Michelle Obama’s Repeated Mistake

social-changeLast year when I found out that Michelle Obama was going on The Biggest Loser, I wrote an article with Darryl Roberts talking about what an absolutely horrible idea it was and why.  Unfortunately it didn’t get the job done because Michelle Obama is planning to appear on the show again this year.  The article we wrote is below if you want to read it, right now though you can help the campaign to stop the First Lady from going to TBL and hopefully start a dialog about why this culture that she is perpetuating is so dangerous. Here are some activism opportunities:

Sign the petition:  http://www.change.org/petitions/first-lady-michelle-obama-please-do-not-appear-on-the-biggest-loser-and-instead-engage-with-the-advocacy-communities-specializing-in-weight-stigma

Utilize these Pinterest memes  http://www.pinterest.com/bingebehavior/biggest-loser-and-weight-stigma/ 

Spread the petition and memes using your own social media.

Do other awesome things and let us know about them in the comments.

Here is the article we wrote last year:

When I heard that Michelle Obama was going on The Biggest Loser to congratulate the participants on being role models I knew that I had to do something.  So I e-mailed my friend Darryl Roberts, filmmaker of America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments. We wrote a well-researched article pointing out the problems with Mrs. Obama endorsing the contestants as role models.  That article is below.

It wasn’t meant for this blog, but it’s now been turned down by three major media outlets.  Not because they disagreed with us, in fact all three said that they agreed with the article.  It was denied in all three cases because the White House wouldn’t like it, they were worried about damaging their working relationship with the White House, and because it it made the First Lady “look bad and out of touch.”  That confused me since I think the problem is that the First Lady IS out of touch, not that I’m pointing it out. And why does the media believe that, in America, we should be scared to question our government?

So I’m using my little forum here to get this out.  But before I do, I want to make an invitation:  Michelle Obama – have lunch with me.  I believe that you are a good person and that your intentions to improve kids’ health are good, and I don’t believe that you intend for the media to be too scared to publish pieces that are critical of you.  I’m a champion athlete, a trained researcher, and a real live fat woman and I think that a good place to start is for us to have a conversation.  Tell me where and when you’d like to have lunch and I’m buying. In the meantime, here’s the piece that the media was too scared to publish:

Michelle Obama’s “Biggest” Mistake

By Darryl Roberts and Ragen Chastain

I have had the opportunity to get to know Health at Every Size proponent Ragen Chastain after interviewing her for my documentary America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments.  I was coming home from a screening of the movie when I received an email from Ragen alerting me to the fact that our first lady Michelle Obama was going on The Biggest Loser to proclaim the contestants as role models.

I will admit that initially I didn’t quite believe this. “The Biggest Loser,” is a show that’s exploits a very dangerous aspect of American life, the unhealthy ways in which we attempt to lose weight. Surely the First Lady had to know this. But it turned out to be true and, knowing what we know about health and weight, Ragen and I decided that we had to respond.

Mrs. Obama, we know you love our youth as much as we all do and that you want to see them healthy, but we would ask you why you chose a game show like The Biggest Loser as a platform to promote “getting healthy.” and why you continue to push weight loss even though it doesn’t meet the criteria of evidence based medicine.

Have you vetted what happens to some the contestants one of two years after the show?

The New York Times did some digging and this is what they found:

“The Biggest Loser has produced some amazing results for its obese contestants, but at what cost? Many see the pounds come right back, and it’s likely because they engage in dangerous, damaging behavior in the first place in order to win the weight-loss reality show, the New York Times has learned. Season one’s winner, who’s almost back to his original weight of 330 pounds, dehydrated himself to the point of urinating blood. “I’m just waiting for the first person to have a heart attack,” says a doctor.

This season’s first episode resulted in two hospitalizations, which is scary given the content of a release form obtained by the Times. It reads: “No warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals [on the show].”

Shockingly, contestants who talk about being completely inactive sometimes for years have to attest that they are “in excellent physical health”. And while the Times got some tidbits — contestants apparently work out in as much clothing as possible when the cameras are off — few were willing to talk. After the paper started digging around, former contestants were emailed a reminder of the serious consequences that come with unauthorized interviews: fines of $100,000 to $1 million.”

A lot of our youth actually start off exercising and eating better. But when they don’t see the “desired result” on the scale, they stop because they mistakenly think that if their healthy habits don’t lead to weight loss then they can’t lead to health.

From my travels with the film and Ragen’s work as an expert speaker on Health at Every Size, we can produce health professionals from Harvard, Princeton, Michigan State, the University of Denver, UCLA, etc. who will tell you exactly what we’re telling you.

What do you think of Michelle Obama going on Biggest Loser to congratulate participants on being good examples of health?

