Content Warning: Fat shaming, disordered eating, verbal abuse
Fat shaming takes many different forms and is everywhere – from blatant insults to shaming thinly veiled as concern about someone’s health. No matter its form, fat shaming creates and perpetuates harmful cycles of self-hatred, poor body image, and unhealthy diet and exercise habits. Jillian Michaels has built her career on fat-shaming and profiting off of dangerous, unhealthy habits.
If you’re reading this, I’m sure you heard about her comments this week on Lizzo’s weight, which she then backpedaled on to use as false concern about Lizzo’s health, citing that obesity creates higher risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. OK, well since we are so concerned about people’s health, let’s talk about the health problems Jillian’s approach in The Biggest Loser, which has contributed to her ~$14 million net worth (source), creates.
Before we even dig into the physical problems created by excessive calorie restriction and exercise, let’s talk about her brand of “coaching” and “encouragement.”
- “I don’t care if people die on this floor. You better die looking good.”
- “I don’t care if one of your legs fall off or if one of your lungs explode.”
- “The only way you’re coming off this treadmill is if you die on it.”
- “Unless you puke, faint or die, keep going.”
And let’s just generally mention the screaming and name-calling from the show as well.
Sounds like a coach you’re itching to work with, right?
You may say those things were just stunts for the show to increase viewership, but you’re taking all of this in complete isolation, which is not how it occurs. When you are already struggling with self-esteem, body image, and negative self-talk like the contestants and many in the audience, words like these stay with you, regardless of their intent. They can become part of the self-hatred soundtrack playing in your mind engendering further negative self-talk, obsession, unhealthy habits, and extreme dietary measures not to mention depression and anxiety.
They also create unrealistic, dangerous standards for how you should be working out and eating. This kind of “encouragement” pushes over-workouts and tuning out your body’s internal cues that could be telling you that you’re in danger and need to stop. You begin to think things like “if I’m not in pain or struggling to breathe, then I’m not working out hard enough and it’s not effective,” particularly if you’re someone who is new to physical fitness.
And while we’re on the topic of physical fitness, let’s talk about the actual physical measures she has promoted. The show’s weight loss plan is based on extreme calorie restriction and excessive exercise designed to create a large calorie deficit which, in turn, leads to weight loss. It pays no mind to nutrient balance or food quality, just the calories in: calories out ratio. Our bodies simply are not designed for this.
A 2016 study following 14 contestants found the following after their stint on The Biggest Loser:
- Extremely low levels of the satiety hormone leptin, leaving them feeling constantly hungry
- Drastically slowed metabolism
- And ss many as 6 years after the show, contestants’ leptin levels and metabolisms had still not recovered which led them to regain much of the weight.
The thing is our bodies are incredibly smart and will always tend towards a certain homeostasis. This means that whenever you make changes, your body will make internal changes to counter them to an extent. The decrease in leptin and metabolic rate seen in these contestants is their bodies’ response to extreme weight loss measures.
And these aren’t the only problems with the weight loss tactics espoused by the show. The exercise regimens prescribed to contestants greatly exceed what is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (source) and pose a significant threat to the health and well-being of someone who is not accustomed to strenuous workouts and is carrying a significant amount of excess weight.
As for the calorie restriction, anyone who has ever tried dieting or fasting knows that you might be able to do it for a bit but then you swing back to the other extreme. This is because humans don’t respond well to deprivation psychologically or physiologically. We need a certain amount of fuel and nutrients to keep our bodies running efficiently and that amount increases with several factors including physical activity. If that deficit is too great then there comes a breaking point.
All of this is to say that Jillian Michaels has a history of espousing weight loss tactics that put clients at risk of a number of health threats including eating disorders, heart failure, body image issues, depression, anxiety, and more. Given all of this, doesn’t it seem a bit hypocritical that she is suddenly so concerned about Lizzo’s health?
The fact of the matter is that Jillian Michaels is concerned about aesthetics and her version of a physical ideal. That ideal is so important to her that she is unwilling to examine her own contributions to health issues. She refuses to acknowledge that you can be fat and not have chronic illnesses. You can be fat and be very physically active (have you SEEN Lizzo onstage). You can be fat and happy. She refuses to acknowledge that her brand is not coaching; it’s abuse. And she refuses to acknowledge her contributions to a culture of fat shaming.
At this point, you may be asking, as a nutrition coach, who am I to be calling Jillian Michaels out for promoting weight loss tactics. As a nutrition coach, I help people make dietary changes so that they’re eating healthier foods that nourish their body and often weight loss comes with that either as a motivating factor for clients or as a side effect.
I struggled with a poor body image for years and I still do. I’ve said things to myself about myself that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy. It’s a struggle every day. And I’ve struggled with disordered eating and exercise habits. At one point when I was 19-20, I was eating yogurt for breakfast and a plain salad with no dressing for lunch and dinner every day (snacks were rare) and I was exercising for 2-3 hours a day 5-6 days a week. At nearly 5’5″, I was down to 112 lbs and was convinced I still had further to go. I’ve nearly passed out in lecture hall and I’ve curtailed my social life so I wouldn’t have to eat anything I saw as “fattening.” This is what happens when weight loss becomes an obsession, when your self-image is skewed, when unhealthy habits are promoted as acceptable.
While I’ve recovered in terms of eating and exercise habits, I still struggle with my negative self-talk and body image. My goal as a nutrition coach is to help other women silence that negative self-talk and use healthy eating as a way to nourish and celebrate their bodies. I don’t want people to live the way I used to live and I don’t want people to feel about themselves the way I once did.
As long as people like Jillian Michaels are out there parading themselves around as authorities on health and fitness and policing other people’s bodies, people will continue to resort to extremes to silence that voice of criticism from within and without. If you want to be role model and a coach, don’t comment on other people’s bodies, don’t fat shame, don’t speculate about other people’s health, don’t belittle and degrade. If you do, you are part of the problem.