Monday, January 07, 2013

How Do 3 Biggest Loser Alumni Feel About The Show's Inclusion of Kids?

Who better than the folks who've been there to weigh in (sorry) on whether or not The Biggest Loser by its very nature puts kids in harm's way?

Last week I interviewed three former Biggest Loser contestants - Kai Hibbard and Ken Coleman from Season 3, and a third contestant, who placed either first, second or third in their season, who wishes to remain anonymous but who I'll be calling Linda for the sake of this post.

Kai, known to be an outspoken critic of the show, is concerned,
"I think putting children in this position is super, super, harsh.",
and she wonders what their parents were thinking in allowing them to be included on the show,
"Putting your child in that psychological position to be picked at, to be analyzed, to be mistaken for somebody else and to have a level of fame, but not a level of protection from it that money and power might provide is irresponsible, so even without the weight loss, reality TV is dangerous."
Next I asked her if the show's pressure to lose led her as an adult to struggle and what impact it had on her and her fellow contestants,
"I know my own self-image suffered extensively. I felt, and I know that two of the other female contestants on my season alone felt the same, the more weight we lost, the less we liked ourselves. The less we liked looking in the mirror because it wasn’t enough, and it didn’t look good enough."
To this day, 7 years later, Kai still reports being scrutinized by strangers and that she worries it'll be worse for this season's kids,
"I think it’ll be 10 times worse because they’re adolescents. I’m a grown adult, and it’s been almost 7 years and literally less than a month ago I had a complete stranger come up to me in the grocery store, look at my cart, and ask me whether I should be buying the ice cream that’s in it. I can’t imagine what they’re going to endure and let’s be honest, beyond the regular every day being picked on, they’re going to get the, “oh you think you’re so special, you think you’re so cool, because you’re on reality TV - adults even do that so kids will be 10x worse."
Ultimately Kai feels that the show teaches participants (and viewers) that it's just about willpower,
"Not only are you instilled with “if you just want it bad enough you can lose weight”, but that the only barriers are that you don’t want it enough and hey, you’re lazy. That’s honestly the attitude",
and at the end of the day she doesn't think that attitude, or this show is a place for children,
"I see this show doing harm both physically and psychologically. It scares me, it scares me for the kids."
Kai's former teammate Ken isn't on the same page. Ken isn't worried about the kids getting picked on more consequent to their involvement,
"kids are already being picked on, it’s a living hell for them",
but he readily agrees with Kai in that the scrutiny from strangers even long after the show is very, very real,
"I still have that happening today. Yes, 7 years and it doesn’t change. I do speaking engagements, I have people that come in to speaking engagements and the only reason they came, they don’t want to hear what I have to say, they just want to see if I gained the weight back"
Ken feels the kids on the show will be kept safe by the show's psychologists and psychiatrists who'll be there to help them through the journey, though when I asked him whether or not that support would still be there for the kids once the cameras stopped rolling, or once the next season's children were the stars, here's what he had to say,
"Well none of the contestants from NBC have been that lucky"
All told, Ken does think the show will be a positive experience for the children, but only if NBC steps up and provides these children with far more extensive and longer term supports than have been offered to the show's adults to date.

