. Only in the mind of the dieter is that basic reality rejected. Sunny is 100% dieting. Week ten continues the dieter’s delusion:
I have started recognizing triggers and try to avoid them. I’ve also found that a relaxing long soak in a hot bath tub with my favorite music on, is as much of a treat as a piece of chocolate!
It’s like comparing a Camaro to a thoroughbred. Soaking in a hot tub does not cancel out the deliciousness of chocolate. The triggers she mentions are the forbidden foods she dare not touch, lest she lose all control and undo the hard work she’s put in. Chocolate and pizza and birthday cake are booby traps and she has to use diversionary tactics to prevent herself from remembering what those things taste like.
This is the restriction half of the restriction/disinhibition cycle. Some people can stick with the restriction side for months, even years, until a moment of stress or drastic life change or depression. Something upsets the equilibrium that allows the diet to persist. But restriction in itself is stressful, as you can tell from Sunny’s descriptions. The appeal of food is not just hedonistic, it’s emotional as well. If you don’t have a balanced relationship with food, then the moment your attention turns to something more important than staying perpetually thin, you finally give in to that piece of chocolate you’ve been denying yourself and suddenly realize that a relaxing soak in a hot bath tub with your favorite music on and chocolate is the best experience of all. And having abstained so long, you will more than likely go overboard.
A healthy lifestyle does not mean eliminating certain food from your diet forever. It’s about learning to maintain a healthy, balanced diet that both increases the amount of wholesome foods and respects the natural cravings for fat, sugar and salt that all humans have had since time immemorial. It’s about striking a balance, not religious devotion to “good” and “bad” foods.
Attaching morality to food helps the dieter deny the fact that some foods actually do taste better than others. Taste denial is Ground Zero for the dieter’s mentality, and it’s captured perfectly in Kate Moss’ thinspiration motto:
During week eleven, Sunny says something eerily similar. “I’m addicted to the feeling of being healthy and accomplishing my goals — the taste of success is better than any food!”
She then goes on to make weight loss sound pretty straightforward:
I realized that to become truly healthy, I have to love myself, respect myself, and live up to the standard that I deserve. I’m sorry to say that there is no trick to weight loss, no magical cure for obesity. Simple research can tell you what to eat, how to exercise, but the real change has to be in the mind.
These final thoughts betray the effort that had to go into losing two pounds a week. But as we all know, losing weight isn’t the hard part. Keeping it off is the trick, and Sunny has been led to believe that there’s something special about Biggest Loser that makes their weight loss plan work better.
Mark my words, at least two of the three kids from this season’s Biggest Loser will regain the weight by January 1, 2018. Sunny will be 21, Biingo and Lindsay will be 18. Maintaining the crash diet they went on for a TV show is going to be the hardest thing they’ll ever attempt to do, and at least two of them will fail, if not all. But at least that’s better than if one of them develops an eating disorder.
My hope is that they will all eventually find true peace with their bodies, but as long as the Body Peace Treaty collaborates with Biggest Loser, then the entire premise is doomed from the start.
I believe that Seventeen began their Body Peace Treaty as an honest attempt to meet Julia Bluhm’s high expectations, but in the current environment, Biggest Loser is seen as such a shrine to health and wellness that First Lady Michelle Obama shamefully endorsed it. I believe her endorsement is what made this season with children possible.
There is nothing healthy or realistic about Biggest Loser and while the children on the show rarely talked about losing weight (until the end), it doesn’t change the fact that they were very much crash dieting. And this is the message they sent to millions of American families: if your kids eat healthy and exercise, they’ll lose 30% of their body weight in a few months. That isn’t true for the adults on Biggest Loser and it isn’t true for the kids either. What’s true is the kids got those results with severe caloric restriction and ridiculous amounts of exercise.
This is exactly what people feared when TBL announced it would feature kids this season and the controversy died down because they weren’t as overt as expected. But now we see the results of this experiment and it’s incredibly disturbing. And it’s far from what TBL promised in it’s brand partnership announcement:
For the first time ever, Seventeen Magazine partners with The Biggest Loser to help teens everywhere stop obsessing about what their bodies look like and start appreciating all the amazing things their bodies can do. Through Seventeen‘s groundbreaking Body Peace Project, a massive campaign to promote positive body image, the teens learn how to have a better relationship with their bodies — at any size.
This is also not what Julia Bluhm intended with her petition. Bluhm writes for a blog called Spark Movement and one of her co-bloggers wrote the following:
[U]nfortunately, Seventeen has just completely undermined the progress they’ve made for girls. On Seventeen’s website, under the same “Health” tab where you can find their “Body Peace Treaty,” is an announcement of their partnership with fat-hating, unhealthy, and downright abusive NBC “reality” TV show The Biggest Loser… Seventeen can claim “Body Peace,” but it’s nothing but hypocrisy as long as they’re supporting an all-out war against obesity, a war where safety, happiness, and self-acceptance are necessary casualties.