Trigger warning for discussion of “Obesity,” fat shaming, fatphobia
What Jillian Michaels’ comments get wrong about body positivity, political correctness, and “glamorizing obesity”
Jillian Michaels is a fitness celebrity who made her name screaming at fat people on The Biggest Loser and forcing them to work out until they cried. So, it’s no surprise that Michaels recently made headlines for her “hot take” on body positivity in her efforts to defend the show that launched her career, The Biggest Loser, which is returning to TV in January 2020. Here are Jillian Michaels’ comments in Women’s Health UK on body positivity:
“I think we’re politically correct to the point of endangering people. Yes, we want to be inclusive of everyone [and respect that] everyone comes in all different shapes and sizes. That nobody should ever be body shamed or fat shamed or excluded and that everyone is equally deserving and should feel equally valuable. But obesity in itself is not something that should be glamourised. But we’ve become so politically correct that no one wants to say it.”
Michaels ended up receiving both backlash and praise for her comments in her interview, garnering headlines like, “Jillian Michaels Slams PC Diet Culture” and earning criticism from prominent celebrities like Jameela Jamil:
Elitist ignorance from a renowned long time bully of fat people. Don’t just shame and blame. Cheap food, which most can afford is full of hormones and sugars. Many work too many jobs to have time/money to work out. There’s PCOS, Insulin resistance, Medication side effects.. etc. https://t.co/zCUVc9af5e
— Jameela Jamil 🌈 (@jameelajamil) December 8, 2019
But even some of the criticism got it wrong, too. Let’s unpack everything that Jillian Michael’s “obesity” comments gets wrong, her history of treating fat people poorly, and why people make comments like this in the first place.
The Biggest Loser
It’s impossible to fully respond to Jillian Michaels’ comments without discussing her participation in The Big Loser. Michaels was a trainer on the competition reality TV show during its first season in 2004, and she remained a presence on the show until 2014, with several sabbaticals in between seasons. The basic premise of the show? People compete to lose weight over a 30-week period. During this time, contestants were kept secluded from their family and friends, adhered to a rigid deprivation diet, and worked out for up to six hours per day with trainers like Michaels. She, in particular, was known for being “tough” with contestants, often getting in their faces and yelling at them if they felt they couldn’t work out any longer.
The contestants were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before participating on the show that forbade them from speaking out about their treatment on the show, as well as the effects their drastic weight loss had on them after the show. That agreement kept winners from disclosing things like the fact that contestants often fasted and dehydrated before being weighed in. Season one winner Ryan C. Benson admitted that he was so dehydrated at weigh-in he was urinating blood. During the eighth season, producers staged a race that resulted in two contestants being hospitalized. Season three winner Kai Hibbard said all contestants worked through injuries and pain while on the show: “I bled through my shoes in the first three weeks,” she told The Guardian. “Nearly every person on my season had injuries.”
And for all their efforts and pain they endured working out with trainers like Michaels, contestants on The Biggest Loser ended up regaining all or most of the weight they lost. The effects of their extreme weight-loss-at-any-cost crash dieting had disastrous effects on their metabolism, in particular. The National Institutes of Health followed up with 14 contestants from The Biggest Loser, six years after their weight loss on the show. All but one of the contestants had regained most of the weight, and their metabolic rates had slowed drastically. So, despite continued efforts to maintain their weight loss, the contestants’ bodies were actively working to protect them from further fat loss. The legacy of The Biggest Loser and the contestants’ time with Jillian Michaels has been trauma, both physical and emotional. Hibbard told The Guardian that participating in the show “was the biggest mistake of my life.”
Given Michaels’ participation and defense of the show, it’s a little far-fetched to believe that her comments are coming from a place of genuine concern about the health of people in larger bodies. And it’s important to understand this context for her comments: she is a figure who has built an empire off the pain, humiliation, and mistreatment of people in larger bodies.
The Myth of “Glamorizing Obesity”
Nearly anyone who is fat and in the public eye without being apologetic or discussing their efforts to lose weight faces accusations of “glamorizing obesity.” Public figures like plus-size model Tess Holliday and award-winning musician Lizzo face comments telling them they’re “glamorizing obesity” nearly every day, and especially any time they celebrate an accomplishment or dare to be photographed in revealing clothing. But what exactly does “glamorizing obesity” mean and why is this such a common thing fat people are accused of doing?
“Glamorizing obesity” isn’t something anyone is actually doing. It’s a claim lobbed at people who are simply fat, happy, thriving in their careers, and living their lives. Of all the people who have been accused of “glamorizing obesity,” exactly zero have ever tried to convince others that they should put on weight because it’s just so glamorous. At the root of the myth of “glamorizing obesity” is a concept coined by activist Jes Baker called “body currency.” And body currency is exactly what Jillian Michaels deals in.
