By tydigame 78 Comments
Edit: Changed the title to make it a bit less controversial and more representative of the content of the article.
With the release of the kinect, there has been a lot of discussion in the comments and the forum about Jeff and Ryan, and their bodies. As a social scientist I have complicated feelings about this. Obviously, there is some aspect of G.I.F.T happening here, but even in more supportive comments, it's interesting to see the way cultural ideas about bodies - and what it's appropriate for bodies to look like - come out in the comments.
Look at my own comment, posted on the Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout quick look. I give both Jeff and Ryan credit for putting themselves out there in the course of all of these Kinect quick looks; in other words, I give them credit for exposing their spoiled identities (that is for not having "appropriately" sized bodies). This reflects the sociological concept of "stigma," which was described by Erving Goffman in a book titled, imaginitively, Stigma. In it, he describes the ways that people react to people who fail to meet societal expectations (he used people with disfigurements, disabilities, and cultural identities like race, gender, and sexual orientation that carry with them the connotation of inferiority or moral failing). It's important to note that neither Goffman nor I is engaged in the process of actually determining whether these groups actually represent a "failing" of any kind. Rather, we are both only interested in what the people in a given context think is a moral failing.
People engage in a variety of behaviors through which they attempt to sanction people - that is, punish them - for failing to meet norms for identity. But punishing people sometimes means that interactions break down. So when you're trying to make smalltalk with someone, you can't laugh at their disability, or they'll stop talking to you. Just so, you won't bother criticizing the morals of the person checking you out at the grocery store because they're wearing a LGBTQ ally button, even if you are homophobic, because it would probably result in you not getting your groceries checked out successfully. Instead, people engage in a behavior called civil inattention, in which they do everything they can to avoid calling attention to the aspect of the person or the situation that is stigmatizing (the elephant in the room, so to speak).
However, in some situations, the stigmatized person has so little power, or is held in such low regard, that people don't feel any need to avoid the conflict created by pointing out their spoiled identity. Because these people have so little power, we think it is no threat to us if we sanction them for not meeting our standards. The case of bodyweight is a particularly visible example of this in recent years.
People might generally regard being overweight as a sign of some personal failing in American culture; they may believe that it indicates laziness, or a lack of effort or gluttony. However, these things would hardly prompt the kind of punitive response that people seem willing to inflict on overweight people in society. There is in face a moral element which causes people (at least, in my belief) to feel that it is acceptable to ridicule and otherwise castigate people who are "fat." Because there is some connection between BMI and health (although there are methodological problems with this research), people feel that they have a moral obligation to punish "fat" people for the "harm" they are doing to themselves by "not putting down the cake." This sort of social process is probably meant to be functional: we punish people who are doing stuff that might harm society or waste societal resources.
Unfortunately, many things which are functional also have "latent functions," or unintended consequences. One only needs to read this article describing the effect of participating in The Biggest Loser on winner Kai Hibbert. She experienced extreme emotional distress, depression, physical injury, and any number of other negative effects in pursuit of a "healthy" weight. On a societal level, people experience similar effects as they struggle to achieve ideals they can't possibly hope to achieve without unhealthy behaviors and emotional effects (anorexia, depression, other eating disorders, and so on). The Biggest Loser contributes to these individual and social ills by portraying this drastic weight loss as possible, reasonable, and appropriate behavior (when in fact, it is probably none of those things).
As someone who has an obese BMI (at 6'1" and 235lbs, mine is 31) but who is in the gym 200+ minutes a week, I understand the distress that these unreasonable expectations cause people. Moreover, I understand how those expectations can get in the way of a more healthy approach to exercise, eating, and body image. Because of all that I've said above, I do hope that Jeff and Ryan (and I) choose to exercise. However, I hope that we choose to do it for the right reasons, which are to improve our physical abilities and to feel better, and not to feed (pardon the pun) feelings of inadequacy and failure. I believe those latter factors are the things that The Biggest Loser and its attendant cultural products are designed to encourage, and so that is why I don't and won't watch the show or buy products associated with it. If Jeff and Ryan do decide to participate in an endurance run, I hope they'd choose another Kinect title as the basis for their pursuit of health, and that they would choose to do so because of their own desire for the outcomes it promises, and not because of the criticism they might face from others.