Why We Didn’t Review Biggest Loser. And Probably Wont.


January 14, 2013 by Darlene McC

An Open Letter to Our Amazon Crew

A few weeks ago when we were previewing our projects for 2013 I said we’d start reviewing Biggest Loser this season.  We were all excited about the idea and thought it could be a lot of fun – make dinner together, cuddle up on the couch with my cat, and live tweet it together, right?  One big Urban Amazon & TBL love fest.

Well… not so much.

Since Urban Amazon started I’ve wanted it to be a positive place.  I’ve wanted a home where women could come for reliable health and fitness advice and not feel like they weren’t <blank> enough.  Good enough or skinny enough.  Flat-stomached and big-titted enough.  Where the shape of your eyebrows didn’t matter (see this month’s Women’s Health if that confuses you… or better yet, don’t.)  Where whatever you bring with you is all you need.  My response to last weeks 2 night TBL premiere isn’t really fitting that vision.

I’ve only watched one full season of The Biggest Loser before.  It was while I was in training school and every week I would nose up to Hulu and soak in the process.  I would watch Bob Harper with awe, praying for the day that got to help someone realize their potential.  Every time someone lost a big number I would cheer and every time someone accomplished a task they didn’t think they could I would cry with them.  (And when Ramone and Jessica hooked up I was so very happy!)  I watched their workouts with awe and excitement, so proud of the way the contestants would grow as people, too.

But that was a season without Jillian Michaels.  This is not that season.

There are as many different ways to train as there are trainers in this world.  Each one of us creates a unique blend of our personal style, the education we receive, our certifications, and the environment we work in.  I would never tell another trainer how to do their job just like I wouldn’t Ann what to do for her EATS post next week.  That’s not my place and who the hell am I to say any different?

However, what I watched in the episodes last Sunday and Monday is not ‘training’ as I know it.  It is not what I or my colleagues do for a living, nor what I signed up for when I decided to be a health and wellness coach.  There are so many things wrong with just the first 5 minutes of them being in the gym, let alone both episodes.  I have been having trouble writing this post ever since.

I understand that this is a TV show for ratings.  I get that they’re playing it up for drama, and the drama of her yelling at these people and then them getting kicked off it “better” to some people than before.  But it’s like the selection episode of American Idol for an entire season.

What I say was a person set up other people who’ve had a sedentary lifestyle so they would fail at a task, then berate them for it.

I saw that person talk down to these contestants like they were nothing, like they had failed at life.  No doubt many of them are successful parents, business people, and members of their communities who just happen to have not been successful at weight loss.  That doesn’t make them pathetic, that means they need her help.

I saw a group of people make themselves incredibly vulnerable and then be beaten down almost immediately.

I saw someone convincing a national audience that this is what training is supposed to be like.  That if you aren’t puking in the first workout you aren’t doing it right.

And I’m scared that I saw someone setting an example for up and coming trainers that they are allowed to treat their clients like garbage.

I have been a little distraught over this.  For many months I have looked up to Jillian.  I listened to her podcasts and followed her tweets.  I have bought magazines to read her interviews.  One friend who watched TBL for the first time last week texted me “I can’t believe you looked up to her!”  I can’t either.  I just didn’t understand what they meant when they said she was a hard ass.  I didn’t know!

And so I’ve decided that Urban Amazon is not really the place to glorify The Biggest Loser; at least not this season.  I’m sad to have lost a female trainer I could admire, and disappointed in NBC that they have also glorified her methodology.  I don’t understand the people who try to justify her actions with a “tough love” explanation.  They used to say that about hitting your wife and kids, too.

Love is not what I saw.  I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts if you have any.


12 thoughts on “Why We Didn’t Review Biggest Loser. And Probably Wont.

  1. Mom says:

    You said exactly what I thought last week. I have never watched a season of Biggest Loser from begining to end but because I am in the WHOLE 30 mindset I thought it might motivate me. I was very disappointed to see that Jillan was a jerk! If she was my trainer I would pack my bags and go back home. I want to be inspired, motivated or encouraged but she did exactly what keeps me from going thru the gym doors. I fear that a Jillian-type will be waiting for me on the other side to poke at me and make me feel like I don’t belong there. I already know I am overweight so a bully screaming at me telling me I am a loser will make me run from the gym. Thank you for saying (bravely) what anyone with critical thinking skills was thinking.

  2. xdhaas says:

    Jillian Michaels is the only reason I watch that show. Thought it sucked without her. Shes pretty drill sergeant (which seems to work for the military), true, and that method doesnt work for everyoone, but after she breaks them down she helps build them back up again. Its ripping down the walls by pushing them past their breaking point that lets them get to the deep seeded root of some of their issues. Its not allowing “I can’t”, which is a cop out for a lot of people. Try and she’s happy; keep getting up, push. Give up and she gets pissed. Theyre not quitting on her, theyre quitting on themselves, and worse. Plus she’s just hot.

    • Darlene McC says:

      Xdhass, you know I always value your opinion, and I thank you for sharing it (I was actually thinking of you while re-writing this post and wondered which side of the line you’d fall on).

