Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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Sometimes the saddest stories are buried in the “entertainment” section of the newspaper. I put the word in quotation marks because some of what passes for entertainment these days is cruel and invasive. It elevates the maudlin and sappy sentimentality to holy writ and it crucifies failure. It holds ordinary people — especially women — to an impossible standard of looks and behaviour, all the while moving the goalposts.

Erik Chopin of New York, winner of season three of television’s most popular reality show, The Biggest Loser, didn’t appear on this week’s broadcast supposedly featuring past contestants in an update on how they’re doing now.

Eric has gained back almost all of the 214 pounds he lost on the program. He’s not the only one. In a story in the Anchorage Daily News, writer Julia O’Malley chronicled how the second-place contestant in season three, Kai Hibbard Zwierstra, has also gained back most of the 118 pounds she lost.

O’Malley quotes Ellen Halverson, a psychiatrist, that the show “creates an artificial world where people make a full-time job out of losing weight in an environment created to support them. The show doesn’t address the root behaviours that lead people to overeat. Because of that, it may be hard for contestants to maintain their weight in the real world.”

No kidding.

Most reality shows are no more real than Cheez Whiz is real food or Tang is real orange juice. One of the worst is The Biggest Loser, a show that has captivated the American watching public. The show is dedicated to putting obscenely obese people, desperate enough to lay themselves open to ridicule, through months of isolation, living together on a “ranch” and enduring a boot-camp regime of weight loss and hours of daily, frantic exercise. Cameras follow them everywhere. They are trotted out for the television public to judge, to talk about and supposedly, to cheer on. The really sad part is the choice made by so many television watchers to sit on their chesterfields and watch the humiliation presumably without ever stopping to think what such public scrutiny must be doing to the contestants, or what all that sitting around is doing to their behinds. (The facile argument is that the contestants volunteer to put themselves through the regime, so whatever humiliation they endure is their choice.)

This isn’t a support group, this is a contest, make no mistake. There’s money involved for “the biggest loser” and a modicum of fame until the cameras stop rolling and the producers stop calling and then they’re back to whatever kind of life they had that led to their obesity.

Frankly, I’ve only been able to watch about 10 minutes of one program, although the ads are as invasive as the program. The sight of incredibly fat women weeping as they get booted off the program, presumably for being “bad” is the worst sort of bathos — the worst sort of trivialization — on all sides: the show, the contestants and, of course, the voyeurs watching.

Kai Zwierstra (she was Kai Hibbart and married after the show) told the Alaska newspaper that the show’s philosophy “to radically change diets and exercise patterns of obese people — seemed to have a hidden message about her character. It seemed to say that weakness made people fat. If they just had discipline, if they weren’t lazy, they could be thin.”

That’s just plain cruel.

Success isn’t losing half your body weight; success is being able to change. Victor Frankl, the late Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, put it best: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” You can change yourself. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. But it is possible.

None of us particularly likes change. Regular routines, predictable outcomes are usually what we’re after. But keep Albert Einstein’s definition of madness in mind: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If all we do is continue on the same path, eating the same food, the outcome is predictable.

But let me hear you cry: I Am Woman, watch me change.

I came into work at the London Free Press one afternoon with dark, red hair. As I had been a dishwater blonde at the previous day’s news meeting, there was some expressions of surprise from the other reporters, at that time, all male. By the end of the shift, nobody cared much what colour my hair was. And I stayed red until the fateful day, about seven years later, when on a trip back home to Alberta, my mother allowed that the colour was making me look “old.” I was about to celebrate my 30th birthday that fall, an age at which many women start to worry about such things.

That did it for the red hair. By that evening, I was blonde, thanks to Mother and a get-blonde kit. And not just my natural dishwater blonde, but a va-voom blonde, a “only your hairdresser knows” Clairol blonde, a blonde with attitude. It took about another 10 years for me to realize that doing my own hair was not doing my looks or my hair any good.

And so, dutifully, I found a stylist. This is not to assume that I like change. In the past 30 years I have had exactly three stylists and I’ve been with the current one for 16 years, only slightly less time than I have employed the same cleaning woman. (By way of comparison, I have been married to Ted for only 13 years and there isn’t a woman in the world who wouldn’t agree that it’s harder to replace a stylist or a cleaning woman than a husband. Unfortunately, such threats don’t work on Ted who merely laughs and goes back to reading the newspaper every time the subject is raised which is usually minutes after the indefatigable Brigitte muses about retiring.)

Why am I confident all of us can change? Because if you are female you are already equipped to handle profound change. For a goodly part of your teenage years and adult life, your body forces change upon you every month. At the end of that time, it announces change with menopause. In between those years are child-bearing and child-rearing — and that doesn’t even count the husband-caring part of the equation. If you can get through all of that, changing your eating habits, changing your attitude about exercise and fitness, and even changing friends who aren’t behind you should be easy.

Think of it as personal housecleaning — tossing out all those behaviours that won’t bring the result you really want.

NEXT: Ho-ho-ho, the eating season is upon us


Written by Catherine Ford

November 26, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. The Romans threw Christians to the lions, that was their entertainment, now we take individuals that look at bettering themselves and their lot in life and they are instead held up to ridicule and once used given no support to continue,why is it that human suffering seems to be an accepted form of entertainment.

    cathie williams

    December 2, 2009 at 7:58 am

  2. I watched part of one episode of Biggest Loser. It was painful. The humiliation and degradation were more than I could stomach. That was enough for me. Click.

    I laughed at reading about women and change. (I experimented with being blonde, instead of brunette, for about 6 months.) It’s funny to me that my husband sees me as inflexible. Ha! I’m perimenopausal. Change is all there is – even my body’s monthly rhythms of over 30 years are changing.

    patty love

    December 14, 2009 at 8:21 pm

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