Photo from The Huffington Post.This past July, a colleague and I published an article in the journal, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health. Our impetus for this particular research project was to try and see how viewers of The Biggest Loser make sense of the reality show and the information promoted by it. We chose season 14 because the show chose to include child ambassadors into the mix, which brought about a lot of criticism. We had expected a lot of discussion via Twitter about the inclusion of children in a show (and genre) based on public shame and humiliation, but actually found that very few people seemed to care about the kids, at least via Twitter. Nonetheless, we did find it interesting that Twitter became a type of electronic confessional for viewers of The Biggest Loser, which became the main crux of the article. It was actually quite disturbing to see what kind of information people would divulge to “strangers” and to see the desperate calls for help from some viewers. Even though we like hope that viewers understand that television is entertainment, first and foremost, it became apparent that The Biggest Loser has situated itself as a promoter of health and that many people buy it hook, line and sinker. In an attempt to increase the accessibility of academic research I have included excerpts from the article below:
Photo from People.com
Confessions have become ubiquitous in contemporary society. Reality television, tabloid magazines and best-selling memoirs, all make confession appear as a natural act even though ‘no matter how celebrated [confession] is as freely given, it is seen as fundamentally compelled by modern culture’ (Levy-Navarro 2012, p. 341). The Biggest Loser (TBL) reality weight-loss show represents one such avenue for publi- cally mediated confessions. It markets itself as a competition that helps ‘obese’ indi- viduals ‘transform their lives’ (NBC n.d.) through exercise and diet modification. The show becomes a televised confessional for contestants, whereby participants are asked to reveal personal information, reflect on their struggles with weight and express general disgust, disappointment and/or hope about their changing physical state. Interestingly, many viewers seem to take their cue from the contestants and turn to social media to confess their personal health sins, achievements and aspirations. Given that there is a plethora of literature examining neoliberal discourses of health and TBL in particular (e.g. Murray 2008, Ouellette and Hay 2008, Ringrose and Walkerdine 2008, Sender and Sullivan 2008, Francombe and Silk 2012, Rail 2012), the goal of this study is to provide insight into how viewers of TBL make sense of and engage with the information (re)produced by the televi- sion show. The social media platform, Twitter, was observed to serve as a contemporary health confessional. This study is unique in its methods and aims to make sense of how the ‘obesity epidemic’ may be internalised by viewers through consumption of TBL. By using Twitter as an arena for exploration, the authors were able to observe how the discursive practices (re)produced by the show were consumed and reproduced by viewers in an unobtrusive and voluntary manner. The authors provide insight into how and why viewers of TBL are compelled to confess their personal diet/exercise-related sins, challenges and redemptions to the show (and others) via Twitter. This analysis elaborates on the proposition that television operates as a powerful public pedagogy and a useful cultural technology to create productive citizens (Ouellette and Hay 2008).
The Biggest Loser and discourses of obesity
Reality television has become a staple of the entertainment industry having gained cultural caché alongside the growth of broader neoliberal practices such as meritoc- racy, privatisation and changing notions of citizenship (Ouellette 2004). They have become sites for civic experimentation by ‘testing, refining and sharpening people’s abilities to conduct themselves in accordance with the new demands being placed on them’ (Ouellette and Hay 2008, p. 472). Nicholas Rose (1999) refers to this shift from a society that is governed to one in which individuals govern themselves for the purpose of self-realisation as ‘responsibilization’. Hence, while reality television gives the appearance of triviality, McCarthy (2007) argues that it is actually ‘preoc- cupied with the government of the self, and how, in that capacity, it demarcates a zone for the production of everyday discourses of citizenship’ (p. 17). As a result, it is as a manifestation of cultural neoliberalism that we must analyse the world of reality television and makeover shows, such as TBL, as sites that normalise surveil- lance (Palmer 2002, Andrejevic 2004, Couldry 2008) underneath a veneer of enter- tainment and meritocracy. This study builds on previous reality-based television studies by venturing into audience engagement through the use of social media.
Confessions and the bio-citizenThe concept of the bio-citizen is rooted in the Athenian politics of Ancient Greece whereby one’s private life and the well-being of the community were inextricably linked; consequently, private matters, such as individual health, became open for public consumption. Bio-citizenship signals a conscious contribution to community well-being. ‘The “good” citizen is therefore an “active” citizen, and active citizenship is the means by which one both commits to and becomes immersed in and part of the social world of a community’ (Halse 2009, p. 50). For Foucault, social mala- dies such as poverty become issues of ‘self-care’; therefore, within a neoliberal society, the effect of free will is that so-called consequences such as obesity are ‘borne by the subject alone’ (Lemke 2001, p. 201). Bio-citizenship represents one extension of power within Foucault’s larger theory of biopolitics, which is a method of ration- alised population control (Foucault 1997). Biopolitics enables institutions to draw socially constructed lines around what is deemed ‘normal’ behaviour, health, achievement, etc. forcing individuals to regulate themselves; it is a ‘set of mecha- nisms through which the basic biological features of the human species [becomes] the object of a political strategy’ (Foucault 2007, p. 1).
