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]