How My TV Bummed Me Out

Last week’s news and media cycle left me sour. Even a bit depressed. But the good news? Science is examining why that is.

Last week’s news and media cycle left me sour. Even a bit depressed.

It started on Sunday with the news of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death by way of heroin. He was a tremendous talent, yes, but why should the death of someone I don’t know upset me so? It was because Hoffman had been sober for two decades, and in the end, his addiction returned. Maybe it never really left, and that’s frightening for anyone who has struggled with addiction or who has family or friends battling addiction. And his death illuminated a growing heroin problem in America, as reported on yesterday’s This Week. I couldn’t help but find it worrisome that this cheap drug is so accessible, and with so many challenged by chronic pain, it’s a larger public health concern. It’s even turning up in the suburbs here in Minnesota.

Me and my brother watching some wholesome television programming, long before the surge of reality TV.

Me and my brother watching some wholesome television programming, long before the surge of reality TV.

I thought the Super Bowl would cheer me up with its pomp and athleticism, but we all know how that game turned out. Maybe those $4 million commercial spots would do it? Meh. The best parts of the evening were our company, Chloe’s puppy play date, and (as it usually is for me) the food, although this year we put out healthier options.

Then came Tuesday’s Biggest Loser finale, where the winner, 24-year-old Rachel Frederickson, at 5-feet-4-inches tall weighed in at 105 pounds. The Twittersphere was aghast, bloggers went wild, and some even demanded that the producers force Rachel to return the $250,000 prize money (there was even a petition started on Change.org). The comments were frequently out of line and often downright cruel, many calling her anorexic and chiding her for losing too much weight.

I stayed mostly quiet while I collected the news for the blog, searching for some smart commentary, which I found in posts by both Amber Lee and Charlotte Hilton Andersen, among others. It really was our reactions that I found most jarring, people body shaming her and calling her “gross.” As Lee and Andersen point out, Rachel did exactly as she was asked: She lost the most weight. Numbers are the driving force of this competition, the scale part nemesis and part redeemer. All she had to do was put up the most percentage of body weight lost, which she did with 59.62 percent.

Last season I cheered as winner Danni Allen came out looking strong, dominating the scale with her win of 55 percent of her body weight lost. And this season, I cheered for Rachel throughout as she championed the idea of getting her life back: “I just kept thinking, ‘Run for your life, Rachel. Run to get your life back,’” she told the host after winning a triathlon in about 1 hour 32 minutes in the second to last episode, where she weighed in at 150 pounds. To me, I saw an athlete who had regained her confidence.

But something changed at the finale. Or maybe it changed on the Biggest Loser ranch and we didn’t see it. Or maybe when they spent some time at home before the reveal. Even Bobby, another finalist, said he was disappointed that he weighed in at 170 pounds and wasn’t in the 160s.

All I could think was: It was us. We all asked too much. Bigger losses = bigger ratings. Provocative headlines, on TV or in magazines or newspapers, equals bigger sales. As Lee pointed out in her blog, we’re feeding the machine. The producers could have made a different decision if they felt it was needed, but they didn’t. I could’ve turned off the TV and stopped following the story, but I didn’t. Instead, I got sucked in deeper and deeper, and my cycle of thoughts kept revolving around, “Why are we never good enough?!?”

I thought about the damage this finale would have done to my 15-year-old self, who fainted in her boyfriend’s kitchen after not eating much because 115 pounds wasn’t skinny enough if I couldn’t fit into a size-0 jeans like my friends could. Or my 5-foot-4-inch, 11-year-old self whose 120-pound weigh-in during gym class was too heavy, according to our instructor, who announced it loud enough for the other girls to hear. Or me at 163 pounds during college, or 208, or my highest at 221 just three years ago. This chasing a number on the scale, this Goldilocks hunt to find the number that is just right. Is it ever going to be right, and are we ever going to be satisfied?

Psychologist Naomi Leib told the New York Times on Friday that, “These kids see these types of TV shows and movies celebrating being skinny and they think, ‘I will be loved more if I am thin like that,’ but they are killing themselves. It’s all about the competition out there to be perfect and look thinner, and The Biggest Loser is a show that literally feeds into that.”

The NYT article also pointed to a new study about the effects of reality TV on mental health (brilliant study title: “Is Keeping Up With the Kardashians Keeping You Down?”). It’s a larger conversation that I’ve had with coworkers and I’ll continue to explore here on the blog, but it’s this feed of television, whether it’s Kardashians or Housewives or Bachelorettes, or gossip magazines shouting at us from the grocery aisle about how such-and-such celebrity lost the baby weight — it’s invasive. I can’t hide from it and yet I’m somewhat drawn to it, which also disturbs me.

Now that I shook the unsettling feeling of last week — capped by a thwarted plane hijacking aimed at the Olympics (why?!?) — I’m a bit calmer and ready to get on with life as usual. My perspective has changed, though, and I know the lessons from last week’s media reel will remain.

Check out my piece on breaking my TV obsession during one of our Take Action Challenges.

Highlights from the summer conference of the American Psychiatric Association. The reality-TV researcher is the first to comment, until about 2:31 on the video. My yikes moment happened when I corrected Dr. Longson: There hasn’t been a Real Housewives of San Francisco, I thought, just Orange County and Beverly Hills. Although MTV’s Real World has filmed there twice . . . just stop, Court, stop.

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