Thoughts By Natalie
wellness

Is The Biggest Loser Finale Sending the Wrong Message?

I’ve long been a fan of The Biggest Loser. I love the inspiring stories they share from the contestants, seeing people overcome strongholds in their lives that have kept them at an unhealthy weight, and seeing them get a second chance at living a healthy, fully-alive life.

But after last night’s finale, I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to watch the show again.

If you didn’t watch it, check out the video above for a quick recap of what went down. In a nutshell, we see contestant Rachel Frederickson celebrating victory over weight she couldn’t get rid of, and unfortunately we see her weigh in at a brand new unhealthy weight—one that is way under what her 5’4″ frame should be, medically speaking.

I think it’s worth mentioning that I am not a thin-shamer at all. I think everybody has a different shape and size, and that whatever our God-given size is is a-okay and something to be celebrated. I have several friends who are naturally thin and do not have an eating disorder in any way, shape or form. That being said, it’s sort of a different story altogether when we’re talking about a very public weight-loss show intended to inspire people get healthy, as well as paint a picture of what health looks like.

I speak from personal experience when I say that celebrating thinness that has been achieved in an unhealthy manner is a very dangerous path. In 2005, I lost weight for the first time in my life. I wasn’t overweight to start, but I lost weight nonetheless. Sort of by accident, in fact, but it didn’t stop the compliments from all kinds of people. And the thinner I got, the more positive feedback I got—You look amazing! How do you stay so thin? I wish I had your discipline!

The encouragement came from friends and family and all kinds of strangers, and it kept coming until one day when the thinness went too far. In a rapid turn of events, I went from a picture of wellness to a picture of mental illness. Clinically diagnosed with anorexia, my story became nothing more than a cautionary tale. (For the record, I am the same height as the winner of The Biggest Loser, and weighed just a few pounds less than her at the time of my diagnosis). People didn’t know how to act around me at my ultra-thin size, and yet, they didn’t realize that their comments were the fuel that propelled me to that position. Their praise gave me the motivation to eat less and less and work out more and more.

I’m thankful to say that I’ve experienced victory in my life over my eating disorder (it is possible!!), but I’m frightened for our culture when I see The Biggest Loser (and pretty much all other forms of media, for that matter) doing to women exactly what people did to me—celebrating, complimenting, and encouraging thinness at any cost.

So with that said, I want to have a conversation with you. Do you think The Biggest Loser is sending the wrong message by crowning a medically underweight winner?

NOTE: Please be courteous and appropriate in your comments—it’s totally okay to disagree with me, but anything that includes profanity or inconsiderate language will be deleted immediately.

P.S. For information, help and support regarding eating disorders, visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

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  • Jennifer
    February 5, 2014 at 10:10 am

    The contestants are sent into the “real world” for a few months between the final filmed episode and the finale. Rachel did this on her own. BL can’t be blamed for what she did. They are, however shameful to have carried out the celebration of an ill woman. I believe she needs psychological treatment immediately.

    • Natalie Lynn Borton
      February 5, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Yes, that’s a good point. Rachel is totally responsible for any extreme measures she took. That being said, you know the producers saw her before she walked out there on stage to take the victory, and I feel like it should’ve been handled differently.

  • Meg
    February 5, 2014 at 10:20 am

    I’m so glad you posted about this. I watched last night too and thought she looked unweight. Everyone on the stage seemed uncomfortable. I’ve always had a love/hate thing with Biggest Loser. Sometimes I feel like the messages get goofy. It pushes extreme diet and exercise as a means to ‘get healthy’ — when I truly feel like moderation is the only key to health, both physically and psychologically.

    I’m an LPC, and I have worked with eating disordered clients before so I always wonder if I am too sensitive or if any one else notices these things. I’m glad to hear it from you too.

    I agree that fat/skinny shaming is completely inappropriate. It’s not the show’s responsibility for her losing this much weight but if she is going to now do endorsements for BL, tour around the country as the ‘biggest loser,’ and act as a spokesperson, I don’t think would be responsible on their part.

