Category Archives: Beauty

The Biggest Loser: Exploitation or Enlightenment?

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then maybe feelings of pleasure are as well. One person’s enjoyment viewed with disdain by someone else. I can imagine it harking back to our earliest communities, a caveman sketching on rock walls being chastised by contemporaries who felt he should be hunting and gathering, laying a “guilt” trip on him for drawing stick figures when there was work to be done. Similar to how some people today might view musicians, poets, or, dare I say, writers, who wile away the hours “expressing” themselves for no apparent reason other than self-gratification. Driving them to practice their craft at night or in the wee hours of the morning while spending the rest of their waking hours working socially acceptable day jobs. Perhaps that ostracized caveman artist was the first individual to engage in what we now call a “guilty pleasure.”

Of course “guilt” is in the eye of the beholder as much as beauty. Sexual mores, for example, have evolved to the point where we openly discuss activities on afternoon TV that would make our grandmothers blush (OK, maybe great-grandmothers.) As for beauty, what we now term “plus-sized” women were the epitome of desire centuries past and the subject of innumerable paintings. Even today in certain cultures, what we would consider an overweight woman is viewed in a positive manner, being fat a symbol of sexual maturity, wealth, strength and wisdom.  Ditto for overweight men. Their girth a sign of financial success and the ability to provide.

In American culture not many positive attributes are applied to heavy people. There are exceptions, a few folk who are attracted to overweight partners. Some entertainers, like Queen Latifah, celebrate their size and encourage others to come to terms with their body type.  But for the most part the definition of beauty in this country is tied to being thin. You have far more celebrities, Marie Osmond, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Alexander and Dan Marino come to mind, touting weight loss programs as opposed to body image acceptance.

The irony of our quest to be thin is that we have never been fatter. For Americans over the age of 20,  34.4% are considered overweight and 33.9% obese. Overweight is defined as a body weight  1 to 20% more than medical guidelines, obese, 20% or greater. Thus, in America today, over 60% of people 20 or older are carrying too many pounds.

It is the nexus of these two societal constructions, the notion of guilt and our standards regarding weight and beauty, that make Reality TV shows like The Biggest Loser intriguing to those who study culture. For some, Reality TV, regardless of the subject matter, is considered voyeurism and/or an exercise in schadenfreude, the taking of pleasure in the troubles of others.  The “maybe my bad habits/lifestyle/personal choices aren’t so bad, look at this schmuck” rationale.  Seeking enjoyment from the trouble of others is not something to which most people will admit. So when the discussion of Reality TV comes up, many will say they do not watch such programs despite the fact that the shows garner high ratings and generate millions of dollars profit for the networks. Our lies about watching Reality TV are similar to the “I usually break even in Vegas” line. Really? Is that why the drinks are free as long as you’re gambling? Because everyone’s “breaking even?”

I’m not a regular gambler or overweight. But those times I’ve been to Vegas, I’ve lost money (while enjoying the free drinks.) Second, I like watching The Biggest Loser.  But it’s not because I take pleasure in watching overweight people sweat.  It’s because I admire what they are doing, fighting to regain their health and redefine their self-image.  While I understand that people come in all shapes and sizes and some are genetically predisposed to be heavier, the overwhelming evidence is that most people get overweight because we eat too much and exercise too little.  If you’re fifty or older like me, picture yourself, friends, or family in their twenties and compare their body size to today. Were all the currently overweight folks as heavy then as now? If not, I think we can toss out the “genetic” rationale and focus on diet and exercise.

If you watch a show like The Biggest Loser you realize that being overweight is not something people consciously choose. Some have always fought the battle of the bulge, others only as they aged. But almost all say they use food as a substitute for things they feel they lack like love, friendship, family, or acceptance, and they fill that gap by eating.  Their desire to lose weight is rarely about looking better. It’s about attempting to regain control of their emotions, health and lives.

That said, I cannot deny the show can be exploitive. That sometimes the camera should be turned away, the producers appealing to the schadenfreude contingent in the viewing audience. And, yes, there is a $250,000 prize to the winner. Yet, from my point of view, there are far more uplifting moments than negative. For those willing to dig deeper and look into their own heart, those positive moments engender empathy and understanding. As for the prize money, I’ve yet to hear an eliminated contestant moan about not winning. Rather, they are grateful for the opportunity to make a significant change in their lifestyle.

In a society that increasingly rewards image over substance, that encourages us to applaud the superficial and vain, that’s no small accomplishment. I feel no guilt and experience genuine pleasure as I root for real people who lay it on the line in front of God and a national television audience in an effort to reclaim control of at least one part of their life.

For me, that’s a beautiful thing.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Beauty, Exploitation, Guilty Pleasures, November 2011, Obesity, Reality TV, Schadenfreude, The Biggest Loser