I have a confession to make. I watch Extreme Weight Loss, a reality television show on ABC. I don’t change my schedule to watch it. I don’t even remember what night it’s on (Sunday), but it’s become enough of a habit to say it’s something I do, like how I use mouthwash every other day. Also, I watch the entire two-hour episode—not just a few minutes. After I watched three episodes I began to think about the reasons why I was watching it, and why it was embarrassing to admit.
Extreme Weight Loss is a weight loss show. It is a spin-off of another show called The Biggest Loser. It features a single person who needs to lose upwards of 200 pounds, or, mathematically, greater than fifty percent of their body mass. In the opening scenes we meet a morbidly obese person who needs rescuing. We see them in their natural habitat, before they know they have been chosen, but of course we know they’ve been chosen, why else would the cameras be capturing these moments? The people we meet need help changing their activity level, their lifestyle, and their eating habits. It is a complete overhaul, one where every bad habit must be flipped on its head.
An entire year transpires over the course of one episode, and the audience gets to see this radical change occur as if we are fast-forwarding their life with a remote control. We see the chosen person heft barbells, chew through raw broccoli and admit their shortcomings. At their side is Chris Powell, a personal trainer and the host of the show. Tears are shed, grimaces are made. After three months, they get on a scale. Not just any scale, but one found on a loading dock, for receiving the shipment of hard goods. Holding a digital counter in his hands so that only he can see the result, Mr. Powell looks dramatically at his steed as if they have failed him. Cut to commercial.
When we come back Mr. Powell is looking downward, his shoulders are slumped and his chest is sucked inward; it is the pose of bad news. Then he looks up with a twinkle, and we see the number drop—dramatically. In the end they all lose the weight. In the last few minutes we see an incredible transformation. We see muscles, slim calves, tight-fitting jeans—or a short skirt, and wide smiles. We see glowing, healthy, fit people who are thrilled to be alive.
As a child growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I was an active girl. I started with gymnastics, then I joined the swim team and, briefly in college, I was on the crew team. I was far from sedentary, but my weight was a yoyo of proportions. I had one moment of extreme thinness, when I was 12 years old, which was when I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. After that, and once I was placed on insulin, my weight became a struggle, both from my body’s reaction to the insulin as well as my failed attempts to understand science. While in high school, I successfully navigated the retail diet scene: Jenny Craig, Nutrisystems and Weight Watchers, but eventually I gained all the weight back, plus a few extra pounds.
The photos from this period of my life detail my evolution, along with my different hairstyles and fashion misses. My cheerleader, the person urging me to lose weight, was my mom. “If you were only thin,” could begin all number of phrases but most frequently ended with, “you could get a boyfriend.” The fact that I had boyfriends at various numbers on the scale didn’t shift her perspective. Now, many, many years later, I still have this quiet internal voice, much quieter now than it used to be, that tells me that I am just a few pounds from having it all, landing the guy, selling the article, seeing my name on the marquee.
At about the same time that I secretly began to watch this program, I went to my hairdresser, a petite, beautiful woman who also trains at my gym. In the shiny black leather chair, staring into our reflections in the mirror, we talked about our shared addiction to working out. Then my hairdresser mentioned the show, my show, in a stage whisper. I had an ally. So here is my second embarrassing admission.
“I wish there was a show for people like me, people who just want to lose ten pounds,” I told her. I called them vounds, “vain pounds,” in reference to people like myself, who were constantly striving to lose “a few pounds,” even when their jeans fit great. Or like brides who work out multiple times a day before their wedding. I wasn’t sure whom I was making fun of, myself, or the actual people on the show whose health was in danger. She laughed with me, but she also told me I looked great, and that my hard work at the gym was showing. Internally I wondered how long I would carry my childhood image that I would never be thin enough.
Our cultural problem with obesity, and, related or unrelated, an increase in the onset of Type 2 Diabetes in children, catches my breath. The preponderance of packaged foods, fast food chains, large portions, sugar-based drinks, and quick meals are the reason a show like Extreme Weight Loss exists. When I walk through the airport, the perfect place to study the American diet, I widen my eyes at the food that is offered up for personal nutrition: giant blended mochas with whipped cream towers, personal pizzas with enough calories for a family and a breakfast sandwich with enough fat to warm you in the winter.
Most people can just eat, or overeat, like on the show. As a Type-1 Diabetic, every meal, or mid-day snack, must be reviewed for the presence of carbohydrates. For every gram of carbohydrate, I must take a corresponding amount of insulin. If you’re not a diabetic your body naturally does this for you. Like a well-oiled machine it is much better at processing your molecular data than I will ever manage.
I can’t just snack if I am hungry.
I can’t just eat two donuts for the heck of it.
If I want a sugary margarita I better hit the bathroom for some extra insulin.
There are times when I make the wrong calculations, and my eating becomes an outward sign of suffering. When this happens my blood sugar drops dramatically and the only way to counteract it is to eat. Forced eating to stop my body from being sweaty, my mind from being spacy and my thoughts from being jumbled. That other people get to walk this planet without a second thought about the ramifications of what they eat is a daily fantasy.
For over 20 years I have watched my weight, worked out and attempted to eat right. As an insulin-dependent Diabetic, it is a part of me, like my curly hair and the mole on the back of my thigh. The stars of Extreme Weight Loss, who have been eating unchecked for years, must put their diets under a magnifying lens and, like me, if they want to survive, they will have to do this for the rest of their lives. But they’re doing it. And that’s when my embarrassment at watching the show turns into pride, and, whether they know it or not, I welcome them into my club with open arms.