Following my Sunday Herald Sun column critical of ‘The Biggest Loser’ last week , I heard from a number of women in recovery from eating disorders, who wrote about the negative impact the series had on them – including Melbourne woman Belinda Davis, 38, who was happy for me to share her story here.
It all began when I was about 10-years-old. Having footage beamed into our lounge rooms every night of starving Ethiopian children just filled me with immense guilt. I would tell my mother that I would eat less so that those kids could have my share It was probably then that I developed unusual eating habits and thoughts around food.
In my 20’s I tried every bizarre new diet on the market plus a few I made up myself. There would be periods of my life that weren’t heavily dominated by the eating disorder but it was always there, lingering, waiting. That was until I was 31 and I longed for the voice to return just that little bit stronger, just to help me shed those few kilos. The eating disorder voices (demands) are strong, powerful and destructive, especially when looking for control in one’s life.
Before I knew it, this “voice” had taken over my life. Of course, there are many reasons behind an eating disorder but those childhood feelings of guilt still remain. I was severely emaciated and weighed everything before I even thought of consuming it.
With the support of great people, including an amazing clinical psychologist and a dietician who supported me daily in the initial stages of recovery, I have been able to recover. It was a long road, my general health was poor. Eating disorders are not glamourous in the slightest. Having ECGs, Dexa scans (for bone density) and regular blood tests are not what one thinks of when dreaming of “thinness”.
Since my recovery I lost my fiancé to suicide (August 2009) which lead to nervous breakdowns that landed me in hospital. But thankfully, though I was vulnerable, anorexia didn’t rear its ugly head again this time. Fortunately, I had learned that dieting didn’t bring me happiness, contentment or a life I wanted.
The Biggest Loser
I still recall the very first season. It was 2006, during the peak of my anorexia.
I was thrilled with the motivation it gave me to exercise after the episode. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one. In the beginning, my partner and I would see a number of people heading out of their houses for a brisk evening walk or jog. I thought this was a good thing. As the show continued, I saw the obsession with calorie counting, specific diets and of course, the Sunday nail biter, “the weigh in”. I wished I could lose as much as them. I couldn’t.
As the years went by, the show got worse, more extreme. Today, I cannot watch it for I learned (the hard way) how to manage a healthy weight. And I knew the show would set me back. All I see in the commercials is contestants being belittled, put down, yelled at, being sick, crying and with forlorn expressions.
The saddest part is to think that this show is aired in a very family friendly time slot. Just trying to imagine how many families sit down to watch this program together makes me hang my head in shame. What have we become? I really do feel for all those kids out there that are subject to this propaganda. The messages they must be learning could be not only damaging but life threatening. Let’s think about it (from the mind of our inner child):
It is ok if people in authority yell at me and call me names. It does make me feel bad about myself but they are “trainers” so they must be “right”.
If I am thin I am worthy of a relationship (think back to the “Singles” series that aired last year).
People cheer and get excited when I lose weight, it must be VERY important (and being ‘big’ must be VERY bad).
I am defined by my size (which is only good if I look like someone who works out at the gym for a living).
I now associate the word “loser” with someone who is bad (fat, lazy, greedy etc).
Fat shaming, the obesity ‘epidemic’ and extreme over correction is no way to control weight.
Why, as a society, can we not appreciate good deeds, intelligence, kindness and respect? It all comes down to what we/they can sell. I can only be happy that I am now in a fairly strong recovery because programs that embrace unhealthy under- eating and obsessional behaviour only serve as a trigger.
I cannot believe that this type of show is allowed on the air. With a failing public health system, it shocks me to see that people are being pushed to follow this extremism. Show me a study that says losing more than 500g per week is healthy or a study that says morbidly obese people should be expected to work out in a gym? I was so worried that “Big Kev” was going to have a heart attack.
I now know what a healthy diet consists of, how healthy weight loss works and the importance of fitness appropriate exercise. The Biggest Loser doesn’t promote any of this.
REALITY weight-loss show The Biggest Loser claims to be all about health – leading a new “social movement” against the “obesity crisis”.
But many authorities – and those suffering from disordered eating – say it actually contributes to bad health.
Parading and humiliating obese people, dangerously rapid weight loss, severe calorie restriction, pre weigh-in dehydration and punishing exercise do not develop healthy patterns for long-term health.
Whenever the series returns, Melbourne woman Jodi, 24, (who asked her surname not be used) avoids TV.
