Why Toxic Weight Loss Reality Shows Are Just As Damaging For Viewers As They Are For Contestants

Why Toxic Weight Loss Reality Shows Are Just As Damaging For Viewers As They Are For Contestants

Last week, on September 5th [2018], Galia Grainger, the ‘Slim Reaper’ and owner of Slimmeria, made an appearance on Channel 4 in the show The Extreme Diet Hotel. The concept is simple: fat people stay at the hotel, and this ‘diet dominatrix’ physically and verbally abuses them into losing weight. 

The Extreme Diet Hotel is a nightmare of pro-anorexia slogans and beliefs. Visitors eat fewer than 500 calories a day, amid days packed with exercise and insults. Even the spa treatments look horrific, with guests trapped in steaming barrels and whipped with birches. The show is also rife with inaccuracies. At one point in the first episode Grainger states that sugar is ‘as addictive as cocaine’. For reference, it’s not. Hot water is offered as a replacement for food, which is all raw vegetables. This is to facilitate ‘rapid weight loss and proper detoxification of body and mind’. 

One of the guests in the first episode is Kirsty, a woman who bought a wedding dress two sizes too small, believing that she would lose weight and fit into it by her wedding day. She is a symbol of two of the most vicious industries intersecting to police women’s bodies: the diet industry and the wedding industry. (It’s not a coincidence that a woman’s ‘most important day of her life’ is also supposed to be the day she is thinnest.) By starring on The Extreme Diet Hotel to lose weight for her wedding, Kirsty and many female viewers buy into the misogynistic idea that to be thin is to be beautiful, which is key to being happy. 

The hotel promises rapid weight loss, which is an alluring concept to many guests. But why exactly do viewers lap up television shows such as The Extreme Diet Hotel and The Biggest Loser? I personally believe it’s because of the ingrained belief that fat people are inferior, and should be punished for their size - for daring to exist outside of what is considered the norm. It is equally satisfying for viewers to watch fat people ‘fail’ as it is to watch them ‘succeed’ at shows like these. 

If the contestants do lose weight, it tells viewers that these extreme methods do work (despite a study showing that 13 out of 14 Biggest Loser contestants who were surveyed regained all of the weight they had lost). It also reinforces vicious lies - that such rapid weight loss is normal or healthy, and that anyone can lose this amount of weight, if they punish themselves enough. Never mind the fact that shows such as The Extreme Diet Hotel have whole teams of fitness and yoga instructors, nutritionists, personal trainers, and massage and beauty therapists. 

On the other hand, if contestants do not lose weight (or do not lose ‘enough’), it strengthens many of the stereotypes that viewers already hold. Hoards of viewers took to social media after the first episode aired, laughing at the contestants and describing them as ‘whining’, ‘lazy’, and ‘acting like a child’. The majority of their comments were about Kirsty, who, being a woman, was subject to much more criticism than the other guest, Tony. Although she did lose weight, she still was not deemed good enough - thin enough - to become a bride. 

No matter what contestants do, shows such as The Extreme Diet Hotel are blows for fat people everywhere. I don’t blame those who go on weight loss shows - even as I read about the harm Grainger does to her guests, I was taken in by the idea of becoming a slimmer, ‘better’ me. But I do blame society, which reinforces the idea that to willingly suffer long-term mental and physical damage is worth it. As long as you’re thin.