The last call I made was to Linda. Right off the bat she didn't mince words,
"It is a horrible idea. A horrible idea. I have professional experience working with children near to the ages of those on the show, and they are in such a fragile mental emotional physical state at that age that kind of rigorous workout and body change and self reflection I think is damaging"
When I pointed out to her that it'll be different for the children, that they won't be facing elimination or regular weigh ins she was unfazed,
"regardless of if they’re doing weigh-ins both that kid and the producer and their family and their trainer know exactly how much they weigh, exactly how much they need to lose and that’s always in your head."
And what does having that in your head do?
"It was a total mental battle, all of the time. It’s so much pressure that you put on yourself. I was taking sleeping pills to get through the night because I was so freaked out weighing myself daily. It was so much pressure. It was unbelievable"
And echoing Kai and Ken, Linda reports the pressure and scrutiny consequent to being on The Biggest Loser simply doesn't end,
"You are constantly scrutinized. I remember after the show aired I was in the grocery store and somebody was looking in my cart and scrutinizing, and still to this day, even though my show was a bunch of years ago, I am still worried about what is in my cart because god forbid if somebody recognizes me"
Going back to the safeguards being put in place for the children, Linda couldn't be reassured,
"remember, regardless of whatever safeguards they’re putting in for children this is a TV show, and they do this for ratings, and they want a reaction, and the only way you’ll get a reaction is if you get an extreme results. So these kids are going to go to be one day 50lbs overweight, and they’re going to wake up 6 months later at a normal weight and they’re not going to recognize themselves. So what is that going to do to an already fragile psyche?"
She even recounts bullying consequent to her success where people said things to the effect of
"Oh what, you had to go on a tv show to lose weight? It was a lot of why go to this extreme, what’s wrong with you that you had to go on national tv to do this?"
Linda also validates Ken's comments on the lack of long term support. In fact she goes further in that not only did the show not offer support, but according to her they also ignored her cries for help,
"One of the things that hurt the most through this whole biggest loser process is I gave the show everything and they dropped me. After the show was over, when I reached out, when the weight started to come back on I reached out and I begged and I pleaded and I said help me and they wouldn’t even respond to me. I felt terrible. I don’t think there are words to describe the defeat and the rejection I felt after the show."
Linda gained all of her weight back, as did other finalists from her season. I asked her how regaining has affected them consequent to their show created visibility,
"We still know that people look at us, people who know the show and we feel such shame because we had this opportunity that everybody wants, and we didn’t keep it off"
What I also learned interviewing these 3 former contestants is that The Biggest Loser alumni, perhaps due to their shared trial by fire, keep in fairly close touch. Consequently I asked each of these three what percentage of folks from the Biggest Loser keep the weight they lost off.

Kai answered,
"I’d say one quarter to one third - and not all of it"
Ken stated,
"85-90% of the contestants on the show have regained all their weight"
And Linda,
"Maybe 10-20% are keeping it off"
Linda summed up her experiences succinctly,
"If I would have known where I would have ended up after the show I would have stayed 300lbs"
And regarding kids, again, she didn't mince words,
"Kids are cruel and kids will take any opportunity they have to berate and belittle each other, that’s what kids do, and I think they're setting these kids up to be bullied relentlessly.

I’m so appalled and disgusted with it. It’s one thing to mess with our heads, but then they go to kids. I’ve been battling with this for many years, and I can’t even imagine, I can’t even imagine what it’s going to do to kids.
Are you also appalled? If you are, feel free to sign the petition, and/or better yet, join and promote the advertisers' products boycott.

[If there are any other former contestants who'd like to go on record, pro or con, anonymous or with attribution, feel free to contact me at yonifreedhoff over at gmail, or in a comment on this post]

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  1. I'm starting to think this show isn't unethical because it includes kids. It's unethical because it includes anyone at all.

  2. The sad thing is that there's probably a way to take a whole bunch of kids - maybe a whole class? - and follow them for a school year, teaching them how to exercise, how eat right, how to prepare their own healthy meals.

    It could be a very positive experience for everyone, their families included.

    But it wouldn't provide a way for viewers to look down and judge people, so it probably wouldn't get good ratings.


    1. Anonymous4:59 pm

      Very true.

  3. Have you considered trying to reach out to participants of the show X-Weighted? That show involved children and while different in 'entertainment' format than TBL, many of the exposure issues (albeit to a much, much smaller audience) would be present for the participants. It would be interesting to hear the viewpoints of the families that appeared on that show to see how they may differ from TBL contestants.

    1. I haven't. My hope is that given the audience is smaller and the time on the show less, that the kids therein didn't have it as bad as I expect TBL's kids to.

    2. I loathe X-Weighted and the contemptuous smirk on the face of the host/trainer whose name conveniently escapes me.

      I would be very interested to see how people on that show have done over the years.

