After this season's final contestant on the popular weight loss show The Biggest Loser confidently strode onstage last night, she was met with halting applause from the audience and looks of shock from the show's trainers. Rachel Frederickson, formerly 260lbs, now weighed in at 105 lbs. She'd won by losing 60% of her body weight.
The finale of The Biggest Loser has become so predictably ritualistic that it reads more like a church service than a TV show. The newly svelte contestants parade out, one at a time, as images of their former, fatter selves fade in the background. They step on a dramatically lit scale, drunk on positive affirmation, and tensely await the unnecessary but dramatic delay between assuming the weigh in position and hearing their numbers — how many pounds lost, and what percentage of their body weight those pounds constituted. By the finale at the end of the 5-month filming process, the transformations are dramatic and the studio is full of adoring, applauding fans and the whole thing is filmed live, so it's all very hooray for everyone Kum Ba Yah and carrot sticks. A tsunami of positivity that, until last night, had successfully drowned out years of skepticism from medical professionals and horror stories from former contestants (including one contestant's assertion that the show's grueling demands gave her an eating disorder).
Frederickson's results were record-breaking for the show; in the history of the franchise, no one has lost a larger percentage of their body weight. She's also an outlier in that at 5'4" and 105 lbs, her height-weight combination put her slightly below the threshold doctors who use the BMI scale would consider "healthy." She's also below what Weight Watchers would consider healthy for her height.
Upon the big reveal of 24-year-old Frederickson's post-diet body, Twitter basically exploded with gasps of concern and dismay that the winner had gone too far. One diet blogger didn't mince words, writing, "There was nothing athletic about the waif-thin appearance of Rachel tonight." Another referred to has "way too thin." The internet, ever a place of nuance and restraint, deemed Frederickson's body skeletal, gross, and "anorexic," as though that's something you can diagnose from your couch. One demanded that the show's runner-up, who lost 222 lbs, be given the cash prize and Frederickson be given a trip to an "eating disorder rehab facility."
Other people weren't angry at Frederickson herself, they were angry at the show for pushing contestants to unhealthy lengths in the name of sating the audience's hunger for dramatic transformations. At Fit & Feminist, Caitlin says The Biggest Loser is full of "glossy eating disorders" and muses that it's a miracle something that upset viewers as much as the sight of Frederickson's results didn't happen sooner in the show's life. She writes:
I try not to make judgments about health based on what someone's body looks like, so I'm not going to go there. But what I will say is that it is not surprising to see that this has finally happened. Fredericken took the game to its logical outcome. She played the game and she played it hard, and in doing so, she laid bare the show's messed-up, disordered premises for all the world to see.
The reaction of those actually in the room with Frederickson weren't exactly delighted with her as a picture of health and vitality, either. Here are the show's trainers, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, reacting to their first glimpse of their handiwork. Bob looks like he's wincing. Jillian stops clapping and mouths "Oh my god."
Other pundits didn't think Frederickson's weight loss was that big a deal. Besides, they reasoned, after collecting the show's $250,000 prize purse, most previous winners end up gaining some weight back. Some winners have gained most of the weight back.
But the veil has been lifted, and whoever is in charge of the show's public relations is going to have a tough time spinning this one to fans who have suddenly, shockingly had to face the truth: that The Biggest Loser was never the inspiring movement they wanted it to be. That it was an unhealthy, exploitative pile of garbage all along.