This past week, I was horrified to learn that the upcoming season of the television show “The Biggest Loser” will include children. “Well that’s just great,” I thought. “Now we’re throwing our kids to the lions too!”
Modern television, and “reality” television in particular, have always seemed like voyeuristic media to me. I’ve often likened the “boob tube” to the Roman Coliseum—where animals and people were routinely put into fantastic and often deadly situations for the amusement of the spectators. There were a variety of scenarios in Rome. Sometimes people were sent to kill animals, sometimes animals were set against one another, sometimes gladiators fought one another and sometimes condemned criminals (including those persecuted for their religious beliefs) were simply sent in to die in “interesting” ways like being crucified, burned alive or torn apart by wild beasts.
I think reality television shows like “The Biggest Loser” work on similar principles. Even the title is offensive—suggesting not only that the winner will be the one who loses the most weight, but also that somehow the winner is the “king of the failures” or “queen of the outcasts.” There is no question in my mind that the contestants of that show are frequently subjected to humiliation and emotional, physical and spiritual abuse. They are thrown to the lions because they have been condemned for one of the greatest social “crimes” of our age. They are fat.
Whenever I share this viewpoint with people, I inevitably hear a number of arguments. Some suggest that those people on the show have “one foot in the grave” already and that the show is trying to “save their lives” by rescuing them from the “terrors of obesity.” Some suggest that obesity is a terrible plague facing our nation that must be stamped out at all costs. But let’s just get real here for a moment. This show is not about calm, reasoned adults learning about moderate exercise and eating more fruits and vegetables. This is not even about weight loss at the level and in the manner recommended by the medical establishment. This is about pushing people to push themselves to terrible extremes in order to punish their bodies into a more socially acceptable shape. It is about humiliating people who are, in a very visible way, not meeting the criteria for citizenship in our society. And just like in the coliseum, the show creators are constantly upping the ante to keep the spectators watching. Is the afternoon a little slow? How about sending in an unarmed Christian to be torn apart by crocodiles! Ratings down a little? Let’s make the contestants cry, vomit, pass out or have a nervous breakdown on camera!
I believe that both the coliseum and The Biggest Loser work on similar principles. Spectators get to feel great relief that they are not suffering like “that poor guy down there.” And they get a “get out of guilt free” card because those spectators believe that the person down there suffering “deserves it” for some reason.
Some may ask, so what? It’s a television show. If consenting adults sign the draconian liability waivers and iron-clad nondisclosure agreements required to be on that show, that’s their choice. If you and I find the show personally abhorrent, we don’t have to watch. But this season things are a little different. The show creators have announced that, for the first time, the show will also feature children. The show publicity is careful to point out that the kids won’t actually be weighing-in or competing. And they expect us to applaud their restraint and sensitivity. But these are KIDS we’re talking about, and that’s where I draw the line. When they start throwing babies to the lions, that’s when I stand up and shout, “I have seen enough!” Because this has the potential to do significant harm, not only to the few teenagers participating in the show, but also to the millions of kids and teenagers watching the show. Kids have enough issues with self-esteem without watching their peers tortured on television for not having an acceptable body type. Kids have enough struggles understanding good nutrition and intuitive eating practices without watching what is for all intents and purposes a primer on exercise obsession and eating disorders displayed on national television. If we want our kids to live better, healthier lives, this TV show is the worst thing to show them.
Which is why Ragen Chastain and I started a petition on change.org to tell the creators of this show: we’ve had enough! We won’t stand by while you toss the kids to the crocodiles. We won’t allow you to use this model of disordered exercise and eating behaviors as an example of “healthy living” for our children. If you feel that way too, I’d like to invite you to sign the petition. It only takes a moment. Or if you prefer, you can simply vote with your feet by not watching the show or giving your ad dollars to the show’s sponsors. Because in the coliseum, the spectator has the power. If we stand up and point our thumbs at the ground, the show promoters will take notice. If we show we’re bored, if we go for a walk in the olive groves or settle down for a nice soak in the bath, the coliseum programming director may just chose to schedule something different for tomorrow’s entertainment.