      Yes, this kind of conditioning does work for the military. Notice I didn’t call it “motivation”; because in a military environment it’s not motivation. These people are already highly motivated already, and you’re preparing them to have automatic responses in a high-pressure, high-stress, overwhelming environment. You’re testing people to ensure that they are psychologically and physically capable of handling the riggers of combat, and working to get anyone who is not ready up to snuff. That is a little different then re-conditioning someone how to care for themselves.

      I also agree it’s important to push those in need of it beyond what they believe to be their physical limits – but I pause at the phrase “breaking point”. That is where I fear so many who watch the show are going to be crossing wires. Is the job of a trainer really to “break” their clients? These people are not stubborn, ill tempered horses. They are people who have, for whatever reason, not taken great care of themselves physically. Do they deserve to be whipped into submission, and is that really an appropriate way to treat them (to “motivate” them)?

      I agree with all the rationale, but not the implementation. I believe that putting someone who has never done cardio on a treadmill until they go into cardiovascular shock and then telling them they failed because they don’t want it bad enough is different then not allowing them to fail. It’s setting them up to fail on purpose. And to what end? Why is the conversation about this show about how “bad ass” this woman is instead of ‘why is this an acceptable way to treat people and why are we considering it to be entertaining?’

      If these people were anorexic and we were trying to get them to eat healthy would we consider screaming at them about nutrition to be appropriate?

      • xdhaas says:

        I haven’t watched all of the seasons but I have seen several, and in many cases her contestants end up thanking her profusely for pushing them out of their comfort zones and making them face their demons. You don’t see, at least not as much, the other trainers getting to the emotional reasons someone allows themselves to reach that state of unhealthiness. One season Jillian actually brought in a shrink to help everyone out and Bob seemed to think this was funny. Just this season so far, out of the 2 eps I’ve seen, she kicked three people out of the gym on the very first day and by the end of that week both the guys were glad; they seemed to think they were able to prove to themselves, and Jillian, that they really did want a change and were ready to do what they had to do, but they had to make that decision for themselves.

        I understand this doesn’t work for everyone and it can be intimidating, or at least ineffective (some of us might start laughing or yelling back if that happened to us, for example). I’m sure some people go into the show hoping they get her just as some go in hoping they don’t. And I’m sure from the show’s perspective they like the drama and they show various styles of training, not just one. But no one is forced into this situation. In real life people can get a new trainer if they don’t like how they are treated, but then again I’ve heard people say that this style works for them. On the show she seems to get results. She’s just one trainer in three this year. Her style is just one in three.

        I didn’t see her as setting people up to fail. I’m not a trainer, of course, but from what I could gather, the speed and time and all that wasn’t really that bad, though for heavy, inactive people it seemed to come as a shock to some. I’ll also point out it wasn’t just her contestants throwing up or falling. It seems to be expected the first few days for any of the trainers. In a non-show situation I’d think trainers would ease people into it more, but on this show, where they’re looking for fast results, after a decade of seasons, people know at least to a point what they’re getting into when they sign up. Maybe they didn’t sign up for Jillian as a trainer, but they knew they’d be pushed past their limits no matter who’s team they ended up on.

        Just my opinion, of course, but I love Jillian, I think she’s awesome.

      • Darlene McC says:

        I’m glad to see this is becoming a conversation and hope more people will chime in. Way to hold up the dissenting opinion, X.

        Yes, some people need to be pushed beyond their limits. Yes, different motivational strategies work for different people.

        Some quick observations here: In the first workout we saw three people go into circulatory shock (I said cardiovascular earlier. My bad.) Circulatory shock is a medical condition where a necessary component of respiration (the way our body makes energy) is insufficient. In this case we can assume it was oxygen given the activity these individuals were doing. In shock the person may pass out, black out, get dizzy, etc. It can be very serious medically (yes, you can die from it if not treated. Which is why EMTs are on hand.) And is very preventable with proper exercise selection.

        But your comments confirm one of my fears: that many many people watching it would think “the speed and time and all that wasn’t really that bad”. It’s reasonable for a fit person with good cardiovascular health (like yourself), and one who is not taught to work with this population, to make that assumption.

        What I saw was a group of people being given an activity that was above their fitness level and experiencing an uncontrollable physiological response as a consequence. These people were then told that they obviously didn’t “WANT IT BAD ENOUGH” because of that uncontrollable response. You are correct that her team wasn’t the only team throwing up; they were, however, the only ones that we saw going into shock and the only ones being told that they were somehow responsible for that response. [Note on this: it’s possible the show was edited to create this narrative, even likely. I’m going off what they aired, obviously.] In the same way that you see it as “not that bad” their are others out there in a position to supposedly help people like this who are making irresponsible assumptions based on what they see on TBL… I would hope that trainers who aren’t on the show don’t make those choices. I would hope that potential exercisers would know it’s not really like that; but given my mother’s comments about gym fear, it’s a very real barrier for people who are intimidated by that environment. And her daughter is a trainer! Imagine the person without that influence in their life!