Seeking salvation: exomologêsis
Foucault (1993) explains confession as an expression of the will and a method of liberation from ‘his own flesh’ (p. 214). Those tweeting salvation-oriented tweets, in reference to Foucault’s technology of the self, were categorised within exomologêsis, a form of disclosure recognising the sin and acknowledging that the self is marked as different. The following tweets were all reflections of one’s failure as a productive bio-citizen and sought, as explained by Rail and Lafrance (2009), ‘relief from the weight of their waywardne
ss’ (p. 76).
Many tweets revealed the individual’s current weight, which suggests the very basis of exomologêsis – the recognition of sin – which shows the ‘sinner as he is’ (Foucault 1988a, p. 42).
@biggestlosernbc I love this show!!! 3 years ago I weighed 760 pounds … In the past 3 years I have lost a total of 300 pounds!!! Yeah baby!
Foucault (1988a) has pointed out the paradox of exomologêsis in that ‘it rubs out the sin and yet reveals the sinner’ (p. 42). In other words, one must be marked a sin- ner before redemption can be found, which one viewer aptly reflected as:
#BiggestLoser The only show that can inspire you & make you feel like a piece of shitt [sic] at the same time.
Some viewers confessed how much they have weighed in order to motivate others, which suggests a method of penance and of forming a separation with their past selves (Foucault 1988a):
how far will u let urself go, eg #biggestloser contestants, before u have enough to change ur life? I was 185lbs @ 5’7” in 2005. not purdy.
The ‘not purdy’ comment in this tweet suggests fat shaming by the individual and provides insight into how some individuals may internalise the ‘obesity epidemic’. This particular paradox presented through exomologêsis liberates the confessor but it simultaneously reinforces confinement of the fat body (Levy-Navarro 2012). Both of the above tweets that include their former weights reify the notion that fatness is socially unacceptable and detestable. It is here that we witness how the Obesity Clinic may invite people to their capture and regulation.
Not all forms of exomologêsis were confessions of weight but were similarly confessions of abnormality and/or abjection:
I wana [sic] be on the biggest loser tired of being the fat kid #biggestloser #sadfatkid #imaloser.
The ‘abject’ (Kristeva 1982, p. 13) threatens life and the self; hence, it must be rejected and eliminated. In the tweet above, the fat body that makes her feel sad and like a loser is represented as abject. Butler (1993) has described the abject as ‘unin- habitable’ (p. 3); therefore, the fat body becomes an uninhabitable environment. The abject also incites a desire to change the self (Ringrose and Walkerdine 2008):
My wake up call? When my arm couldn’t even fit in the blood pressure machine at the store. Help me, @biggestlosernbc. I need you.
This particular tweet embodies Foucault’s (1993) notion that ‘[t]he punishment of oneself and the voluntary expression of oneself are bound together’ (p. 214). Voluntary confession is necessary in Foucault’s (1993) ‘model of martyrdom’ (p. 215) where the confessor can only be redeemed if he/she is exposed for all to witness. Revelation is also a form of self-destruction; hence, pleas for help via Twitter symbolize a verbal distancing between the ‘old self’ and the ‘true self’.
Foucault (1988b) expressed that to care for one’s self was to ‘know one’s self … and to improve one’s self, to surpass one’s self, to master the appetites that risk engulfing you’ (p. 5). The following tweet reflects this notion of being engulfed in the sins associated with obesity:
@biggestlosernbc @MyTrainerBob @dolvett @JillianMichaels @ Ali_Sweeney im a mom of 3, an [sic] married. Ive overcome addiction. I want 2 overcome food.
This tweet suggests how confessions may be ‘driven from [their] hiding place in the soul or extracted from the body’ (Foucault 1978, p. 59). Linder (2011) has observed that the fat body is consistently rejected as a distortion of one’s ‘true’ self. Similarly, Foucault (1993) contends that self-examination and confession have historically been used as techniques to expose ‘the truth about oneself’ (p. 205). If we accept the notion that health and fitness experts have the ability to ‘set the parameters for redemption’ (Dworkin and Wachs 2009, p. 13), we can observe through these tweets how viewers of TBL are compelled to disclose their sins and volunteer their own capture.
Halse (2009) also unpacks how docile citizens internalise the responsibility ‘to care for oneself in order to care for one’s offspring and family – including any unborn children’ (p. 52). She argues that ‘recalcitrant parents who fail to control their own weight and that of their children leave themselves open to being ridiculed, blamed and decried as “bad parents”’ (Halse 2009, p. 52). Presumably, prompted by the child ambassadors in season 14, a number of parents confessed their parenting ‘sins’ with the hope of redemption:
@biggestlosernbc I need help with my 10 yr old son. I have tried and old habits come back. He is about 170. Please help. Scared for his health.