RAGEN:  This is an illustration of good intentions gone horribly awry.  Calling these contestants good examples of health and fitness is deeply problematic.  There are already firsthand accounts of Biggest Loser contestants being encouraged to engage in incredibly unhealthy behaviors, including working out against doctor’s orders and manipulating their weight through dehydration

According to an interview with Golda Poretsky (http://www.bodylovewellness.com/2010/06/09/kai-hibbard-biggest-loser-finalist-part-1-of-3/) with former contestant Kai Hibbard:

“They start teaching you that because you are overweight you are sub-human …There was a registered dietician that was supposed to be helping … but every time she tried to give us advice … the crew or production would step in and tell us that we were not to listen to anybody except our trainers.  The doctors had ordered us to take [a solution to re-balance our electrolytes] and the trainers were like, “Throw it out, right now.”  So I got to a point where I was only eating about 1,000 calories a day and I was working out between five and eight hours a day …   And my hair started to fall out.  I was covered in bruises.  I had dark circles under my eyes … My period stopped altogether and I was only sleeping three hours a night.  I tried to tell the TV show about it and I was told, “Save it for the camera.”

Exactly what’s wrong with the “lose weight” to be healthy approach?

RAGEN: Teaching kids about healthy eating and helping them develop a lifelong love of movement are excellent intentions.  Focusing on the weight of kids in order to do that is simply horrible execution.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated recently that a program that shames kids carries  “a great risk of increasing stigma for those children who are overweight or obese which, in turn, can reinforce unhealthy behaviors (e.g., overeating),” and also said:

“Studies suggest that overweight children who are teased about their appearance are more likely to binge-eat or use unhealthy weight-control practices, and weight-based victimization has been correlated with lower levels of physical activity. Not surprisingly, stigmatization of obese individuals, particularly adolescents, poses risks to their psychological health.”

Hospitalizations for eating disorders in children younger than 12 years old rose by 119% from 1999 to 2006 according to a report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published in the journal Pediatrics.

It’s not just that focusing on kid’s weight might hurt them, it’s also that it doesn’t help.  According to research from the University of Minnesota “None of the behaviors being used by adolescents (in 1999) for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss[in 2006]…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors, including significant weight gain.”

Meanwhile there is not a single study that shows that weight loss works for more than a small fraction (about 5 percent) of people.  The cold hard truth is that there is absolutely no evidence that supports the idea that the majority of fat people can become thin through diet and exercise.

Is There a Solution?

RAGEN:  Absolutely.  The fact that I’m a healthy fat athlete isn’t a surprise or a paradox, there are lots of us.  A great deal of evidence (Matheson et. al., Wei et. al, the Cooper Institute etc.) points to the conclusion that healthy habits make healthy bodies in a wide variety of sizes.

Matheson et. al. People who participated in four healthy habits had essentially the same hazard ratio regardless of their weight. Obese people who participated in four healthy habits had a dramatically lower hazard ratio than thin people who did not participate in healthy habits.

The worst thing is that all this focus on the weight of individuals is distracting us from the systemic issue of lack of access.  Many people do not have access to the healthy foods that they would choose to eat -including foods that are not genetically modified or full of hormones or government subsidized high fructose corn syrup.  Many people do not have access to safe movement options that they enjoy, or to affordable evidence-based health care.  But as long as we focus on little Johnny’s BMI, we don’t have to address the real problems here and we can just keep shaming and blaming fat kids and adults and misinforming them and everyone else about the odds of becoming permanently thin.

We admire Michelle Obama and we believe that she is a strong woman.  In fact, we believe that she is strong enough to step up to a microphone and say “I truly believed that I was doing the best thing for kids’ health.  I now realize that I was wrong, and I am going to lead the charge in fixing it.  We are going to start focusing on supporting the development of healthy behaviors, and access to healthy safe movement options, and affordable evidence-based healthcare for kids of all sizes, and we are going to stop focusing on the weight of any kids at all.”

We look forward to seeing it.


So that’s the article that was “too controversial” for three major media outlets.  I’ll end the way I started.  Mrs. Obama, I’d like to take you to lunch.  No need to spend government money – I’ll come to Washington DC at my own expense, we’ll go to lunch and I’m buying.  I think that we both believe in giving our citizens the opportunity to achieve their health goals and I think that if you are trying to eradicate obese people, it is worth talking to one and seeing if we can learn from each other.  What do you say?

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22 thoughts on “Michelle Obama’s Repeated Mistake

  1. It’s such a strange choice for her to make, because there are vocal doctors who have spoken out against how bad the Biggest Loser is.

