In Defense of “The Biggest Loser”

NickDefaultNick Wallace ’14

The world has been buzzing about the results of Tuesday’s Finale of The Biggest Loser. Rachel Frederickson, a 24 year old from Minnesota, lost a total of 155lbs to win, weighing in at 105lbs. But Rachel’s success has become overshadowed by concerns over her appearance, and outcries that she is now “too skinny.” She has since been described as “gaunt,” “frail,” “skin and bones,” and “disgusting.” People have called her a bad role model, and have written negative things to her via social media. Her before and after photos can be found here.

This article will not attempt to delve into the controversial aspects of The Biggest Loser. While the show may inspire others to embark on weight-loss journeys, some argue that it exploits overweight individuals in the form of capitalistic reality television, conveying the idea that being overweight is a condition that in unacceptable. Instead, I wish to defend Rachel as a person, and illustrate the double standard that has emerged as a result of her “controversial” appearance.

Rachel has been universally described as “too skinny.” According to Body Mass Index (BMI), which is the universal standard used to assess obesity in the world, Rachel’s BMI is 18.0. Anyone with a BMI less than 18.5 is considered “underweight.” Therefore, technically speaking, Rachel is “underweight.” But there is an inherent problem with BMI as a measure of health and wellness. BMI was first developed by a nineteenth century astronomer who was trying to find the relationship between the “laws of the heavens” and the earth. In doing so, he sampled army conscripts from France and Scotland, and noticed that the “average” person’s weight in kilograms was proportional to his height in meters squared. BMI became popular among insurance companies in the early 20th century in order to assess risk; each standard deviation greater than the mean subsequently led to a “high-risk” consumer. So what’s the problem with BMI? It is simply a height-weight ratio. An astronomer who only sampled army men created it. It doesn’t take into account someone’s resting heart rate, their family history, their body fat percentage, their muscle mass, their cardiovascular health, their diet, or any other wellness factors. Rachel may technically be “underweight,” but it is foolish to speculate whether or not she is “healthy.” Knowing her blood pressure, her diet, and her exercise habits would give us a much better indicator, not simply her weight. Oh, and by the way: at 6’0 and 187 lbs, BMI tells me that I am overweight; I promise that I am not.

Furthermore, I’m willing to bet that Rachel isn’t actually 105 lbs. The contestants on The Biggest Loser compete in a weight-loss competition; the finalists had a chance to win $250,000. Thus, I am sure that the contestants use all of the tricks and tactics used by bodybuilders (or other athletes that are required to compete in a certain weight-class) in order to get the lowest possible number to appear on the scale. What does that mean? It means periods of hardcore dieting, carbohydrate cycling, sitting in saunas, manipulating your sodium intake, and drinking tons of water. My guess is that Rachel would normally weigh in around 110-115 lbs, which would put her BMI in the “normal weight” category.

Rachel’s story is actually quite touching. This young woman was once a world-class athlete. She was a three time state champion swimmer in Minnesota (including holding multiple state records), an All-American, and had full scholarships to Division I schools. Rachel, however, decided to quit swimming, and moved to Europe with her boyfriend following high school. After the break-up, she turned to food and gained over 100 lbs. What’s my point? Rachel is a fierce competitor. She’s a winner. And she was competing in an incentivized competition. So what did she do? She did everything in her power to win that quarter of a million dollars, and it worked. Perhaps she pushed the boundaries and her limits too far. Perhaps she went a bit “overboard.” But the bottom line is that she was trying to win the title of The Biggest Loser, and a quarter of a million dollars. Like most Biggest Loser winners, I’m sure Rachel will put on some weight now that the show is over.

I’m not saying that I was not shocked by Rachel’s appearance. In my opinion (which doesn’t really matter), she did look too skinny. However, our society is often too quick to associate “skinny looking people” with eating disorders. Although, anyone who describes Rachel as “gaunt” or “twigish” should take a look at her legs: they look pretty healthy and muscular to me. Too many people took a look at her arms and cried anorexia. While we are all entitled to our own opinions and preferences, we are not all physicians. Our bodies are all created differently. Rachel’s appearance may have shocked me, but besides from her arms, nothing concerned me.

However, the main point I wish to make is that even after this woman worked hard to “take her life back,” she is still be scrutinized by everyone else around her. At 260lbs, people were calling her lazy, fat, and ugly. Now at 105 lbs (remember that its really closer to 115), she is being demonized for being too skinny. There is no difference between calling someone grotesquely skinny or grotesquely fat. In either case, doing so is judging the person by his/her appearance, and it is immoral and wicked.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. You are allowed to think Rachel looks too skinny. You are allowed to think that she would look better if she gained some weight. But you cannot judge the type of person she is, or her health, by her appearance.

Ironically, my last article touched upon this subject a bit. I questioned the need to label a model as “Plus-Sized,” simply because of the fact that she not below a size 8. Well my message remains the same. To those of you who are judging Rachel for her appearance at the Finale, realize you are no different than those who judge people for being over-weight.  At the end of the day, Rachel is Rachel. This whole article is presuming that Rachel lost the weight without harming her body. If she did not, we have an obvious problem. But we cannot assume such actions, and therefore, I am going to give Rachel the benefit of the doubt. As long as she is healthy, likes the way she looks in the mirror, and feels confident about the person she has become, none of us are in any place to judge.

So congratulations, Rachel. Let the haters hate. Don’t spend the money all in one place.

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