In this tweet, we can almost sense the shame for ‘allowing’ his child to become ‘obese’. Yet, arguably these pleas for help still represent good bio-citizens because they have recognised the error of their ways and now seek salvation, for both parent and child. Here, both the child and parent are marked as sinners.
These tweets illustrate how certain individuals experience the Obesity Clinic by facilitating their own capture, and sometimes the capture of their children. Perhaps, more significantly, these confessions ‘tell us of the place that the fat person is made to occupy in our culture’ (Levy-Navarro 2012, p. 346). We observe in the tweets that, as far as exomologêsis is concerned, the notion of subjects as abnormal bodies is generally accepted and problematically reproduced for other bodies.
Each episode generated at least a few tweets that challenged the information pro- duced by the show. Admittedly, these were vastly outnumbered by the tweets praising the show as a source of inspiration and admiration but for Foucault (1991) there can be no power without resistance. To think outside normative discourses is ‘by definition, to be mad, to be beyond comprehension and therefore reason’ (Hook 2001, p. 522), particularly since the most dominant discourses ground themselves in the illusion of nature and science. Yet, in this section, the authors explore the resistance observed, which tackled many different aspects of the show. Some questioned the structure of the show realising that eliminating contestants as punishment was counter to the overall goal of assisted weight loss. Others challenged the content of the show such as the dramatic value of contestants exercising until the point of vomiting or, similar to the astute viewer below, some compared the information promoted against the formatting of the show:
If 3/5th-to-2/3rds of weight loss is diet, how come 3/5ths-to-2/3rds of @big- gestlosernbc isn’t in the kitchen?
Arguably, the simple answer to her question is that it is more entertaining to watch people workout out than learn to cook, but it is a valid question that challenges the validity of combining entertainment and competition in the form of ‘edutainment’. The competition structure also frames significant weight loss as often disappointing because it is not enough to help the team or keep the person in contention, which consequently creates unrealistic expectations for viewers:
Since when is 6-lb #weight loss in 1-week a ‘disappointment’ …?! #BL14 #biggestloser
If anything, that’s too much!
The episode that received the most resistance via Twitter during season 14 was the
one that focused on how to eat healthy on a budget:
@biggestlosernbc what if a family of 5 doesn’t have $1500 a month for groceries? Your eating healthy on a budget segment was very lacking.
You can when you’re poor. RT@BL11Olivia It might cost a little more to buy fresh food but you can’t put a price on health! #biggestloser
A number of tweets expressed that the budget ($75 per person/week) and tips pro- vided by the show were incongruent with their own lived experiences. The last tweet was a response to a statement tweeted by a former contestant from season 11, Olivia Ward. Though Ward argues that good health is essentially priceless, a viewer coun- ters by explaining that for those in lower economic classes health actually has a very precise price. Class dynamics seemed to resonate as a patterned and tangible barrier to healthy living with many viewers, while no tweets pointed to other contributing social factors such as gender and/or race. In future, exploring how gender, race and other identity markers are taken up with respect to obesity discourses would help further contextualise these observations.
Additionally, the authors had anticipated more resistance from viewers about the child ambassadors; however, it was observed that most viewers applauded TBL, which brought about a few reactions such as:
Can’t believe people are tweeting in SUPPORT of children on the #BiggestLoser! #shocking #stopbiggestloser #haes.
This is one of the few tweets that actually called for an end to the show and promotes the idea of ‘health at every size’ signified by #haes. As we can see, the criticism of TBL came in different forms and touched on a variety of issues. It was encouraging to see such critical engagement via social media, but it highlights the issue that despite being a contentious show that is despised and challenged by many, even more believe that TBL and its personalities are trusted authorities on health and weight loss. Perhaps, this next tweet best summarises the ambivalence felt by some viewers:
@biggestlosernbc I saw that many of your contestants go back to being obese. Why is your program so popular yet unsuccessful? #biggestloser.
This is an observant and reflective thought that illuminates the powerful, problematic and dangerous nature of the Obesity Clinic. The belief that individual diet and exercise modification is the answer continues to perpetuate itself, despite knowledge that even with a host of experts TBL cannot consistently produce sustainable weight loss. Many of the tweets of resistance demonstrate the constraints that are placed on speech and thought (Foucault 1981) because even though some viewers challenged the information and structure of the show, very few challenged the existence of the show itself or its premise. Critical reflection was largely kept at the surface, which arguably protects the Obesity Clinic from having many people ‘look beneath the alibis of creation’ (Hook 2001, p. 531).
To read the full article see:
Szto, C. & Gray, S. (2014). Forgive me Father for I have thinned: Surveilling the bio-citizen through Twitter. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health. doi: 10.1080/2159676X.2014.938245
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