Seeing the show, or even ads for it, can trigger harmful eating patterns.
As a recovering binge and restrict eater, and accredited exercise scientist, Jodi says just hearing about TBL makes her feel “sad, pathetic, not good enough”.
“My logical self knows that I’m not overweight or obese, but my eating disorder tells me I am,” Jodi says.
“Contestants receive so much praise and recognition for their weight loss, which contributes to me linking my self-worth with my weight.
“It makes me aware that other people notice my weight and might judge me on it.
This makes it harder for Jodi to trust her treatment team, which encourages her to take small steps, eat mindfully and exercise in a healthy way.
Hearing trainers screaming at contestants that they are just weak undermines professional advice.
“I’m concerned as this is being passed onto the fitness industry, where trainers now think it’s OK to train clients at those same intensities.”
The show can also scare people off exercise. Researchers in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation found that watching a short video of The Biggest Loser fuelled negative attitudes toward exercise.
“People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is – that it’s this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the limits, which is completely wrong,” says Tanya Berry, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion.
Authorities say that because the only measure of success is scales, the show is purely about weight-loss not about overall health. The fact that contestants can’t even cover their bodies in a lightweight top during the weigh-in shows TBL is about sadistic voyeurism – and fuelling a $414 million weight-loss industry.
Eating disorder professionals say the show makes their work harder, as clients believe what they see on the show is realistic in daily life. Sarah McMahon, co-director of BodyMatters Australasia, says there is no evidence to support long-term sustained weight loss and behavioural change in most contestants.
“These clients are typically young and have poor media literacy and limited education about exercise and physiology,” she says.
“It makes a humiliating public spectacle of them under the guise of ‘self- improvement’. They will actively participate in their own persecution because the dream of being thin has been sold so convincingly”.
Dr Rick Kausman, Director of The Butterfly Foundation and author of best-selling If Not Dieting, Then What?’, says if you wanted to make a show that helped people be healthy, you’d do the opposite of TBL.
“Instead of shaming you would use compassion.
Research shows self-compassion helps us take care of ourselves much better than self-criticism.
Instead of a focus on weight, small meaningful changes in behaviour are much more likely to be sustained.”
“Rather than inspire people to make change, the show is more likely to make people mentally and physically unhealthy.
“Stigma around weight acts as a barrier for people seeking health care.
“Studies shown that patients are less likely to see their doctor for regular check-ups for fear of being told off about their weight.” he says.
“This is a disaster for preventative health”.
If we truly cared about helping people be healthy, we’d take this manipulative and highly emotional propaganda off-air immediately.
I’ve watched a couple of episodes of The Biggest Loser Families and find myself cringing at the extent of degradation and shaming. To see Sarah-Jayne begging through tears not to have to stand on the scales the first time, was harrowing. It was as though she was being led to a torture rack. To hear each contestant declare their name and weight – “Hi, I’m Meg, and I weigh *** kilos” – was like watching a forced confession. Each individual was reduced to the sum of their weight.
This description of last night’s episode, from The Australian’s TV section:
“The trainers aren’t happy with their weight gain after a week of unhealthy food, but they still get the last laugh with an early morning training session and a bio-age test for all the contestants.”
The last laugh? Revenge on the fatties? Trainers hurling abuse and insults? Being punished for a life history of poverty, poor nutrition, unemployment and lack of opportunity? Is this how we encourage public health in this country?
Episode 1 of The Biggest Loser Australia 2011 debuted on Sunday night. The new series, targeting four family units, pitches being overweight as a problem experienced by individuals – indeed whole families – who are lazy, greedy, and slothful: in short, morally weak. They “do it to themselves”.
Trainers were given a week to “live in the shoes” of contestants. They are presented as barely surviving the experience of being drowned in gluttony and laziness.
OMG- and you have this every day?!?!… I can’t even look!!… I don’t know how you do it, I don’t know how you can physically eat this much food!! – Tiffiny, Trainer.
All that food… I was a little frightened; taken back… how many carbs can you have on one table? – Commando, Trainer.
Contestants were shown continually eating fatty and highly-processed foods. As this atypical eating behaviour was played up for the camera, the trainers (and probably viewers) reeled in disgust. Despite the participants revealing the hardships they believed contributed to their weight gain – such as childhood poverty, bullying and compromised family backgrounds. The take-home message is that, really, they have wreaked disaster upon themselves. Read more>>
Collective Shout colleague and Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia Lydia Turner has written an important piece for Healthy Weight Week highlighting the conflicts of interest in anti-obesity research. She urges a health-based, not weight based approach to health.
