Posted: Feb 06, 2014 10:05 AM
This season, The Biggest Loser crowned a champion that turned water cooler talk into accusations of extreme dieting and unhealthy eating. Has The Biggest Loser crossed the line from inspiring healthy changes to celebrating health sacrifices in the pursuit of smaller and smaller body sizes?

What would you do for $250,000?

The Biggest Loser is designed to reward extreme behavior. Contestants push past their comfort zones, sob, vomit and break down in competitive workouts, all in an effort to be the person at the end of the show with the most weight lost — with a prize of a quarter million dollars. Tears are shed — tears of physical pain, tears of emotional anguish and this year, tears of righteous indignation as the winner showed off a body whittled down to 105 pounds.

The backlash for playing the game

Rachel Frederickson lost 60 percent of her body weight during the show. At 5'4", she started her journey on The Biggest Loser at 260 pounds and ended it at 105 pounds — and $250,000 richer. Comments were harsh, immediate and judgmental. "Too thin" was one of the nicest comments I saw scroll through social media channels. More critical voices questioned whether she was anorexic or bulimic, and if the show itself promoted disordered eating and anorexic behavior. Anger at the show itself is one thing: The entire premise of segregating contestants from their normal lives and pushing them to train physically for hours at a time isn't what comes to mind when thinking of cultivating a healthy lifestyle. But for people sitting at home to challenge the health of a woman they don't know personally seems like another way to draw attention to the impossible ideals to which we hold women's bodies.

Balancing on a razor-thin line

The Biggest Loser didn't just finish its fifteenth season because of luck. Viewers are intrigued by the transformations that play out on the screen. Obese individuals are seen as projects, curious objects defined by their weight. Their stories unfold in human interest vignettes as the audience begins to relate to them as actual people — consequently, contestants become more human as they become thinner, more socially acceptable versions of their previous selves. At some point, Rachel Frederickson crossed a line in the eyes of her critics. She went from too fat to too thin. Maybe my thin-vision has been skewed by fashion models and Hollywood stars, but I didn't recoil in shock when I saw her photo. I'm worried that an audience that cheers on extreme dieting each week drew an arbitrary line in the sand and admonished Frederickson for crossing it. Was the line at 120 pounds? 111? 106?

Overweight, underweight, too much, too little: America is consumed by adjectives for weight that never lead us to just right.

Is thin shaming as hurtful as fat shaming?

Arnebya Herndon blogs at What Now and Why? and has written about disliking her body for being too thin. She had a visceral reaction to people judging Frederickson's health based solely on her appearance. She said, "Overweight, underweight, too much, too little: America is consumed by adjectives for weight that never lead us to just right. To now call her anorexic is just as pitiable as having called her too fat, having judged her for being overweight. The judgment never stops. I feel more for this young woman being called too thin than I ever would have when she was considered overweight. Now, like me, she has to contend with her BMI not plotting rather than it being off the scale. While our backgrounds aren't the same — I've always been thin — I have to wonder how one deals with the sadness of obesity, the rush of 'Yes! Look how much weight I've lost! And then now they say I've gone too far.' When do we ask Rachel how she feels? Is it human nature or society that has her The Biggest Loser photos side by side frowning fat and smiling skinny?"

Continuing the conversation

We have to remember that The Biggest Loser is essentially a game show. Viewers will be shocked by something new next week, and the chatter surrounding Rachel Frederickson's weight will give way to something else. But for Frederickson, her body is a real thing, her weight a part of her and now she has to figure out how to navigate thinness. Even with $250,000 in her bank account, there's no guarantee that she will keep off the lost weight or feel more content in her size 0/2 clothes. Jessica Torres talks about the pressure to stay thin, a pressure that bombarded Frederickson from the moment she revealed her slimmed-down frame.

More about body image

How to understand body dysmorphia
One mom's four-week weight loss journey
How moms' body image issues affect teens

Photo credit: Trae Patton/NBC