  4. The young people have already been thrust into a position of being "ambassadors." Expectations that they will be role models are heaped on them right from the start. When the cameras turned to their parents in the audience, ALL THREE HAD OVERWEIGHT PARENTS and yet it's presented that Sunny is overweight because of stress and "Biingo" lives a sedentary life. I'm actually the most concerned for the eldest, Sunny. I could already tell that she is a highly-intelligent, perfectionistic young lady who no doubt pushes herself to achievement in all other areas of her life. Now she'll drive herself to the edge for the sake of a television show and to be an "ambassador" to the public.

  5. I think the kids can make the best of this situation. I don't think our automatic response is that the kids will crash and burn. Giving children support and reasons to have self esteem (like being an ambassador) can help push them to greatness. If I were to believe everything I have read from these posts hating TBL, I would believe that weight loss is impossible. Even if 90% of the contestants regain weight, doesn't that mean that 10% kept it off? Isn't that better than 100% remaining obese?

    1. "Push them to greatness"??? ARE YOU F'IN' SERIOUS???

    2. Even if 90% of the contestants regain weight, doesn't that mean that 10% kept it off? Isn't that better than 100% remaining obese?

      If we think that the mental health of the other 90% who had to go through the same tortuous experience is worth sacrificing for the sake of the 10%, then of course. But these aren't stats in a vacuum. The 90% who did gain back the weight weren't unharmed by the experience.

    3. I don't see this post as "hating" The Biggest Loser -- I see it as deploring, which is much more to the point.

      Weight loss is not impossible, but for many people it's a lifelong process that does not fit the short-attention-span and advertising-delivery requirements of the fakery that carries the label "reality TV."

      I can't help feeling that you'd be far from satisfied at, say, a 10% passing rate for your child's school, to say nothing of a 10% accuracy level for medical diagnosis. ("Well, sure, they missed 90% of cancers, but isn't that better than missing 100%?")

    4. Anonymous5:03 pm

      Of course, because an estimate 90% of the participants regain their weight doesn't mean that the kids won't be the 10% that don't. However,one would have to be delusional to think that the probability is,practicably speaking, is something to even hope for. This is a show,pure and simple, and the effects on the adults and even less so,kids is zero.

    5. Anonymous12:56 pm

      exactly which contestants were forced to participate in the show? 90% put back on the weight after the show? sounds like they didn't learn anything from their experience.

  6. For some reason my browser won't let me comment on my own post. My definition of greatness was not meant to imply being skinny. I meant that a lot of the posts I have been seeing about TBL and with the kids in particular have been in the tone of "WHEN the contestants fail" not "IF the contestants fail." I find this attitude extremely harmful in general, not just in the context of the show. I see this as a parallel that parents might fear that a child's self esteem will be hurt if he or she fails at losing weight, so it would be best if the child doesn't try. I have followed this blog for a while and agree with most, if not all, of Dr. Freedhoff's views, but have been annoyed at the posts (or more specifically comments) about TBL that are based off of one episode. I agree, the way the show is edited and produced does have some major flaws. Even the trainers don't agree with what the producers have done in the past (in general). The reason Jillian Michaels came back was because she felt they could explore childhood obesity responsibly, and that the show would no longer have the Team VS Team (in such a hurtful way) as the big editing point of the show.
    As to the loosely reported 90% that regained (which is a worst case statistic I just pulled from one person's anecdotal evidence) I am sure there is social repercussions from being on TBL, but I am not sure it is any greater than any other reality TV show. They should have known that when applying. If they regained their weight it is mostly due to the fact that they didn't follow what the show tries to teach, that nutrition and lifestyle are what causes weight gain. The contestants time on the ranch is not being pushed to the limit 24 hrs of the day. It is eating right and really, a lot of walking. Enough extra exercise to lose weight, but once they are at a stable weight really just eating right and normal everyday exercise should keep them at a healthy weight, or at least not obese.

    1. Anonymous5:06 pm

      The kids on this program are legally not able to give consent to anything. I have to wonder about the parents and their good judgment in putting their kids on this show. I would be interested in knowing if the kids were put in any other program before this.

  7. "One of the things that hurt the most through this whole biggest loser process is I gave the show everything and they dropped me. After the show was over, when I reached out, when the weight started to come back on I reached out and I begged and I pleaded and I said help me and they wouldn’t even respond to me. I felt terrible. I don’t think there are words to describe the defeat and the rejection I felt after the show."