    Great post!

    • Natalie Lynn Borton
      February 5, 2014 at 11:00 am

      I agree with you—it’s not the show’s fault for her losing too much weight, but it’s problematic if they allow her to continue as a spokesperson for their program when she’s medically underweight. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Tiffany Roney
    February 5, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Yeah, I could see the face of the guy next to her mom… He looked disturbed. Her first answer, “Scary,” says it all.

  • Tiffany Roney
    February 5, 2014 at 10:39 am

    One more thing — I would suggest that winners are the ones who lose the MOST WEIGHT unless they get *underweight*, in which case they either forfeit their win or have the # of pounds they are underweight DOUBLED and added to their weightloss. Either way, there needs to be some stipulation rather than just “lose lose lose” and you win.

  • L.
    February 5, 2014 at 11:10 am

    I was hoping people would remain respectful…but apparently, it’s just such a contentious issue. I am glad you opened this up for discussion, because there are a lot of aspects of this win that people obviously had a hard time with for the first time, I think, in this show’s history. I think the show should do its best to monitor the contestants once they go home (mandatory doctor’s check ins, perhaps, to get blood panels, EKGs, etc. to make sure they are maintaining their health?). First of all, anyone up for this much money may consider extreme dieting/over-exercising between their last time at the ranch and the finale to be well worth it, and may feel crazy pressure to win that spurs them further on than they would on their own. I struggled with anorexia and bulimia for over 15 years, and I know how addictive losing weight and over-exercising can be…and it just gets beyond you. To this day, I always feel like I can see it in other girls’ faces when they have an ED, and when I saw Rachel on the finale my heart just sunk into my stomach. She looked amazing at the makeover; slim and healthy and happy. But at the finale…she looked frail, and for a former Olympic-class swimmer that was shocking. I just feel sad and very, very hopeful that my instincts are wrong.

    • Natalie Lynn Borton
      February 5, 2014 at 3:34 pm

      I completely agree with you. I think the show is irresponsible to not conduct extensive tests and monitor the contestants to ensure they are not engaging in disordered eating or exercise behaviors.

  • Kari
    February 5, 2014 at 11:42 am

    The aim of this show is to lose the most weight and that is how the winner is determined. I think that has a lot more to do with it than anything. Also, in a couple interviews she noted that she is still trying to figure out how to maintain the weight. I’m sure it will take a little bit of time to figure out what a healthy weight for her is.

    More importantly, I find it disheartening that so many people are commenting negatively on her appearance and body even after she lost all of the weight. I can only imagine being in her shoes and feeling like it was a lose-lose situation. No matter what people are going to comment on your figure – you’re too thin or you’re overweight, no one will ever look at someone with the same opinion. I personally think as long as you yourself think you are healthy and feel healthy, it shouldn’t matter what other people’s view of a healthy weight are. It should be more about how SHE feels and if she feels good about her health, then we should applaud her!

    • Natalie Lynn Borton
      February 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm

      While I agree she’s probably having a rough morning if she’s seeing all this feedback, I think it’s still a conversation worth having because of the context—it’s a nationally-televised program that influences the way millions of people view health.

      I have to disagree with you on this: “I personally think as long as you yourself think you are healthy and feel healthy, it shouldn’t matter what other people’s view of a healthy weight are. It should be more about how SHE feels and if she feels good about her health, then we should applaud her!”

      I felt REALLY good about my weight when I had an eating disorder, but that didn’t make it healthy and that didn’t make it okay. I think it’s responsible of us to view media through a critical lens and assess whether these shows are promoting something that’s worth promoting.

      • Kari
        February 5, 2014 at 3:03 pm

        I guess I just think people are jumping to conclusions a little too quickly. I think there are several factors to consider before landing at she has an eating disorder.
        1. $250,000 was at stake – if it meant losing a couple extra pounds to win, it’s just a part of the game
        2. The two guys she was competing against had more weight to lose and therefore a higher percentage of weight loss, so in order to beat them she might have had to lose more weight.

