This week, NBC’s weight loss reality show “The Biggest Loser” crowned its most recent winner, Rachel Fredrickson, for shedding the most pounds during the television challenge. But Fredrickson’s big reveal — she ultimately dropped from 260 pounds down to 105, losing nearly 60 percent of her total body weight — was greeted with considerable criticism.
The show’s hosts, Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper, appeared to be visibly uncomfortable when they saw Fredrickson’s new body. Viewers thought she looked gaunt, wondered if her dramatic transformation could possibly be healthy, and questioned why she was allowed to lose so much weight.
“It’s easy to see that Frederickson looks unhealthy,” TIME noted. “There was nothing athletic about the waif-thin appearance of Rachel tonight,” a diet blogger wrote. “There needs to be a red line that disqualifies finalists for too much weight loss based on a minimum BMI threshold,” one Twitter user suggested. A Change.org petition is now demanding that NBC strip Fredickson of her $250,000 prize, urging the network not to “award her for anorexic behaviors.”
Fredrickson, for her part, has confirmed that she’s “extremely proud” of the way she lost the weight on the show. She said she adhered to a 1,600 calorie diet under medical supervision while sticking to a regimented workout plan.
As a whole, “The Biggest Loser” has come under considerable fire for promoting an unrealistic image of weight loss, particularly since many contestants end up gaining much of the weight back after the show ends. Normal Americans don’t have time to make losing weight their full-time job, a lifestyle that simply can’t be sustained outside of reality television. And critics point out that dangling a cash prize in front of contestants drives them to go to extreme lengths, seeking weight loss at any cost. Indeed, the direct correlation between “weight” and “health” tends to be exaggerated, and shows like “The Biggest Loser” play into that oversimplified worldview.
But those are bigger problems with the show’s executives, societal assumptions about weight, and media representations of bodies — not something that’s specific to Fredrickson herself, who was simply playing the game in a competition that’s already well-established. In fact, some medical professionals and anorexia prevention advocates are warning that the harsh public backlash to the show’s most recent winner could actually be misguided.
Dr. Janey Pratt, the co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center, points out that it’s possible for contestants like Fredrickson to safely drop so many pounds in a controlled environment with the help of medical professionals. “If she lost it and she’s not malnourished, then there’s nothing wrong with it,” Pratt told the Today Show. “You can lose weight that quickly safely, but it’s a full-time job, which is what ‘The Biggest Loser’ is. It’s not what we usually see. It’s not common but it can happen.”
One nutritionist explained to CBS News that although it’s certainly valid to have concerns about rapid weight loss, and unrealistic media depictions of crash diets, it’s not actually possible for outside observers to discern whether or not Fredrickson is healthy. Although BMI is one indicator of health, it’s not the only one, and it typically needs to be put into context. There’s no way for viewers to know what Fredrickson’s exercise regimen is like, or how many nutrients she’s taking in.
And criticizing Fredrickson’s appearance now that she’s lost so much weight may not actually be any more sensitive than criticizing her body before she appeared on the show. It threatens to reinforce the idea that women can never get it right. Particularly when it comes to media depictions of women’s bodies, public figures are always treading a fine line between too thin, too heavy, too fake, and too realistic. The range in which women’s weight is deemed acceptable is increasingly narrow — and that’s largely a product of much bigger structural issues in the fashion industry, not because of individual women like Fredrickson.
“We are just obsessed with body size, women particularly. There’s just tremendous body dissatisfaction,” Joanne Ikeda, a dietitian who used to teach nutritional sciences, told the AP. “I’m sure even if she was the exact right size, someone wouldn’t like the look of her fingers or the length of her hair.”