    And then she regained the weight. Oh, my. My heart is riven. And the callous response of Joharp -- that the 90% who regained have only themselves to blame!? My God. I know that response is the result of ignorance of science and the influence of a pervasive cultural mythology, but it's breath-taking in its narrow-mindedness. Joharp, spend a little more time at this blog and at Arya Sharma's, and go find your heart again, if you've ever had one. If you are a long-term weight-loss maintainer (and I haven't clicked through on your name to find out), you must acknowledge that your experience cannot be generalized to everyone. It is unique to you, and very few people can attain it. Empirical research puts maintenance at five years of a ten percent or greater loss at about 3%. (Survey research based on self-reporting, which is horribly inaccurate, puts it at 20%.) It has nothing to do with the discipline or intelligence of the dieters. They understand the word "lifestyle," but do not know that they have been sold a bill of goods as to how intense that "lifestyle" must be for their individual circumstance. A previously obese person has challenges that naturally trim people (who dole out advice) do not comprehend in our society.

    Now, as for the former contestants, if, indeed, they can prove a 75%, if not 90%, failure rate on maintenance, exacerbated by the kind of neglect that "Linda" reports, then these people have SUFFERED a harm, both from the show itself and from the pain of not being able to speak out because of a gag order they are required to signed, and NBC has profited from their suffering richly. Where is the tort lawyer who will take this on?! This could be an enormous teaching moment in our society if they would SUE the bastards! Yoni, if a tort lawyer contacts you, I hope you will put him or her in contact with this network of former contestants. Actually, as I think, this has Gloria Allred's name written all over it. I hope one of the former contestants contacts her.

    1. So what percent of blame would you put on the person that regains the weight? Just out of curiosity?

      You are right. It does have Gloria Allred's name written all over it. Totally bs grandstanding law suits.

    2. Anonymous5:09 pm

      I would agree with you. To present any of the people involved in weight loss as losers in a competition (to me) gives the wrong view of attempting to lose weight. Anyone trying to lose weight through a long term program is a winner every time.

  8. What a load of BS!

    1-Kai and Ken are whining about being scrutinized, yet a quick look at their face book pages has Kai identifying herself as a contestant on the biggest loser season 3. Ken runs a personal training company. Give me a freaking break. They set themselves up for scrutiny not the show

    2-"linda" is the only one that has any credibility, however even she is full of it. How many people that lose a large amount of weight put it back on. This is not something unique to the biggest loser show. Linda has to realize that as some point she has to do this thing herself. She just can't go running back to the show because she is putting back on weight. Besides trying to run back to the show what else did she try?

    This sounds more about problems with them as opposed to the show.

    1. I know Ken, and hewas in no way whining, he was answering a question posed to him honestly. Just because he was affirming the position being forwarded doesn't make it whining. In fact, I think in some way she has embraced it as a way of helping folks in their own struggles.

    2. Anonymous5:13 pm

      Any show that does not provide ANY after show help for these people are a sham rather than a true example of what people are capable of doing as far as weight loss. Weight loss is not a six week program and then you can just coast or there are not psychological issues that may be needed for an individual which may be effecting their weight gain/loss. Again, this program is a sham.

  9. Anonymous2:31 pm

    I'm appalled at the reactions of these former contestants, to be honest. What did they think they were signing up for when they went on a nationally syndicated show about weight loss?

    I've struggled with weight loss my entire life, they were given a great opportunity and instead of taking what they learned at the ranch and building on it, they just went back to the same old habits that got them on to the show in the first place. From what I've seen, former contestants who reach out for help after gaining the weight back are always welcomed with open arms. Weight loss and maintenance are life long battle and a lifestyle change, not just about will power or "wanting it bad enough" but about having a different attitude towardsd your body and your life and how you choose to live it.

  10. Anonymous2:27 pm

    Seriously ?? They want to blame everybody but themselves of why they gained back the weight. They gained it back because they went back to their old bad habits. Work out. eat healthy. Its not that hard people!
    If they really wanted to keep the weight off they would have.