        I think in a couple weeks/months, if she loses more weight or hasn’t gained any back (they usually do), then maybe it might be cause for alarm. But if you are in a competition to lose weight, you probably want your weight to be at the absolute lowest possible before weighing in.

        And as someone who is naturally small and has dealt with eating issues in the past, I certainly hope that an eating disorder is not the case. I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt.

        Maybe the bigger issue here is people being too judgmental too quickly and reading into things??

        • Natalie Lynn Borton
          February 5, 2014 at 3:30 pm

          I hear you, and I agree that I would probably have done the exact same thing to win a bunch of money. That being said, the issue is less so about Rachel and more so about the show itself.

          I definitely am not suggesting that she has a clinical eating disorder—there’s no way anyone could determine that except for her own doctor and a therapist. Anorexia is way more than being thin—it also includes several psychological factors that have to be assessed in order to be diagnosed. Heck—people who aren’t underweight at all can be anorexic! I’m honestly not really trying to suggest that Rachel has an eating disorder (I REALLY hope she doesn’t).

          The issue I wanted to present was whether it was okay for The Biggest Loser to send the message that it did—that health means losing weight at any cost, even to the point of being unhealthy in a brand new way (being malnourished and underweight). It would be irresponsible for us to not look into the implications of a show like The Biggest Loser on our culture as a whole.

  • DessertForTwo
    February 5, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Not that anyone wants to hear this, but I am the same height as Rachel and weigh 100. I have never in my life had an eating disorder. In fact, I cook for a living and eat a small dessert daily. I have a very healthy relationship with food, and it freaking PISSES ME OFF when people assume I have an eating disorder. It’s called genetics. And metabolism.

    I don’t put food in my body that isn’t homemade. I eat processed snacks once a month maybe? And I can’t tell you the last time I had fast food. If I crave fried chicken, I make a baked crispy version. It’s so easy to avoid eating like crap.

    I’m so tired of skinny girls being criticized. So so SO tired of it. This is my God-given body, and I shouldn’t have to apologize for the fact that I’m not overweight. I take very good care of it, and if others did the same, maybe they would stop hating the skinny girls? A healthy life is a choice.

    Did Rachel say anything about taking medicine or metabolism boosters before her appearance on the show? I would love to see her daily eating journal. And I would love to know how much she works out now. I agree the current workout plan on the show is ridiculous, but so is being 400 pounds overweight. Drastic actions seem necessary for these people in the beginning.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article :)

    • Natalie Lynn Borton
      February 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm

      I’m glad you said this—you are like the friends of mine who also are just tiny people. And that’s totally okay! This article is NOT about shaming you about your beautiful, natural, God-given weight. That is so awesome that your life is such a representation of what health is. I love that!

      That being said, I think you maybe missed the point of the piece here, which was about The Biggest Loser as a show, and its responsibility as a weight-loss show to have winners be within a medically healthy weight range. If they were naturally thin people like you, they wouldn’t be on the show, so it’s not really about genetics and metabolism here, right?

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

      • DessertForTwo
        February 5, 2014 at 1:10 pm

        Hi again :)

        I’m so glad to know that more tiny people are out there :)

        I see what you’re saying. I was just reacting to everyone calling her ‘too thin.’ I guess I can’t quite make up my mind about the show. Have you ever seen any of the trainers comment on achieving a healthy weight vs losing as much weight as possible? I haven’t. I’ve never heard them encourage anything except sweating and losing weight. I forget, do the trainers get a stake in the winner’s prize? That might be why they conveniently leave out that helpful piece of advice about healthy weight ranges..

        xo

        • Natalie Lynn Borton
          February 5, 2014 at 3:07 pm

          Well, you only win the money if you drop the highest percentage of your body weight, so the nature of the show promotes really unhealthy measures.

