Early this morning whilst my children were whizzing all over the floor in the area of the toilet and I was still snuggled under the covers checking the weather (-7! It’s like Minnesota misses me and followed me all the way here! Aw!), the internets were all atwitter with shock surrounding The Biggest Loser’s latest winner, Rachel Frederickson – or rather, what’s left of her. Frederickson made Biggest Loser history and international headlines for losing a record-breaking 60% of her body weight, dropping 155 pounds in a mere five months on the show. I saw a couple of headlines but then I was into the morning rush of trying to get all my kids clothed (success), fed (success) and to school on time (utter failure) and didn’t have time to catch up with the story until this afternoon. And then… whoa.
Bob and Jillian’s expressions (and silent “oh my god”) pretty much summed up the general reaction:
A lot of shock. Some awe. And then confusion about what exactly this means. It seems everyone had an opinion on Frederickson. Some people called her gaunt and skeletal while others accused her of having an eating disorder. Kim Neilson, a finalist on TBL season 13, tweeted, “And I thought I was too skinny at ‘The Biggest Loser’ finale. That was ridiculous!” There was even a vocal minority calling for the $250,000 prize to be awarded to the runner-up instead and that Frederickson should be disqualified.
Then the backlash to the backlash started. “She’s no skinnier than 95% of the other women you see on primetime TV,” one commenter (correctly) pointed out. Most of the people on this side cried “skinny shaming” and (also correctly) pointed out that you can’t tell from looking at someone what their health is like or if they have an eating disorder. As my friend Diana wrote on Facebook, “Just because she is a tiny bit underweight, her BMI is 18 and 18.5+ is considered healthy, my BMI when I got married at 22 was 17. I don’t think anyone would look at me then and say I was underweight, and I most certainly DID NOT have anorexia, in fact, I ate way too much taking for granted that I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain an ounce. ”
“Who knows what she was thinking, really, up on that platform?” one radio commentator said, as I listened to the afternoon news while I put on my makeup. (Yes it took me until this afternoon to get a shower. Hush.)
“She’s probably just elated she won! She’s a former athlete and clearly still has quite the competitive spirit,” the co-host answered as I detected a wee bit of jealousy in her voice.
As they bantered back and forth about BMIs (at 5’4″ and 105 pounds, Frederickson’s is 18 – officially “underweight”) and how much weight she carried in her lower body and whether or not the weight loss made her look “too old”, I felt my chest tightening and my breath coming faster. Part of me was mentally calculating ratios and percentages in my head while the other part of me was wondering where they got off talking about Frederickson’s body like she was a fall heifer.
Why is her body anyone’s business?? I huffed and pulled out my makeup bag. Most days I just wear a smear of moisturizer with sunscreen and some mascara so I look like have eyeballs but today as I peered at my bleak face, I frowned and pulled out the eyeliner and shadows.
The radio people kept talking and I kept alternating between quiet despair and righteous indignation as I brushed and mascara’ed and blushed faster and faster. How did she lose so much weight so fast? That’s 31 pounds a month! At least a pound every day! That can’t be healthy! Heck, it’s probably not even healthy for me to be thinking about! Why do I care so much about this?? I felt tears welling in my eyes so I looked up at the mirror. And found this:
That is a full face of slap, yo. Seriously that’s like date-night level of makeup… all to go pickup my kids from school for which I’ll be out in public for exactly 7 minutes.
The Biggest Loser GAVE ME SPIDER LASHES. Aaaaghhh! Why? Well, that’s easy. Because when I’m feeling insecure I cover up by layering on a crap ton of makeup and if I’m really on a roll, I’ll change my clothes 17 times because I think everything makes me look fat. And why was I feeling insecure? Because if Rachel Fredericksen did one thing really well it’s that she unmasked how deep, conflicted and hypocritical our feelings as a society are about weight loss. Sure we talk a good game about body acceptance and health movements and strong is the new skinny or whatever but the truth is we care deeply and personally about weight. Our weight. Friends’ weights. And even strangers on TV’s weights. Whether they were horrified or impressed by her weight loss, everyone cared about Rachel. Because she’d taken us at our word and then took it to it’s most logical – and extreme – conclusion. It was almost as if she looked the camera in the eye and yelled You want me to lose weight? You hate fat people so much?? Well I WILL LOSE ALLLL THE WEIGHT AND YOU WILL LOVE ME.