  2. Pseudo editor here… you’ve got a duplicate line: “It wasn’t meant for this blog, but it’s now been turned down by three major media outlets. It wasn’t meant for this blog, but it’s now been turned down by three major media outlets. Not because they disagreed with us,…”

  3. Of course that would be controversial: they want to eradicate fat people, not have a rational discussion with them. I really don’t think that they care that people can be both fat and healthy. And they mostly just don’t care about poor people and the fact that we have fewer resources to good food and safe exercise. I’m at the point right now where I don’t have enough money for both rent and groceries, so I buy crappy food to survive. Junk food is cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables, and no one suffers more from that than poor people. We can’t all afford an organic garden cultivated by white house servants, can we Mrs. Obama?

  4. We need to re-blog and comment and say YAY to this.
    Always a fan. I hope you get your lunch, and I look forward to seeing the official white-house photo.

  5. I’m not a very “political” person but have come to dislike both the Obama’s very much lately. Michelle for what she’s done to us in the FA world and her hubby for what’s he’s doing to our country. I told my husband today he reminds me of an alcoholic father, kind of out of touch with reality, tends to blame others for his problems and pins the “kids” against each other and when I say kids I mean the House and the Senate. Anyway I applaud your efforts with Mrs. Obama but am not surprised by any of this at all!

    1. I would really appreciate it if everyone would leave politics out of this blog. Commenting on what the article is about is fine, and I’m happy to read all opinions. Getting into politics in general is a good way to make this space divisive and unfriendly. Can we keep the emphasis on HAES and fat activism and leave our personal political beliefs out of it?

      To stay on topic, I think Michelle Obama doing this is a huge mistake that sends all the wrong messages. I wonder if she’s fallen into the “everybody knows” fallacy that thin is always better. She really needs to educate herself.

  6. I can’t sign the petition because I find Change.org’s privacy policy inadequate. This is what I wanted to post there:

    Have you read the story about Tanya McHale, a six-year-old girl with a thyroid problem who was bullied so severely for her weight she attempted to cut the fat off her body with a carving knife? The Biggest Loser and the culture of sheer hostility it and its ilk creates for fat people is the reason things like this happen. It’s the reason fat people are misdiagnosed to the point they, in this day and age, die of treatable conditions their doctors simply refuse to believe they have (“You’re just lazy and making excuses! If you lose weight it’ll go away!”). It’s the reason the most common response to weight stigma is to insist the fat person lose weight so thin people don’t have to lose their prejudice. It’s the reason fat people are seen as inherently inferior friends, employees, and romantic parners no matter what they achieve. Please do not contribute to this message of hate, or lend it your legitimacy.

    Is there any other way I can meaningfully contribute without posting my real name and physical address online?

  7. There’s a saying where I grew up outside of Washington DC: “I root for two teams–the Redskins, and whoever is playing Dallas.”

    Now I root for two things: Michelle Obama to shut up and whomever tells her to shut up. Her appearance on a show that regularly humiliates people, breaks their core, starves them, denies them basic human privileges, and treats them so poorly their bodies break down (and turn major bucks in the process) with intents to promote what’s happening is the same as her going to a POW camp right after the prisoners are freed and saying, “You’ve set SUCH a good example of how to suffer and die. I only hope other people are paying attention because you did it right!”

  8. I feel like because BMI is something that can be categorically measured and recorded, then nobody is interested in broader things like general well-being/health because those things can’t easily be measured across a large pool of data. It’s like she is interested only in something that she can change a little and say “look here are the numbers to prove this is a success!” … perhaps she is more interested in being able to prove that she succeeded in this by using numbers rather than the actual health of people. Mind you I don’t know enough about it as I am a NZ citizen living in Australia, but that’s one angle of what could be happening!

  9. Just so you know, the Pinterest link isn’t working for me. Part of me is afraid the page has been taken down; Pinterest hasn’t always been good with fat activism, in my experience, even though it’s where I got started. But maybe the link is broken or there’s something wrong on my end!

    1. Hi Anna,

      I just checked and it worked for me, so sorry that you are having issues – I hope it’s working for others! Thanks for letting me know that there is a problem.


  10. If a prison forced the Biggest Loser “lifestyle” (quotes because keeping their contestants alive doesn’t seem to be much of a concern) on prisoners, said prison would be indicted for human rights violations. But apparently torture is a-OK if it’s done to make fat people temporarily thin on TV.

  11. Reblogged this on My Big And Gorgeous Life and commented:
    This is Dances With Fat’s latest post. Please read and sign the petition. Michelle Obama plans to reappear on the asinine show “The Biggest Loser.” It is shaming, bullying, and full of weight stigma. The First Lady is OUT OF TOUCH!

  12. I’m not sure what the three media outlets are that you sent the article to, but how about Al Jazeera? The Wall Street Journal? The Atlantic?

  13. Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    Even if Michelle Obama believes that being heavy is unhealthy, I don’t see how she can condone the bullying tactics utilized on The Biggest Dickweed. I hope that everyone will sign this petition and hopefully she will stop her ill-advised love affair with this abusive bed partner.

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