  • Maria
    February 5, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Hey Natalie! Concerned I might get slack for my comment, but I felt that this woman looked fine. Her facial skin (when she smiled) and the skin by her upper arms seemed to have creases in it that may be mistaken for an anorexic or a gaunt appearance, but I when I noticed it, I felt her skin may have lost some elastic from years of being overweight. Her legs appeared muscular, her hair seemed full and thick…typically when people are eating poorly it shows in their hair texture and coloration in their skin. I do understand she was probably in hair and make-up, but sometimes you cannot hide those things.
    Possibly if we saw her on a day to day basis we would not think she had lost too much weight, but the first time I saw her (viewing the video you posted) it does seems dramatic how small she is compared to where she was.
    When I lost 35 pounds after being heavy my whole life, everyone asked if I had an eating disorder. It made me feel terrible, but I do understand a dramatic weight lost can spark this concern in some people…the people who asked where family members I had not seen in months, unlike my husband who saw me daily, knew my eating habits and saw the weight gradually come off.
    But, I have never had an eating disorder, so maybe since you have experienced it you have a better eye for others that do.
    Hope I did not offend anyone.

    • Natalie Lynn Borton
      February 5, 2014 at 3:13 pm

      I don’t think you were offensive at all! I think the fact that a medically underweight woman looks so normal to us is probably a testament to how skewed the media’s portrayal of women is.

  • Tom
    February 5, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    It’s definitely a tough issue – contest to lose the most weight and winner gets a huge sum of cash. Maybe she knew she had to starve herself to win the money, and then she could recover after that? Actors frequently starve themselves for roles in TV and Film, and they get paid for it. It definitely sends a message about how far people are willing to go for money.

  • Chrissy Powers
    February 5, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Even the look on the trainer’s faces was one of disbelief and “oh no is she okay”? I too find this sad as I have a very similar story to yours. Lost weight, found myself addicted to losing weight spurned by the complements I relieved from others and then ended up trapped in an eating disorder for years. Its not a life I would want for any woman. I hope Rachel finds health and balance after such a public compliment to her unhealthy weight.

    • Natalie Lynn Borton
      February 5, 2014 at 3:16 pm

      Ugh, totally. I’m so sorry you experienced that, too!

  • Lauren
    February 5, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    I think you make a great point here. My whole life I’ve been a fairly average size and a fairly average weight. My shape has fluctuated over the years, though my weight has remained in the same 10-lb. range. I have a very difficult time with body perception and an even more difficult time with the things people say about my body. Generally, when I think I’m losing weight and looking great, someone may comment and ask if I’ve gained a few pounds (yeah, seriously. who does that??). Then, if I think I’m putting on weight, someone will comment and say, “you look great! have you lost weight??” For some reason, everyone around me seems to have their say on my weight and size, and both types of comments are becoming detrimental to my own self-perception. I’m not sure how I need to perceive myself in a world that is so focused on and driven by image and size. I know that, having grown up around and in this environment, I think I myself and those around me are in need of a serious perspective change.

    For some reason, for women, the grass is ALWAYS greener on the other side. I have friends who are thin that want curves, who are curvy that want to be stick thin, who have legs for miles that would rather be petite, and on and on and on. Why do we think it’s ok to criticize ourselves in this way and not advocate self-love by loving, accepting, and listening to our bodies as they are?

    I agree with you. I think God made us all very different, and the more we listen to our bodies – the easier we’ll be able to tell how to take care of them (and best maintain the shape God gave us).

  • Nicole Zasowski
    February 5, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Hi Natalie…I just watched E News address the issue and it was disappointing as well…they did focus on Rachel herself and were defensive and justified her “sunken in” look. I agree that it is more about the show’s message and it makes me sad to see other shows defend lies about what “an amazing body” looks like.

    • Natalie Lynn Borton
      February 5, 2014 at 4:38 pm

      Totally. It’s just odd that what so many think is “normal” is actually medically underweight. Being underweight isn’t always unhealthy, nor is being overweight always unhealthy, but the fact that an underweight body is normal in our culture is disturbing and sad.

