Too thin? Unhealthy? Who decides?
Since NBC TV’s Biggest Loser finale on Tuesday night, there’s been a firestorm in the media over Rachel Frederickson’s final weight. Rachel, a native Minnesotan, lost 155 pounds and nearly 60% of her body weight to win the reality TV show’s weight loss challenge. She weighed in at 105 pounds to claim the $250,000 prize and the title of Biggest Loser. And, I believe she lost more percentage of body weight than any other Biggest Loser contestant, ever!
The firestorm is the public debate about whether she went to far and is too thin and unhealthy. Twitter and Facebook exploded with viewer comments ranging from she looked “frighteningly emaciated,” to “she’s anorexic,” to “shame on NBC for allowing this to happen.” And the media lit up over the controversy with everyone from People Magazine, to Time, to entertainment news weighing in.
I watched the Biggest Loser finale with several girlfriends and, admittedly, we all had the same reaction — shock at how thin and frail Rachel looked, combined with surprise that a contestant could get that thin (not muscular or fit) without NBC’s show producers intervening. It turns out, that our reactions were typical. Perhaps the natural initial human response. Even the show’s famous trainer’s Bob and Jillian were captured in a photo looking shocked.
Personally, I am not proud of that initial judgement. And today I wanted to step back and view it from 30,000 feet.
My concern is Rachel
First and foremost, my concern is Rachel. While it’s very difficult to withhold judgement, I’ve cautioned myself to be careful not to make blanket judgements until I know the whole story. And that means, until I hear it directly from Rachel.
Obesity is a disease — an eating disorder, and an epidemic in our country. You don’t get to be 30, 40, 50 or 60 percent overweight without something going on inside that makes you turn to food for comfort, for escape, etc. I truly believe that it’s driven more by what’s going on inside (the head) than how it manifests outside in physical weight. I have lived it. And I coach/support many others who would confirm it. There’s more. Had I chose to lose the weight without going to therapy and dealing with the internal transformation, my life would not be what it is today.
I didn’t choose to be obese and risk my life. I didn’t choose to be unhappy or unhealthy and eat until I lost all hope for a different life. I don’t know anyone who does. Rather, my eating disorder/food addiction manifested due to deeper internal issues (and I assert most of us have something going on!). Since I was a child I’ve struggled with my self-worth, self-love and acceptance at the deepest level. In other words, with my worthiness. I didn’t value myself enough to put myself in the center of the equation of my own life. I did everything for everyone else to try to earn love or respect outside myself. It was a never ending battle.
So, I know this story well. In addition to my personal experience, I talk to and coach people every week who are in the same boat. Many, thank me for shining a light on topics that aren’t so easy to publicly admit or embrace. Nor, are they easy to understand if you haven’t been there.
It’s a personal journey. What if we withheld public judgement?
The truth is that NO ONE can truly know another person’s personal journey, pain or motivation until they have walked alongside that person or been privy to the ins and outs. Thus, I found myself all day wanting to hear from Rachel about how she is really doing. What she is feeling — on the inside not just showing on the outside. I know first-hand that it takes time for you to fully appreciate and accept your new body and life after a dramatic transformation. It takes time for your inside to catch up with the outside. Rachel is probably still experiencing that.
Part of me was hoping to see Rachel do a media interview (she may have and I may have missed it) where she commented on her process (both internally — mentally and emotionally — and the physical one). Okay, I’ll be totally honest. I secretly want to reach out to her, to share my story, and to make sure she has a counselor or psychologist and is in therapy. As well as having a trusted inner circle of support (including Biggest Loser alums like my very special O’Neal Hampton) to help her process her new body, lifestyle and the opportunities, the struggles and the challenges that lie ahead.
This, to me is most important. Not, whether the media or TV viewers think she looks too thin. Not whether I think she is too thin. But rather how Rachel herself is embracing it, processing it, and living it. We don’t know whether she has flipped to the other side of the eating disorder spectrum or not. Because we don’t know what’s going on inside or what work she has done personally to address that. And now Rachel is getting hammered by the media and the public outcry will perhaps only make her internal journey more difficult. The pressure can be so great. So harsh.
A glimpse into what it could feel like
I haven’t been on national TV, but I have undergone an intense internal and external transformation, and much of it in the limelight. Having lost 211 lbs (55.3%) of my body fat and ending my weight loss journey with a 14.5% body fat, I experienced both the personal joy and happiness of losing the weight. But, also some judgement and concern from others about how low my body fat percentage got and how focused I’ve been on what I eat and how I live my life now as a healthy and fit woman. (I’ve maintained my 211 pound weight loss for almost 2 years now and it is FAR more difficult than losing the weight in the first place!)
I understand the concern others expressed to me. I do. And I understand the concern over Rachel. But my concerns might be slightly different from others.
Eating disorders, such as obesity and anorexia, manifest themselves in similar ways and can be equally destructive and deadly. An addictive personality who has struggled with obesity is at fairly high risk of transferring or developing other addictions or obsessions unless they get help with the internal transformation. And let’s face it, the general public doesn’t fully get it. It is not socially acceptable, yet. And people are often judged by others in harsh ways whether they are obese or anorexic.
What about NBC’s responsibility?
Secondly, there is concern about the image that public role models and the media like NBC TV’s Biggest Loser have on others when they tackle these series subjects — especially with real people in reality TV. The outrage over whether NBC should or could have done something to prevent it, or whether they have a responsibility to speak out now and perhaps adjust their focus/prize is an interesting and worthwhile debate. Many are calling on the show and the network to address concerns that the weight loss was too extreme and prevent it in the future. This is another blog topic. I can only say that as someone who is in marketing and PR, I do think they have a real opportunity to have an impact on the public’s understanding of and acceptance of eating disorders.
We don’t know that is what is happening with Rachel. On the one hand, her win was not that surprising. As a former competitive swimmer, her competitive spirit shined through this season. I watched only a few episodes but saw her spark and have heard from many others who predicted her to win before the finale. It’s possible that she was in it to win it. She could be perfectly strong and healthy on the inside and got underweight intentionally to win the challenge. If I am not mistaken, just a few pounds in the other direction and she may not have won. I am not saying this is right. I am just saying we don’t know her story.
What can we learn?
Being thrust in the limelight and sharing your personal journey of transformation publicly is not an easy thing. The pressure and the judgement can be intense. You feel incredibly exposed and vulnerable, even if you choose to do it for other reasons such as accountability, an opportunity to help others…
Add to this that there are as many philosophies and methodologies for losing weight as there are, well, people. The whole situation is filled with judgement and debate about how, how much, why, what is “normal” or “right” or “healthy.”And, unfortunately, there is still a real stigma attached to anyone who publicly talks about food addiction and other eating disorders as a disease. Even those of us who stress the importance of therapy and internal work hear from others that we are flawed. I assert the opposite! But again, that is another blog.
I hate to see Rachel get caught in the cross fire, but she is/will. So my greatest hope is that she is at the same time getting the support she needs — professional and otherwise — to stand strong and withstand the intense media scrutiny and pressure. That she is indeed focused on being healthy and is able to celebrate her incredible personal success. I hope and trust that she will find her voice in the aftermath so that she can be a strong role model for others on the very topics of eating disorders, food addiction. Hers is a huge and amazing accomplishment. She is beautiful. She has earned that.
As I put this blog to bed, it is unclear whether I will publish it. I am no expert on eating disorders, food addiction and I am not a psychologist. Nor, do I know the details of NBC’s Biggest Loser show or Rachel’s individual situation. I can only share my story and my personal experience to shine a light in a way that can hopefully help others. I would love to know what you think.