Friday, November 27, 2015

'The Biggest Loser': Feeding thinspo and pro-ana sites?


Tuesday was the finale of The Biggest Loser. My husband and I watched it, waiting to see if our favorite contestant, 23-year-old Rachel Frederickson, would take the prize. She worked so hard throughout the contest, kicking butt in all the challenges, and looked amazing in last week’s show—the last one on the Ranch. At 150 pounds, she was strong and healthy. Some might say she was thin enough to stop dieting. And yet she didn’t stop, losing an additional 45 pounds from her 5-foot-4 frame.

When she came out onto the stage we couldn’t help ourselves. We both started talking. I believe my exact words were something to the effect that she looked horrible—way too skinny. My husband said she looked sick. Since we time shift when we watch TV (it was past 11 p.m. here in New York), I went right to Twitter to see what other people were saying. It wasn’t good. There are plenty of articles out there that summarize the Internet’s sentiments, so I won’t bother repeating. Lots of people feel the same way we do, but said it in a way that doesn’t bear repeating.

However, there was another undercurrent of conversation, too, and it was really upsetting. There were people who thought she was a “thinspiration” to those trying to get as tiny as possible. To the small, dangerous online community that calls itself “thinspo” or “pro-ana” (or pro-anorexia), Rachel was someone to emulate. That’s just scary to me because—at a body mass index (BMI) of 18—she is barely able to model in several European countries including Spain, which requires models to have BMIs of at least 18. Israeli models must have BMIs of 18.5. (You can calculate your own BMI here.)

For those who are unaware of the pro-ana world: When my husband set up our wireless Internet access he installed a secure web gateway, a tool that limits what my kids can access on the web as well as blocks malware and viruses from being downloaded. During the installation, he checked many of the obvious boxes a parent of a preschooler and 9-year-old might check. He blocked categories such as porn, lingerie, and violence. As someone who struggled with eating issues as a teen, I also asked him to manually add a few keywords: thinspo and pro-ana.

These categories include websites, social media pages, and chat groups where people—mostly preteens, teens, and young women—gather to talk about their quests to lose weight and become anorexic. They post pictures of themselves and of celebrities and other people who have achieved what they think is perfection. People who are simply skin and bones, sick with a disease, anorexia nervosa, that literally kills if left untreated. And unfortunately, even those who do seek treatment for may never recover. I never want my daughters to stumble on to one of those sites. I never want to see them, either.

To date, NBC has not responded to numerous press requests to comment on Rachel-gate. They haven’t updated the official Biggest Loser Facebook page, which has more than two million followers, and there’s no response to any of the hundreds of fan posts, either. Dolvett Quince, her trainer, posted this to his Facebook page:

Last night’s Biggest Loser Finale has sparked a huge reaction and I do not want the day to end without addressing it. Biggest Loser is a journey which has its ups and downs. Please try not to look at one slice of Rachel’s journey and come to broad conclusions. Rachel’s health is and always has been my main concern and her journey to good health has not yet ended!!

Basically, he addressed the issue without addressing the issue. Twitter accounts for Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels were uncharacteristically quiet, too. They posted the following on Wednesday afternoon:

Jillian and I want to take a moment to congratulate all of the BL contestants on their hard work. We’re not comfortable commenting on Rachel’s journey because we weren’t her trainers and weren’t given an opportunity to work with her at any point. Any questions about the contestants on the Biggest Loser should be directed to the show’s producers.

With everyone, it seems, taking a break from commenting, I hope that NBC is vigilant about keeping photos of Rachel to a minimum, and enforcing its copyright so screen grabs of the now-diminutive contestant don’t inspire any copycat behavior. Me? I plan on showing my kids the photos and discussing the difference between healthy and athletic and just plain too thin. And maybe I’ll update our web gateway to include the name “Rachel Frederickson,” someone I hope I don’t see again until she’s gained back a few.

To read more of Karen J. Bannan’s health and fitness coverage head over to her blog,

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  • Karen J. Bannan
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