  • Hannah
    February 5, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    Though it is certainly a victory to be overweight and get your body and health in order, I agree it seems as if Rachel has gotten very thin for her body frame. Also, muscle can add several pounds to a person and through all the exercise and working out from the show I am sure Rachel gained a good bit of musicale yet her weight is still very low. My heart hurts for her bc I am sure she has heard of the articles/news about her weight being too low and she probably feels you can’t win. First she was too fat now she’s too skinny. More than the matter of what her weight is or was I hope she chooses to live a healthy lifestyle physically and mentally, and not allow the overwhelming compliments of looking great thin turn into a further issue. I don’t believe I am one to judge is she has a eating disorder or not, only she can truly know that. We are each created unique and I pray Rachel finds a great balance of living and eating healthy!

  • Mandy
    February 5, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    Thanks for writing this Natalie. It was really hard for me to watch the clip of the finale. I also had an eating disorder in college and much of the motivation for it was people’s comments about how good I looked even though I was never overweight to begin with. I suppose I’ve not watched the show enough to say much. But my take is that the aim and motivation of the show needs to be, not just losing as much weight as possible, but learning balance and aiming for a healthy weight and lifestyle. I understand that could potentially negate the point of the show but I feel like they need to draw a line somewhere.

  • Richard
    February 5, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    In subsequent interviews, Rachel said she’s been eating 1600 calories a day and exercising “a ton” which sounded like 4+ hours/day from the details she gave. She seemed baffled when people asked her if that’s a healthy exercise and diet plan for her. She said it’s the one NBC, her doctors, and her trainer gave her.

    Given that Rachel demonstrated no understanding of basic health concepts, I think NBC was incredibly neglectful. I think the Biggest Loser is sending an outright dangerous message right now, and not getting out in front of this may kill the brand. I certainly do not blame Rachel for any of this. She seems like an absolutely lovely girl with a fabulous personality, and it is so wrong that NBC endangered her health like this.

  • Ann
    February 6, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    I too agree that the show is sending a negative message…first and foremost, no one has mentioned that she lost 45 lbs in 3 months!!!!! After losing 105 on the ranch…that’s just unhealthy in and of itself. I also believe that the show had started to take a positive turn towards fighting childhood obesity by focusing on the 3 young people last season and the one contestant’s 11 year old daughter this season that struggled with their weight and their relationship with food. Even my 11 and 14 year old boys were appalled!!! I surely hope that Rachel finds health and wellness and by no means wish ill feelings upon her but I do think the show needs to reign it in a bit.

  • Gina
    February 17, 2014 at 4:16 am

    Jillian Michael did look horrified! I agree with you that the winner looked too skinny and that we (as a society) have become so used to seeing images of extremely skinny woman.
    Although I never battled anorexia, I do prefer myself on the thinner side and I realize that it is a fine line. Great post!
    XO, Gina

  • Molly
    February 18, 2014 at 11:34 am

    I’m so glad you’re talking about this! I hate that “pretty” and “skinny” have become almost synonymous, which isn’t fair. It doesn’t define beauty or a goal of any means. Losing weight to be healthy is indeed a goal, and I wish she had stopped when she hit a healthy BMI. BMIs are actually very important to pay attention to. Many people don’t realize that we are prone to medical issues when our BMIs become unhealthy. I have suffered a brain issue because my BMI got too low, and if I could do anything to change it , I would. No one thinks about health issues that a low weight can cause, because it’s not publicized, only glorified, but it needs to made more aware to the public how important it is to maintain a healthy weight.

  • Lasse
    February 22, 2014 at 6:55 am

    I was shocked when i saw Rachel. She looked so good in the triathlon, and now she looks like this? TBL should consider changing their rules. Maybe setting a goal weight, and whoever gets closest wins? To me the real winner was David. Going on that scale and being told you need to have lost so much weight that he would weigh 160 pounds is ridiculous.. Everybody on that stage knew it too…