Here’s the thing – her weight and how she lost it actually is the radio people’s business. And the magazine’s and the internet’s and Facebook’s and, well, all of our business. She entered a public contest for the express purpose of publicly sharing her weight loss journey. I think this is one of the few cases where you can say that someone actually did sign up for public scrutiny of their body. That doesn’t mean I think it is right or fair or kind (and I’m not going to add to it) but I do think people are allowed their opinions in this case. It’s part of the game.
And Frederickson played that game like a champ, y’all. I don’t watch the show (never have, never will) but from what I read she went in there like a gladiator, willing to do whatever it took to come out on top. She was in it to win it and – in a mindset I can personally appreciate – decided to go all the way. Whether or not that means she is “unhealthy” or “has an eating disorder”, I don’t know. And I’m not going to speculate about her mental or physical status. But I will say this, based on my personal experience with eating disorders:
1. If that had been me on that platform, my first thought would not have been about the cash prize or even winning. I would have thought, “1-0-freaking-5?! If they’d just given me one more week, I could have made it under 100!!” Because eventually at some point competitive weight loss – no matter how it starts, whether game show or cafeteria or family challenge – becomes a competition simply between you and the scale. Nothing else matters but that number and making it obey you.
2. If (IF) she does end up with some form of disordered eating (and she certainly wouldn’t be the first to come out of that show with a few extra DSM-V diagnoses) then I think it’s the fault of The Biggest Loser franchise. The show claims to be all about health and teaching good habits and saving people when I think it’s become apparent that it’s really about putting on a good show, first and foremost. (Many past contestants have spoken out about dangerous things they did to lose weight.) And Frederickson did everything they told her to. She was the model contestant. And so many ED sufferers start from that exact place of perfectionism and wanting to please other people. Whether or not she has an ED, this show is the perfect storm for one.
3. I don’t know any medical professionals who would not be concerned about a patient losing a pound a day for five straight months.
Yet I truly don’t want to project my issues on to her. Like I said, I have no idea what is going on inside her. And I also don’t know what she weighed, say, in high school. Perhaps this is her healthiest, happiest weight and if so I applaud her for finding it. Yet, in the end, I think she’s in an untenable situation. No matter what happens from here, someone will be waiting for her to fail. Anyone who has lost weight knows the real trial comes in trying to keep it off. Lots of people on the web theorized that perhaps she’s very savvy and took extreme measures to lose weight just to get the cash prize, after which she’ll get back to a “normal” weight. An equal amount of people suggested she will gain the weight back not because of some master plan but because that’s what most of the BL winners end up doing. I also think that many people, especially when they’re in that heady rush of losing weight for the first time, go a little too low and then eventually their body settles out at something a few pounds heavier as they get their bearings.
And I feel for her. I hope she navigates these next few weeks, months and years with confidence and self-care. I can’t even imagine the pressure she must feel having so many people care deeply about her and her weight. I want nothing but happiness for her. But I also feel for all of us because if this controversy has shown us anything it’s that what you weigh and, even more importantly, how much control you have over your weight is still a very real source of power for women. On TV you win a quarter of a million dollars and instant fame. In real life you’re rewarded with compliments and new clothes. Always you’re rewarded with more attention and whether that attention is positive or negative doesn’t seem to matter as much as just knowing that people care about you.
The sad truth is that I too want to look the camera in the eye and yell I WILL MAKE YOU LOVE ME. I remember sadly telling my therapist once about how when I was at my thinnest (which was super unhealthy and I DID have an eating disorder) I felt like I not only looked better but that people in general treated me better. Not only did strangers at the gym stop me to tell me I had “the perfect body” (as if there is such a thing) but I swear more people smiled at me, clerks were more helpful, waiters more attentive. I felt like the whole world liked me better when I was sick. It’s one of the things that has made getting healthy and recovering such a difficult process. At the time my therapist replied that it was probably my increased confidence people were responding to, not my weight loss. But as I stared in the mirror thinking about Rachel Frederickson’s amazing transformation, all I could think was that I had been right all along. People really do like me thinner.
It’s bad enough if I believe that (and I’m fighting that thought today with all my might) but I cannot stand for my daughter to believe that her worth as a person is contingent on her weight. Just yesterday, I got an e-mail from a former student pleading for help with an eating disorder that she feared would take her life. The sad thing is that I get e-mails like that nearly every week. If Fredricksen didn’t compromise her health to lose weight, that doesn’t take away from the many, many girls and women who will see her success and adulation and will take drastic measures to get the same thing. And that’s the real danger of making weight loss into a competitive sport. That’s why I never watch this show.
What’s your take on all this? Anyone else think her success unmasks all the show’s failings?