When I was a kid back before the Dawn of Time, Mother and I used to watch an afternoon show called “Queen for a Day.” Every weekday, a series of sad, doughy, exhausted women in worn-out shoes and faded house dresses vied for that coveted title by exposing to the American public the full contents of their grim, dreary lives.
Too many children, too many bills, major illnesses, absent husbands, broken cars, personal disasters — each story brought new gasps from the studio audience. These poor creatures were then judged, I recall, by some sort of applause-o-meter, and each day a new winner was crowned with a tiara and a velvet cape and given an assortment of new appliances and other trinkets to try to make up for their sad circumstances.
It was absolutely ghastly. The only thing worse than being a loser on “Queen for a Day” was being the winner. It was social voyeurism on a national scale, and I now recognize that the main emotion that I felt while watching that show was guilt. Their suffering was my entertainment. Whatever became of those poor souls and their grubby, underfed children?
I have the same uneasy-between-the-shoulder-blades feeling about The Biggest Loser. NBC — and a lot of networks with similar reality programs — have made millions of dollars exploiting the misery and longing for normalcy of the more-than-just-obese. These truly brave people put their egos, health and sometimes their personal safety on the line to satisfy the demands of producers who are after just a few more percentage points in the ratings.
I wince listening to them berate themselves and their former lives, and I’ve wondered how successful the winners have been at keeping off the weight once outside that hermetically sealed POW camp that masquerades as a health club.
The NYTimes over the weekend had a great article summing up the allure of TBL and its sister shows:
Before-and-after television needs a deep reserve of misery, and particularly on weight-loss shows the “before” returns in rhythmic waves of humiliation and self-loathing… The lows drop ever more excruciatingly downward before rising up in a frenzy of exertion, deprivation, extensive weight loss and a new life…
These fat-reduction spectacles are embedded in a mixed message that mirrors a broader cultural clash of appearance and appetite — and our obsession with both. Against a loop of talk shows and made-for-TV dramas about eating disorders, Americans are goaded into ever more drastic and extreme expectations of physical perfection on prime time, while their path is mined with Double Croissan’wich specials at Burger King and Olive Garden “Tour of Italy” triptychs (lasagna, chicken parmigiana and fettuccine Alfredo)…
These plus-size transformations are spellbinding, admirable and even enviable, but they are also teases, making impossible transformations seem just a commitment away. The lonely, self-hating journey of weight loss is turned into an exhilarating and emotionally fulfilling team sport. These programs also dismay advocates from [fat advocacy] groups … who complain that they frame obesity as a character issue or a public-health menace and further stigmatize those who do not conform.
As the Times puts it, TBL “selects alarmingly overweight people and puts them through a Herculean diet and exercise regimen” that few of us out here in the real world would be able — or even want — to duplicate. That some of them who are bounced from the show actually do continue to lose at that unhealthy rate and return to the show is proof of their desperation.
I even object to the ambiguity of the title. Are the biggest losers the winners, or the ones who get voted off? Who really wins in this kind of scenario?
NBC, I suppose. I just hope that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back at this kind of epic, high-definition voyeurism and cringe at the inhumanity of it.