"Biggest Loser" finale: Stunning, uncomfortable

I just watched last night’s “The Biggest Loser” season finale episode. As the confetti, fell I sat staring at the TV feeling stunned and uncomfortable. “The Biggest Loser” producers have a brand new record on their hands, but I doubt it is one they are celebrating, and as a viewer I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming.

If you aren’t familiar with the format of the show, here are the basics. Obese individuals apply to be on the show. The final cast is essentially quarantined on “The Ranch” near Los Angeles, Calif., where they begin an intensive regime of exercise and diet management. Little is shown of the behind-the-scenes support, but it is usually mentioned in one or more episodes that there is a team of health professionals monitoring in the contestant’s throughout their time on the show. Each week the contestants are weighed and ranked according to the percentage of their body weight shed during the previous week. Those with the lowest percentages are in danger of disqualification from the grand prize. At the end of the season, three contestants are eligible for the grand prize of $250,000. Those who were eliminated before the finale are all in the running for a $100,000 prize.

Last night’s season 15 finale concluded — and social media exploded — when green contestant, 24-year-old Rachel, set a brand new record. In previous seasons many have lost over 50 percent of their starting weight but last night, for the first time ever a contestant lost 60 percent of their body weight during the course of the show. Amazing as these numbers are, what really set the Twitterverse ablaze was her actual weight. From her starting weight of 260 pounds Rachel registered only 105 on the finale scale.

As soon as she stepped on to the stage, those deep parenthetical creases framing Rachel’s enormous smile set my mental red flags waving. I could seen my own concern spelled out on the faces of celebrity trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. When her 105 pound weight was revealed, I don’t think I was alone in opening a web browser to calculate her potential BMI.

I have read a few articles this afternoon that disagree on Rachel’s height. In her blog post, Eliana Dockterman of Time Magazine reported her height at 5 foot 4 inches, while Today.com contributor Ashley Majeski says 5 foot 5 inches. Either way, her BMI falls somewhere between 17.5 – 18. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a normal/healthy BMI is between 18.5 – 24.9. Last night when Rachel entered “The Biggest Loser” record book as THE biggest loser, she also took the title of first underweight contestant in the show’s history.

I’ve watched the show for a few years. My attitude thus far has been to shrug the extreme results off as grand standing. On more than a few occasions I have yelled back at the TV when I think creative editing fails to highlight their extreme approach to weight loss. Sure, everybody loves a montage, but in real life a hard day doesn’t fit neatly into a Top 40 pop song. It is all warm and fuzzy to see the follow up with eliminated contestants who continued to lose weight and began sharing their new found healthy lifestyle with their family and community. I drank the Kool-aid and watched the show through the rosy lens of my own experience. Even as I scoffed at the intensity of the workouts, I, like so many others, internalized the message that weight loss and healthy choices equals a longer happier life. For some reason I never connected the prize money to the contestants’ weight loss… until today.

The network television line-up is packed with shows where people put their bodies in extreme situations to achieve fame and potential fortune. Remember “Fear Factor”? Yikes! After watching the finale episode today, I asked myself what I would be willing to do for a quarter of a million dollars. Within the context of a competition, would I be willing to endure light-headedness, fuzzy mental process, hair loss, dry skin and all the other side effects of continuing to lose weight beyond the point of good health? The honest answer is yes.

I have no way to know if Rachel experienced the symptoms described above. I do know that I have experienced those feelings at my lowest weight and it triggered a serious reality check.

I sincerely wish each and every participant of the show well. I know what it is to be severely overweight and how hard it is to make the changes needed to lose that amount of weight. I can’t imagine the added difficulty of a camera crew ready to capture your most vulnerable moments while regaining control over life. I hope this moment triggers a serious reality check for NBC and the producers of “The Biggest Loser.” It has been said repeatedly on the show, good health is about balance. Perhaps the pendulum on this highly rated scale has swung too far, it may be time to change how the prize is awarded and implement a disqualification clause for taking things too far.

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