This week marks the start of ‘Healthy Weight Week,’ brought to you by the Dieticians Association of Australia (DAA).
With the DAA claiming that 61 per cent of Australian adults and 25 per cent of Australian children are either overweight or obese, many people would think this is a great initiative. So why are a growing number of health professionals opposed to this campaign?
It is not well enough known that 95 per cent of obesity research is funded by private industry including Big Pharma. Corporations not only fund research, but entire university departments, charities, and educational programs as well. Seeing corporations jumping into bed with public health initiatives should raise suspicion. It is essentially putting the wolf in charge of the sheep.
Just last year the Centre for Obesity Research and Education (CORE) – a department of Monash University – published a study that found lap-banding procedures were appropriate interventions for obese teenagers as young as 14. What they didn’t reveal, however, was that the study was funded by Allergan, Australia’s largest manufacturer of lap-banding products. In mid-2010, Allergan sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market lap bands to US teens after sponsoring clinical trials, essentially opening up the global teenage market for profit. Read more>>
What to do if you think your child is ‘overweight’
Julie Parker over at Beautiful You, has some good advice for parents who may be concerned about their child’s weight. You can read it here.
BodyMatters: a health-based, not weight-based approach to eating and wellness.
One of the privileges of the cause I’m engaged in is that I get to work with some of the best women in the world. Women who are passionate, bright, engaging, outspoken and fun to be with. In the past year I’ve come to know Sarah McMahon and Lydia Turner. I can’t recall exactly how it happened but pretty much from the moment we met, I knew we’d be working closely together. And that’s what happened. I was just starting to build a new grassroots movement against the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls. It was coming together in an organic way, with women I knew and women I didn’t, coming together to form what is now known as Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.
Sarah and Lydia are young psychologists specialising in eating disorder treatment and prevention. While ‘picking up the pieces’ at the clinical end, they came to feel that more needed to be done to address the culturally based harms being caused to the women and girls they were treating: that what was required was a radical overturning of the negative messages directed at women. That’s why they came on board. Sarah and Lydia have been a gift to our growing movement with their evidence-based, compassionate and holistic approach. They have since launched BodyMatters Australasia, an idea whose times has well and truly come.
I thought you might like to get to know them more, so here’s my recent interview with them.
Sarah and Lydia, why did you decide to launch BodyMatters Australasia? What will BodyMatters do?
We have had the misfortune of being touched personally by clinical eating disorders and through this experience became aware of the chronic insufficiency of service and support in the Australasian region for sufferers, their family members and friends. Both of us had decided to undertake education to qualify ourselves to “make a difference” in this area. By chance we met at a conference about five years ago, and within no time began spending many days conjuring up ideas about the things we strongly believed needed to be done to eradicate the problem. Together we now have over 10 years of combined study and clinical experience within the field of disordered eating. Our qualifications extend across the disciplines of psychology, nutrition, gender studies, sexual health and public health.
Studying eating disorders made us aware of how much our culture normalizes- and actively encourages- problematic eating behaviours. We realised early on that the behaviours prescribed as solutions to those labeled ‘obese,’ were often the same behaviours we as practitioners were diagnosing in those with clinical eating disorders. It seemed rather unhelpful to view ourselves as existing in the midst of an ‘obesity epidemic;’ instead, we found it more accurate to describe what we are really experiencing as an epidemic of disordered eating. Disordered eating includes those with clinical eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, those who sit far above their natural body weight due to unhealthy eating practices, and also those who exist in between those extremes who experience various degrees of body shame and unhealthy weight loss practices which significantly compromises their health and wellbeing.
At the moment, estimates of disordered eating within the Australasian community are unknown. When we look at estimates suggesting that over 3 million Australians are currently ‘obese,’ we have to keep in mind that not all people who are ‘obese’ are that way because of problematic eating patterns and poor lifestyle choices. There are multiple pathways into ‘obesity,’ for example, some patients who experience bipolar disorder may find their medication leads to significant increase in weight gain. It can be very difficult for them, having to choose between sanity and fatness, largely due to social stigma and size discrimination. So statistics reflecting rates of ‘obesity’ do not accurately reflect rates of disordered eating and poor lifestyle choices. ‘Obesity’ involves a complex interaction often including the role of genetics, epigenetics, social, psychological, physiological, and environmental factors. When we look at clinical eating disorders, it is clear that a high incidence exists, with one study identifying anorexia nervosa as the third most common disease in females in Australia. Despite compelling statistics highlighting the extent of clinical eating disorders, their incidence is under reported.
