This season's winner of reality show The Biggest Loser accepted her $250,000 prize grinning happily and gushing that she felt amazing despite gasps from the live audience and shocked reactions from two of the show's trainers when they saw how undeniably gaunt and desiccated the 24-year-old looked.
The two better-known trainers on the show, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, distanced themselves at first when asked for reactions to winner Rachel Frederickson's 155-pound weight loss – which put her at 105 after losing nearly 60 percent of her body weight – saying that because they were not her official show trainers, they declined to comment.
Frederickson's trainer, Dolvett Quince, however, whom his two colleagues sort of threw under the bus (understandably, I guess), told his Facebook followers after Tuesday night's finale, “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!!"
Yesterday, NBC issued a dickless press release presumably meant to address the controversy surrounding Frederickson's appearance at the finale but that essentially ignored it:
"We support Rachel and all of the 'Biggest Loser' contestants who have shared their journeys over the past 15 seasons. We remain committed to helping contestants achieve healthy weight loss and live healthier lifestyles, and to inspiring viewers to do the same."
During a taping this week of the Rachael Ray Show that will air Feb. 13, Harper changed his mind and did speak a bit about Frederickson:
"What people don't understand is, when the contestants leave to go home…they're in charge of themselves. So I had not seen her until that night, and so when she walked out, I was just kind of like, whoa. And I've been on the show since the beginning...I was stunned. That would be the word. I mean, we've never had a contestant come in at 105 pounds."
Twitter exploded with viewer dismay and criticism that Frederickson took the Biggest Loser hardcore zeal for weight loss “too far.”
But some more closely linked to the show weren't at all surprised that a contestant showed up at the Biggest Loser finale looking unhealthy.
A member of the production crew who worked closely with the cast for more than 10 Biggest Loser seasons asked not to be identified but told me:
“The show got progressively less healthy and progressively more sensational as seasons went on, but The Biggest Loser was never truly 'healthy.' I mean c'mon, it's a competition-based 'reality' show about losing as much weight as possible in a very short (relative to the real world of daily weight management) period of time.
But I noticed a definite uptick in the expectations of the show producers as seasons went on. We looked for increasingly overweight contestants and pushed for bigger and bigger numbers of weight loss on the scale...Though Biggest Loser might have done a lot of good for a lot of people in its infancy, the bottom line really is the bottom line. I would hope anyone watching would realize that ratings come first in any television program. Faster weight loss, bigger numbers, skinnier contestants at the live finales = more dependable ratings for a show that only has one selling point.”
Kai Hibbard was a Biggest Loser contestant during the third season and has since been a very outspoken critic of the way contestants are treated on the show. And she isn't the only one. In 2009, the New York Times reported, “[Former contestant Ryan C. Benson] is now back above 300 pounds but he thinks he has been shunned by the show because he publicly admitted that he dropped some of the weight by fasting and dehydrating himself to the point that he was urinating blood.”
Although Hibbard was unavailable for an interview by press time, she said via Facebook, “I understand other contestants had different experiences. That said, I'm having difficulty stomaching all the 'We did do unhealthy things, but we knew better' sentiment I keep seeing. It's the same 'They made me skinny and I gained it all back so it's all my fault' sentiment ... that pisses me off. If we knew better, if we were so smart about healthy choices, then why the fuck were we fat in the first place?”
Following TBL finale, Hibbard posted, “I have no patience for the people attacking [Frederickson,] the winner of this season of TBL for her appearance. The premise of the show is that she was a novice in exercise and nutrition being advised by 'experts.' If so? Don't they assume some culpability if her health is in jeopardy?”
Hibbard says that show producers hounded her constantly about whether she was working out enough in the period in which she was back at home before returning to tape the season finale. She also contends that when she expressed concern to them that her hair was falling out, anxiety was making her vomit frequently, and she was only able to sleep a few hours a night, she was told to “suck it up” and “save it for the cameras.”
Time spent with nutritionists, doctors and psychologists were definitely secondary to time spent with trainers working out and doing "challenges," says the former crew member: "On many occasions, contestants told me how their trainers would give them contrary advice to that of the nutritionist. [Once I] discovered that a trainer was encouraging the contestants to falsify the food journals (their daily, quantified food intake and related calories) that they were required to turn in to the nutritionist each week.
"There was virtually no emphasis put on treating any psychological issues with food addiction, either. Sure, the contestants received armchair-psychology from the trainers, but the show psychologist was usually only called in if a cast member was having a serious issue or had asked to see them...and almost never on-screen."
The crew member also agrees with much of what Hibbard has said about the producers' approach to contestants during their time at the ranch and the period when contestants go home up until the show's finale taping: “Finalists were not discouraged in the least from losing as much weight as possible, 'sweating out' and dehydrating themselves in the two or three days before the tapings of the live finales. I cannot say that they were encouraged to do so, but they were certainly not discouraged. And the vast majority of them did.
“And if you thought a finalist looked unhealthy on the live broadcast, you should have seen them before they went through hair/make-up and spray-tanning.”
Perhaps surprisingly though, many nutritionists have said that Frederickson's very thin appearance isn't necessarily unhealthy and that she doesn't look malnourished to them. Some added that she would need to be evaluated by a doctor to determine whether she was in fact malnourished. Some reporters have pointed out that according to the Body Mass Index (BMI), Frederickson is underweight, but criticism is growing that BMI is a flawed and inaccurate measurement of good health.
Regardless, Frederickson has told reporters that she works out “kind of all day” and said that her meal preparations – she says that she eats five times a day and takes in 1,600 calories – take almost as much work as her exercise regimen. So in essence, weighing 105 pounds is like a full-time job for Frederickson. And considering her winnings from the show, a pretty well-paying one.
But the intense scrutiny of Frederickson made me wonder why, in this current climate in which body-shaming is routinely called out and denounced, why is it OK to “skinny-shame” this season's winner? Or is it?
“Feminists (or anyone, really) aren't supposed to comment on other women's bodies like they're public property,” says Leslie Goldman, author of the body image book Locker Room Diaries.
Although she expressed concern in an interview with TODAY.com that Frederickson's drastic weight loss could set a poor example for viewers who look up to her, Goldman says, “I was bashing the machine that pushes women (and men) to exercise multiple times a day and slash their calories in an effort to shed the most pounds in a defined time frame. The winner is just kind of a cog in reality weight-loss TV's wheel. Plus, she opted to put herself in the spotlight by appearing on the show, so in a way, she kind of agreed to open herself up to public scrutiny.
“I don't believe she looked healthy, but my intent (and I don't really think most peoples' intent) wasn't to shame HER, but rather to shame the show,” she says.
Frederickson told Today that she is now in “maintenance mode” and doesn't plan to lose any more weight. I hope she means it. Because after years of feeling ashamed of her weight gain and now nationwide public criticism that she's too thin and looks 10 years older than she is, settling on a weight in which she feels truly at peace with herself is bound to be challenging.