        And yes, I agree that people should probably know what they’re in for on the show by now – but maybe they’re like me and only watched it since Jillian left. Who knows! Maybe they’re like the dozens of people I have met since becoming a trainer who come in and say “I want someone like Jillian! I need someone to push me!” and I don’t work that way. Then months later when I bring that up again they say “yeah, I guess I didn’t really mean that. If you had really treated me that way I guess I’d never have come back.”

        (I’ve written this reply 4 times and an error in wordpress keeps causing it to disappear! Hopefully it will work this time!)

      • xdhaas says:

        Well, I’m used to having a dissenting opinion so I can hold my own 😉

        One of the contestants very likely did go into shock like you suggest. It was also suggested, though, that he may have had an underlying issue since he was throwing up for over a week and medically limited in his activities. The others fell but didn’t seem nearly as extreme. That’s my uneducated (from a trainer or medical) pov, of course. And this show is about dramatic results, not easing people in like I’m assuming you would. Pushing.

        I haven’t watched the past few seasons, only some of the earlier ones, so I’m not familiar with the newer guy they have training. However, when he came back into the gym after working with the kids he saw the passed out and throwing up people and made a comment about it, how this was the first week, this always happens, and he loved it. Even Bob said that people were dropping like flies. Not just a few people but most of them. Both the other trainers said that, not Jillian, so in that regard it’s not just her.

        In terms of my comment about the speed not really being that bad, I’m going off of a very weak memory of speed being mentioned before in terms of the first workout. It was low, something like 3 mph. Maybe they had mentioned that in a diff season, not this one, but I wouldn’t think they’d change the speed in the first work out too much. One of the guys fell off his treadmill, while walking, after less than 3 minutes. He was still able to stand up and get back on.

        In terms of Jillian’s team being the only ones going into shock, I don’t recall them showing Bob’s team on the treadmills at all, at least not that first day. They rotate those; Bob’s team started out on the floor. We have no idea what happened in terms of their treadmill usage. Since this was Jillian’s first time back in two seasons, and she’s known for being a hardass, it’s a safe bet that the producers were more likely to focus on these ‘negative’ reactions of her team vs others. We can’t really know since they didn’t show it but I’ve seen enough seasons to know that Bob has pushed people to the collapsing point. In one season he was actually screaming at a woman! They made jokes about how he was possessed by Jillian.

        In terms of Jillian’s very in-your-face methods, well, like I said, it works for some, doesn’t for others. She very often gets to the underlying psychological reasons for the individual’s unhealthy state and helps them understand how they got to the place they are. Her belief is that in most cases its more than just “I ate too much and didn’t exercise.” But, people have to face those fears first and her method of ‘breaking down’ their front by pushing them usually seems to allow those fears to the forefront to be dealt with. An example of this was near the end of ep 2 when Nat had a break down (after working with Bob) after completing his work out and Jillian was there to comfort and encourage him.

        She might yell a lot, but she also sits down and has sensitive heart-to-hearts with them too, encouraging them and being willing to listen. In this particular season they’ve only touched upon that. Maybe it will happen further along in the season if the contestants need it, I don’t know.

        In terms of some people fearing the gym and trainers because of Jillian’s method, I can’t say much to that other than to shrug. People assume things. There are 3 trainers this season. Only one is yelling so far. In one season nearer to the beginning, they had another female trainer and I don’t recall yelling too much, but she still had one of her contestants leave her group and join Jillian’s. If someone is just looking at the yelling, and not paying attention to her ‘softer’ side, which they’ve shown at least somewhat so far (I haven’t watched the 3rd ep, I should mention), or watching the other trainers, I can see how they might get a bit freaked out. The yelling is much more dramatic and holds attention. I’m sure the cameras focus on it. But this is a tv show. Like you said, there are as many training styles as there are trainers, and people can fire a trainer!

        (And that’s why I prefer putting my responses in Word first; that’s happened to me too many times!)

      • xdhaas says:

        So I watched the 3rd ep last night. Jillian only yelled once and while she was doing so she was telling the contestant that she COULD do the work out, that she was completely capable, that she was only stopping herself. And in the same week she had some mushy heart-to-heart with a contestant from a different team. If she was all screaming maybe I’d agree with the too-harsh thing more, but I think she strikes a nice balance. 😉

      • Darlene McC says:

        Haven’t watched it yet, but I guess I have to now. 😉

  3. nicolerothier says:

    I totally agree. I watched an episode last night and I could hardly believe what she was saying to these people…and she was manipulating them to believe they were failures and that they weren’t trying hard enough. Actually seeing something like that playing on tv was heartbreaking.

  4. […] January we Amazons have been eating better with whole30, talking about what motivation is, and dissecting the lives we want to build for ourselves.  We are each deciding every day the […]

  5. […] episode of this season.  As a blog focused on women’s health and wellness, we felt that glorifying a show where they beat the crap out of people wasn’t really in our mission.  Now a former contestant has come forward to discuss how she […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: