Unless you’ve been under a rock, you probably know that the media was a-buzz this week when humiliation reality show Biggest Loser crowned its Season 15 grand prize winner, a 24-year old woman who lost a staggering 60% of her body weight. During the live broadcast, trainers Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper were caught on camera with looks of shock as Rachel Frederickson stepped out on the stage. Her cheeks might not be sunken in but to me, I think she has that anorexic look to her face.
She lost 155 lbs from her starting weight of 260 lbs. She is now 105 lbs at 5’4″ tall. (Information after the controversy erupted added an inch to her height.) As far as I can find from available information, Frederickson lost the highest percentage of weight in the history of the show. The previous record holder was actually a woman whose loss is close to Frederickson’s. Winning at 47, Helen Phillips remains the oldest Biggest Loser winner of the grand prize. She dropped from 257 lbs to 117 lbs for a percentage loss of 54%. But at a reported 5’6″, Phillips looked very slim when she won but did not have quite the nearly-anorexic look of the current winner/loser.
In an interview with E! after the show, Frederickson gushed, “I got my life back. I got that confident, proud, ‘I love myself’ girl.” Well, we know that Biggest Loser makes sure no one who is very overweight could feel any pride in themselves.
Biggest Loser contestants spend 12 weeks on the “ranch” where they allow the trainers to humiliate and beat up on them in between pimping for show sponsors. The finalists have 90 days at home before they return to see who will take the $250,000 grand prize. So Rachel Frederickson lost 60% of her body weight in about six months. As a woman and at her height, this is a truly shocking feat. But she did have a bit of an advantage over other contestants. She is a woman who has not dealt with overweight throughout her life, in fact she was a high school athlete. She gave up sports in college and experienced a lifestyle change. She is now just 24 years old; her body has not carried extra weight for more than a few years and she grew up in an average weight range.
It still remains that the only way Rachel Frederickson could get herself down to 105 lbs, in any timeframe really, would be through extreme means. Did she starve herself during those three months? Work out obsessively? Has to be both. And she may have done what many finalists have admitted to doing—seriously dehydrating themselves in the few days before the finale weigh in. Why did she do it? A quarter million dollars and the seductive lure of reality show notoriety can be more than enough incentive for many people to take dangerous risks.
In the days following the finale, some came to Frederickson’s defense by pointing out that her average loss per week didn’t seem that severe. But what she did was definitely extreme. Anyone who has worked at losing a large amount of weight knows that as your bodyweight drops, weight loss slows down. There can be no debate that Frederickson IS underweight at 105 lbs. The body has to be forced into that state. When a low bodyfat percentage is reached, the body will fight back hard, the female body especially as women naturally carry more bodyfat than men. Frederickson CLEARLY pushed herself into a state where lowering the number on the scale would have meant the cannibalization of lean muscle tissue. At this point, I would also not be surprised if she has stopped menstruating or at the very least, her cycle has become irregular.
Biggest Loser has solidified a paradigm that fat people are damaged and weak and must redeem themselves through extreme weight loss. Dropping “big numbers” and inducing severe exhaustion are the path to reclaiming one’s lost identity and will, finding strength, and healing all the pain of the past that “made” them fat. The finale episode this week featured a montage of contestants vomiting in the gym. Weekly weigh ins that are less than a trainer expects will invite derision and even taunting. A five pound loss in a week can be considered underperforming if a trainer thinks a contestant should be dropping double digits.
And for all the window dressing that Biggest Loser is “changing lives,” it must be acknowledged that at its base, it is nothing more than an elimination-based competition reality show that pushes contestants to abuse their bodies for a huge cash prize and a shot at media attention.
If we’re going to be shocked by Rachel Frederickson, I think we should wonder why it hasn’t happened sooner.