Are weight loss reality shows perpetuating weight stigma?

I’m having another dilemma. Last week I wrote about how medical care should be less focused on weight, mainly because weight stigma is really damaging and because there are far more important indicators of health than weight. But as I sat down last night to watch this week’s episode of ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss, I felt extremely hypocritical.

I’ve always really enjoyed watching Extreme Weight Loss and The Biggest Loser, shows where extremely overweight people take time out of their lives to work intensely with trainers and other health professionals to primarily lose a huge amount of weight. The great thing about these shows is that they usually help empower people who have really lost control of their health. The participants in these shows typically start out with horrible diets and don’t exercise, and have huge emotional obstacles that they are able to overcome as they overcome their physical weight. The trainers do attempt to make it clear that internal transformation is as important as external transformation.

At the same time, these shows normalize body shame. They always do a “setting the scene” sort of montage at the beginning to show the “before” life of the person. On Extreme Weight Loss, they have the star of that episode stand in their underwear in front of a mirror and talk about how looking at their body makes them feel. They always get upset and almost always cry. This is cruel and humiliating, for one thing, and for another, it reinforces the idea that overweight people should be ashamed of their bodies. On The Biggest Loser, too, the contestants have to weigh in without shirts until they have lost a significant amount of weight.

And no matter how much the trainers talk about emotional transformation and overall health and wellness, the focus and drama of the show is completely centered on the number on the scale, which implies that one’s value as a person is derived from one’s weight.

These are not ideas the media should be perpetuating, people! Yet I still find it so entertaining and inspiring to see these people overcome physical and emotional obstacles and emerge happier, healthier, and exponentially more confident at the end of their transformations. I can’t deny that weight loss may be a desirable part of one’s journey towards wellness — it was certainly part of mine — but I can’t reconcile with my values the idea of making such a spectacle of it.

Please share your thoughts!

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3 thoughts on “Are weight loss reality shows perpetuating weight stigma?

  1. Lots of thoughts on this. I think it’s a perspective thing. The part that is redeeming about these shows focusing on weight end goals is that they do not preach a certain body type or praise a certain number. The goals are typically personalized and the shows do showcase the hard work it takes to tackle weight loss. I think that the shows are still body positive. As an exercise physiologist working in the weight loss industry, I will tell you that there is a difference between wanting to lose weight while you are within normal BMI and wanting to lose weight when you are at obese BMI. There are many other factors to measure health, but the fact is that EVERY preventable disease has obesity as a risk factor. I’m just happy that weight loss success stories are in pop culture in any capacity! ;)! As long as we are advocating for health weight reduction to a normal range while minimizing the ideals on body perfection, it’s a good thing. Or at least one perspective is that the possible risk to sensationalize unhealthy weight loss is lower than the possible result of inspiring healthy weight control!

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