The Biggest Distortion

Another season of The Biggest Loser began last night. My wife and I have watched the show together since it began and watched it acquire a level of fanaticism that it didn’t have when it first started. The first year the show featured morbidly obese adults with significant health problems related to their obesity. It was interesting to watch their transformation, and the show was pretty straight forward. Since then, it seems to me that ratings have become more important than the contestants. That being said, everyone who applies to be a contestant knows that the unexpected is now the commonplace. What really bothers me, however, is that the message no longer is just health but also includes body image – and that’s a problem.

Last year I wrote about my disgust when Bob Harper was in tears over his overweight sister. He talked about her as if she was shooting  heroin and prostituting herself for five dollars a pop. It was at that point I realized that all perspective had been lost. Is it important to be as healthy as we possibly can? Absolutely it is. Is it important to have a six-pack and the body of a model if you are not, in fact, a model? Absolutely not, not even close. In fact, I would argue that for the average, well-rounded person it isn’t possible to be in the gym enough to have the body of a model while working a full-time job and participating responsible in their family and social life. That’s not a problem, that’s real life.

People overeat for the same reason they participate in other unhealthy behaviors – they are trying to medicate pain. We can become addicted, at least psychologically, to any coping mechanism – largely because even though coping mechanisms don’t solve a problem they can cover it up in the short-term. Sooner or later, the problem rears its ugly head again. If we try to address our addictions to coping mechanisms without addressing the underlying pathology we are bound to fail. Convincing people who are addicted to eating that what they need to do is exercise every waking moment and obsess about their diet doesn’t address the pathology, it just moves the addiction to another behavior. What’s more, sooner or later – even if it’s just because of aging or an injury – we won’t be able to exercise as much. If we haven’t addressed the underlying issues, we simply aren’t going to succeed at whatever solution is proposed. It bothers me that The Biggest Loser has a good medical staff but they don’t seem to have one psychologist or social worker on staff and that concerns me deeply. The trainers do try to address the issues that cause contestants to get stuck, but they aren’t therapists and an isolated conversation or three isn’t going to change a lifetime of pathology.

What’s lacking is balance.

Of course, if you exceed the weight limit of a quarter-ton pickup truck you need serious weight intervention and there’s no time to waste. You have dire health concerns and could, in fact, die much sooner than you otherwise would. However – and this seems to be a point Americans in general and The Biggest Loser in particular seem loathe to look at – everybody dies. You can exercise from the moment you awaken until the moment you fall asleep and you still will die. It seems to me the best choice, then, is to live while we are alive. I’m not sure that’s possible while sending every waking hour in a gym.

As a nation, Americans need to become more active and eat in a healthier way. We also need to address our issues, pursue our education or career, have a social life, develop interests and hobbies, and attend to the other responsibilities of life. There are no single answers to the happiness question – or any other question, for that matter. To get there, we are going to have to broaden the conversation in a substantial way.

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