The relationship between obesity and clinical eating disorders remains complex as the risk factors for clinical eating disorders include elevated body mass and dieting, rendering those who are obese or overweight at significant risk of developing clinical eating disorders if they diet for weight loss. Other research has identified overlapping risk factors for both obesity and clinical eating disorders- such as dieting, media use, body image dissatisfaction and weight-related teasing. Similarly, many people who experience obesity engage in disordered eating of sorts. Ultimately this suggests a strong, complex relationship between obesity and clinical eating disorders. Yet despite attempts to address these problems from a public health perspective, both obesity and clinical eating disorders continue to escalate.
We formed BodyMatters Australasia in recognition of the paucity of services that exist to address our current epidemic of disordered eating. At BodyMatters we provide a range of prevention and treatment services that fully integrate the spectrum of disordered eating behaviours that includes clinical eating disorders, unhealthy weight loss practices, ‘obesity,’ and body shame. Our services include counselling and treatment, education and training, advocacy and prevention, as well as consultancy. We are proud to say that soon we will be rolling out the world’s first successful long-term eating disorders prevention programme, which has been shown to reduce multiple risk factors in the development of eating disorders in teenagers, even after two years! We also operate within a health based paradigm – as opposed to a weight based paradigm – which for many people experiencing disordered eating and body shame often comes as a relief. Our approach is supported by an emerging body of research and we are particularly excited about what we are offering, given that there is currently no other clinic like BodyMatters within the Australasian region.
Ultimately our aim is to move into advocacy. Soon we hope to launch a non-profit advocacy group called BodyUnion, which will be funded in part, by BodyMatters Australasia.
In your years of clinical practice, what have you observed is having the most negative impact on young women in particular? Are these things getting worse?
Without a doubt, the bombardment of a thin ideal across a whole variety of mediums, which completely normalises what, for most, is not healthy. Of course this promotes dieting, which is the biggest risk factor for the development of disordered eating. This is further exacerbated by our fat phobic culture and scaremongering surrounding our current “obesity epidemic”, which links fatness to moral weakness such as laziness, slothfulness and greed.
We believe that when a culture actively promotes and normalises body hatred, we can expect an epidemic of disordered eating. How can people nourish and nurture their bodies in such a hostile environment? Upholding thinness as the only way to be healthy and beautiful is incredibly damaging to young women – we need to start recognising that body diversity is an issue of human rights and a range of body sizes normal within any given population. From the research it seems that women who are happiest with the way they look are more likely to commit to exercise and health-giving behaviours over time.
It is a common myth that if we shame people about their bodies (particularly about being ‘fat’), it will motivate them to adopt a healthy lifestyle. In fact the research just does not support this. What we do know is that body dissatisfaction is a significant predictor of sedentary behaviour and long term weight gain. When people are shamed about the size of their bodies, they are less likely to commit to exercise, often because they don’t want to be seen in public. Stigma and discrimination are some of the biggest predictors of mental and physical health problems, and the application of these to size is no exception.
You’ve been scathing of the current approach to ‘weight loss’ (including on my blog). Why have you taken such a hard line?
Weight loss is a multi-billion dollar industry. Currently there is much money invested in promoting a ‘thin-at-all-costs’ approach to health. About 95% of research in the field of obesity is funded by private industry – including pharmaceutical giants that stand to profit from convenient research findings. That’s a massive conflict of interest! We recently attended the inaugural Obesity Summit in Sydney where professor after professor declared ‘conflicts of interest’ with weight loss corporations before presenting their research. One prominent professor confessed that he sat on the board of Reductil, Australia’s most popular weight loss drug, so it was no surprise that his findings supported a lifetime’s prescription of diet pills to maintain weight loss!
Corporations that stand to profit from weight loss and the promotion of a thin ideal are not only funding research, but entire university departments. Take for example The Centre for Obesity Research and Education (CORE), a department of Monash University. It is funded by Allergan, Australia’s largest manufacturer of gastric banding products. Allergan also manufactures botox and implants. How unsurprising, then, that a recent research study put out by CORE found that 14 year old girls are suitable candidates for gastric banding. It seems that gastric banding is increasingly becoming a cosmetic procedure –whilst its efficacy levels are still dubious over the long term and its (often permanent) consequences minimised. CORE does not even adhere to the recommended guidelines for bariatric surgery, operating on bodies that sit far below the recommended cut-off of BMI starting levels for bariatric surgery.
