“Biggest Loser” Ethics: “They Shoot Fat People, Don’t They?”

Lawyers being lawyers, it is not surprising that a New York Times article about the unhealthy physical stresses endured by contestants in the “Biggest Loser” reality show inspired a legal blog to wonder how long it would be before the show was hit with a large law suit. “I’m waiting for the first person to have a heart attack,” THR, ESQ quotes  Dr. Charles Burant, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, as saying. The core problem is not liability, however. The problem is that the show is horribly, indefensibly unethical. It shouldn’t be waiting for a lawsuit, or a heart attack. The program is wrong to continue, advertisers are wrong to support it, and we are wrong to watch it.Strip away all the rationalizations (“We’re helping people reclaim their lives;” “We’re inspiring over-weight Americans;” “These people make their own choices,”  “Being so fat is a risk too” etc.), and what you have is the 21st Century equivalent of dance marathons, where desperate people risked the consequences  of exhaustion, dehydration and stress to win cash during the depression, while their suffering served as entertainment for onlookers. Using money to lure the desperate, the fame-obsessed, or the desperately fame-obsessed into humiliating or unhealthy behavior for TV cameras is standard fare for reality shows.  In “My Big, Obnoxious Fiancé,” a woman won cash by subjecting her entire family to a weeks-long practical joke of terrible cruelty, convincing them she was about to marry the most disgusting man on earth. The producers of “The Anna Nicole Show” gave a boozy, dazed, fat and mentally challenged former sex-symbol money to let herself be filmed living a boozy, dazed, mentally challenged existence. “The Swan” induced poor women with low self-esteem to allow themselves to undergo painful and dangerous surgery to transform themselves into Stepford beauty contest competitors. All of these were dangerous to varying degrees and irresponsible by any measure, but as the Times article illustrates, none equal dangling thousands of dollars to make grossly over-weight people engage in a weight loss competition.

Contestants use extreme measures to lose up to fifteen pounds a week,. Doctors advise against losing more than about two pounds a week, because losing more can cause weakening of the heart, irregular heartbeats and potentially fatal reductions in potassium and electrolytes. These contestants are motivated—-dangerously motivated. They don’t want to fail at their big chance to be winners and popular; they want the cash prize; they want to be beautiful, and they want to be loved. The show depends on the same psychology that makes teenage girls anorexic.

It is just luck, and only luck, that none of the 300 and 400 pound competitors have dropped dead from the rigors of the show. On the first episode of the this season, two contestants were hospitalized for heat stroke after collapsing during a race. They signed a release agreeing that “no warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals who examine me or perform any procedures on me in connection with my participation in the series, or their ability to diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series.” Translation: “You’re on your own.”

It is simple, really. Paying desperate people to humiliate or endanger themselves for the entertainment and enrichment of others is unethical. Let’s call it “the Red Buttons Rule,” for the spunky actor in the role of the sailor whose heart explodes while he’s trying to win the dance marathon in “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” Everyone who supports such “entertainment” is complicit in the inevitable tragedies that result.

If you don’t want to see that heart attack, stop watching the show. If enough people do that, there won’t be any heart attacks.

5 thoughts on ““Biggest Loser” Ethics: “They Shoot Fat People, Don’t They?”

  1. I’ve watched the show periodically since it started, until I can’t stand it any more. I have little patience for the weigh-ins. AND I cherry pick examples. I also watch the slightly less objectionable “Celebrity Fit Club,” where the show simply feeds fame addiction rather than using cash to make contestants risk their lives.

    • Doctors advise against losing more than about two pounds a week

      I argue this point because 2 pounds for a 110 pound woman is different than 2 pounds for a 474 pound woman. 1.8% vs. .42% weight loss. This advice needs to be qualified.

      I further argue that however you qualify it, it is still (Doctors)’s advice. Never gotten a 2nd opinion? I’m not talking about getting a 2nd person to repeat what the 1st person said.

      What it comes down to is that they do consult with medical professionals on this show. A tremendous amount more than what is shown.

      Contestants use extreme measures to lose up to fifteen pounds a week.

      You start a paragraph using this line…and then fail to disclose what those “extreme measures” are. I’m not sure what show you’ve seen, but the episodes I’ve seen espouse extreme measures such as proper nutrition education, mental health, physical health, and financial health. The education these participants received illustrate that you can’t use “extreme measures” to have weight loss. As a high school wrestler, I know you can use extreme measures to “Cut Weight” but to have actual “Weight Loss”, you need something else entirely.

      They signed a release agreeing that “no warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals who examine me or perform any procedures on me in connection with my participation in the series, or their ability to diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series.” Translation: “You’re on your own.”

      So now you are taking a legal release form, which was designed for the purpose of limiting liability in a country in desperate need of Tort Reform, and citing that as evidence that they are unethical?

      The medical treatment they have shown the participants receiving has amazed me. It would be unethical if the show actually employed Dr. Nick of Simpson’s fame as their doctor. He would be woe-fully inadequate. They employee teams of trainers, nutritionists, paramedics, & medical professionals. Some are employed on site and TBL has more discretion in that instance. But case in point was the 1st day race where a participant collapsed. I can’t say definitively, but I would wager that TBL registered it as an event and requested general “paramedics” to be on hand.

      They weren’t hand picked celebrity paramedics who were certified as best-in-class by NBC Universal. No. They were general paramedics that were retained to be present in case a medical malady occurred. Heat Stroke. Heart Attack. Scraped Knee.

      It is simple, really. Paying desperate people to humiliate or endanger themselves for the entertainment and enrichment of others is unethical.

      I fully agree. But that statement doesn’t describe The Biggest Loser as it pertains to “humiliate”. As for “endanger”, that statement more closely applies to Cirque du Solei, the Circus, Moto-Cross, NASCAR, etc…. We can find danger in anything we do, even when what we do is nothing.

      I would have quoted more of your article to defend The Biggest Loser, but that’s all you wrote. The rest was directed (appropriately so) at other reality television of which I can not stand. I feel like I am a litmus test for reality shows. If I can stand to watch it, it must be something worth watching. So far there are only 3. The Biggest Loser, The Ultimate Fighter, and Extreme Makeover Home Edition.

  2. Tim: I’m glad to have a “Biggest Loser” fan on board to take its side, BUT…I’d argue that making weight-loss into a competition with a large cash award is per se unethical. If only health is the objective, then there is no deadline and is no urgency, other than to do it safely and successfully. But the competition gives the show its plot line, and that means that the staff has a conflict of interest…which is really what the form the contestants sign waives. That form gives the show (or so they think) license to be irresponsible. Is it irresponsible? I have thought so from the beginning, from the first time I watched it. This is why the Times article and reaction to it sparked my interest.
    Apparently the producers now admit the one mile race was a mistake, but really: did they need the two collapses to tell them that? I couldn’t believe the show would make contestants take such a risk—it seemed so obviously wrong and dangerous. But I guess when you’re thinking about ratings….

    They had doctors at the dance marathons too. I’m not convinced.

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