Understanding Body Currency
Body currency is the belief that if one finally achieves a state of thinness, through hard work and discipline, one will finally earn the things they desire. Many people believe that success, love and romance, health, fame, talent and recognition, wealth and happiness are things that can be achieved through thinness. And we have a diet industry that rakes in 70 billion dollars each year invested in keeping us believing that. Jillian Michaels, a woman whose career depends on selling weight loss to the masses, is very invested in believing that thinness is the key to all we desire. And so we, as a culture, work. We diet, join Weight Watchers, try keto, and join gyms every January, resolving that this is the year we finally lose weight and unlock all that is owed to us with our hard work.
And people like Tess, like Lizzo, like any fat person who seems happy, successful, and loved without losing weight, are intensely threatening to people like Michaels and anyone who is invested in body currency. It inspires rage. As Baker explained the narrative that goes on inside the head of people who are perturbed by others finding love, happiness, and success without weight loss , “that b*tch just broke the rules. She just cut in front of us in line. She just unwittingly ripped us off. And she essentially made our lifetime of work totally meaningless.”
And in the face of such a threat, people of all sizes who are still investing in the impossible dream of achieving the “ideal” weight, and counting on it to unlock the happiness, acceptance, and confidence we seek, resort to concern trolling the fat person in question. Because the alternative, that people like Michaels have been lying to us, that weight loss is the equivalent of Dumbo’s magic feather, is too upsetting to consider.
“Concern trolling” is a tactic people use to drape their hatred, disgust, anger, or disagreement in language that seems like it’s on the side of the person they are criticizing. With Jillian Michaels’ comments, she is very nakedly engaging in concern trolling. She starts off almost agreeing that body size diversity is real and fat-shaming is wrong. (She doesn’t quite get there, though.) She then moves into the supposed dangers of “obesity” and the consequences of “glamorizing” it. She pretends that she is on the side of people who want a world where “everyone is equally deserving and should feel equally valuable,” but then tells us that world is dangerous.
Ultimately, this is a way to defend body currency and reduce people who are successful, happy, enjoying creative success, finding love, and living their lives to the fullest to just being fat again. It’s a way to remind fat people of where they are in the pecking order. And it’s a way to make them (and everyone else) afraid of a looming danger if they do not fall in line and, say, purchase a subscription to Jillian Michaels’ fitness streaming service, her workout DVDs, and maybe her book about how to be young forever:
Body positivity, fat acceptance, and Health at Every Size® are intensely threatening to people like Michaels. Some people engage in concern trolling when they are confronted with the reality that body currency is not real and you can do and achieve the things you want without dieting. And some people, like Michaels, engage in concern trolling because their livelihood depends on our collective belief that we need them. Jillian Michaels’ comments, in a publication that is also invested in the belief in body currency, lay this dynamic bare.
And the real kicker? Jillian Michaels is presenting herself as some sort of outlier in the discourse about weight, health, and bodies and that “political correctness” dictates that we all defend people in larger bodies. But her opinion is the status quo. And she helped create that status quo in her work on The Biggest Loser and subsequent career as a fitness celebrity.
The Reality of Shame
The truth is that we know that shaming people who have higher body weights does not help them lose weight. In fact, we know that weight discrimination negatively affects health and makes it more likely that people will remain at higher weights. A 2013 study examined the relationship between weight discrimination and health, and whether it caused weight loss. They found emphatically that shaming or discriminating against people did the exact opposite of helping them lose weight. And, unsurprisingly, a 2012 study found that The Biggest Loser actually caused people to demonstrate more hostility toward people at higher weights after just a short exposure to the show.
Time and time again, science has backed up what Lindy West, an author and advocate, has said about the relationship between self-image and self-care, “You can’t take good care of something you hate.” Jillian Michaels and Bill Maher and others who insist on clinging to the idea that shaming fat people is necessary for their health are flat-out wrong. It doesn’t help, it hurts.
The Real Danger
Jillian Michaels’ comments do inadvertently get one thing right: There is an inherent danger to living in a larger body. But it’s not what she thinks it is. It’s weight stigma. Because of weight stigma, people in larger bodies have a harder time accessing competent, compassionate medical care. People with larger bodies also face an uphill battle to receive treatment for eating disorders such as bulimia, often because any weight loss is seen as positive when people are heavier. Weight stigma often results in economic hardship, employment discrimination, and difficulty participating in public life due to spaces not being accommodating. Fat people can face harassment and hostility from strangers, coworkers, doctors, and even family members.
While science repeatedly affirms that weight stigma and discrimination does more harm than good, weight-neutral approaches such as Health at Every Size are shown to produce better health outcomes. If Jillian Michaels really cared about the health of people in larger bodies, she’d stop perpetuating weight stigma, stop trying to sell them diets and exercise, completely renounce The Biggest Loser, and adopt a Health at Every Size approach to fitness. But, then, helping fat people be healthier and live happier lives has never been the point of anything Jillian Michaels has ever done in her career, and she profits from the stigma she helps create.
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