An academic study found that watching The Biggest Loser actually makes viewers hate fat people. For the study, conducted by people in the department of psychology at Bowling Green State University and published in the journal Obesity earlier this year, 59 college students watched either the NBC weight loss show or Meerkat Manor, and their attitudes toward obese people were compared to those from before the experiment. Here’s how the abstract describes the conclusions:
“Participants in Biggest Loser condition had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals and more strongly believed that weight is controllable after the exposure. … participants who had lower BMIs and were not trying to lose weight had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals following exposure to The Biggest Loser compared to similar participants in the control condition. These results indicate that anti-fat attitudes increase after brief exposure to weight-loss reality television.”
In other words, watching the show increased a person’s dislike of fat people, especially if that person is skinnier; that’s in part because the show’s weight loss messaging makes them think that being obese is simply a choice. That’s despite the show’s obvious success in humanizing the struggle that some overweight people face.
The full report isn’t freely available, but researchers showed just 40 minutes of The Biggest Loser (which is about 1/600th of an episode) to participants, and I’d be curious what 40 minutes they chose. In-house drama? Challenges? The weigh-in? Voting strategy? Product placement? Or a combination of all of those things? Some moments might have a stronger impact than others on a viewer’s perceptions.