It seems that there is a vested interest in promoting conflicting, confusing, and ineffective weight loss approaches to health. If you can convince people that their bodies are ‘ticking time bombs,’ abnormal, repulsive, and then sell them weight loss solutions that don’t work, you’ll be laughing your way to the bank. Many weight loss companies deliberately adopt the line “we’re not a diet” when in fact they are, and it’s clear that diets don’t work. Yet what most people are unaware of is that adopting healthy eating behaviours and healthy lifestyle approaches don’t necessarily lead to thinness or weight loss either. It is increasingly recognised that non surgical weight loss approaches carry a 98% failure rate after 2-5 years. Anyone can lose weight, but what happens after the after photo? This statistic was recognised at both The Australian New Zealand Obesity Society Conference (2009) and the inaugural Obesity Summit (2010). Surgical interventions have shown somewhat longer term weight loss sustainability but with numerous health complications – many of which are permanent. It seems that Australians today are putting in the efforts to lose weight, but the weight loss solutions are not working – and many are actually causing harm.
The problem with dieting is that it actually puts people at significant risk of weight cycling, binge-eating, and future weight gain. Weight cycling itself has been demonstrated to be significantly more harmful than maintaining a higher but steady weight. The answer to our epidemic of disordered eating requires us to encourage health-giving behaviours, rather than focus on weight. The health-based paradigm establishes health as an ongoing, multidimensional process that involves psychological, physical, intellectual, spiritual, and social aspects. Health requires us to look beyond the number on the scale. Many people have relied on Body Mass Index (BMI) to inform them as to whether or not they are healthy, but in fact the research is clear that BMI is not an accurate indicator or measure of health.
I wonder why taking a health-based rather than weight-based approach to eating and wellbeing is considered progressive? Isn’t it obvious that this would be the best approach?
You would think so! However because so much research into eating and wellbeing is compromised or biased due to funding and researchers being tied to the weight loss and pharmaceutical industries in some way, most Australians have never heard of a non weight-based approach to health. There is a significant conflict of interest in ‘obesity research.’ Some would go so far as to call the field ‘Obesity Inc.’ This is further exacerbated by research into a health-based paradigm being limited – perhaps due to academic prejudice, politics, and difficulty in obtaining research grants for independent research -resulting in limited representation of the health-based paradigm in peer reviewed journals and ultimately positioning it as an approach to be overlooked. And of course we cannot overlook the billions of dollars per year- in the diet industry, beauty industry, and even medical industry- put into maintaining a weight-based approach to eating and well being.
Are you hopeful you can replace the entrenched ‘thin ideal’ for acceptance of the fact that you can be healthy regardless of size?
It is important to recognize that the research does show that health becomes compromised at statistical extremes. People who are at the statistically extreme ends of thinness or fatness are likely to be unhealthy, regardless of the reasons that led their bodies to exist in that condition. If one’s body size is at such an extreme state that they are unable to participate in health-giving behaviours, such as going for a walk, then they are likely to experience health problems. However, having said that, the range of body sizes and weights that people can exist at and still be healthy is incredibly diverse – and not restricted to current notions of BMI.
The size- diversity movement in other parts of the world (such as the USA and the UK) has started to make progress in terms of challenging the “thin ideal.” This means challenging the idea that ‘thinness’ is the only way to be beautiful and the ultimate indication of health. This is very promising. However the Australiasian community poses some unique challenges. Firstly, there currently is no organised size diversity movement in Australia- which is one thing we hope to coordinate ourselves. There is no doubt this will be a huge undertaking with our fat phobic culture! Furthermore, the thin ideal in Asia is particularly concerning and public health interventions that are mandated by the government very much attempt to prescribe an “anorexic mindset” in the population, by attaching shame to fatness and dictating a very rigid relationship with food and exercise. Despite these challenges we are hopeful that with education and understanding, as well as a bit of coordination, there will be increased community understanding that you can indeed be healthy at your natural body weight- whatever that might be.
Here’s a video interview with Sarah and Lydia:
See also ”Fat Acceptance: Meet the self-esteem warriors”, by Elizabeth @SpiltMilk published by Australian Women Online
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