by Golda Poretsky, H.H.C.
A few months ago, I wrote yet another post on why The Biggest Loser is so bad for its contestants, the millions who watch the show, and the culture in general. I expected to see the usual comments from my usual readership.
What I didn’t expect to see was a comment from Season 3 Biggest Loser finalist, Kai Hibbard, saying how much she enjoyed my post and asking if we might speak.
Shortly thereafter, Kai and I spoke on the phone about her experiences on the Biggest Loser. From seeing her fellow contestants forced to workout with injuries against doctor’s orders, to the extreme dehydration prior to weigh-ins, to the resultant eating disorder that Kai still is working to heal, the story she told was nothing like the fantasy that the Biggest Loser seeks to promote.
Because Kai’s story is so powerful in her own words, and because she has so much to share on the reality of this reality TV series, I’ve decided to break the interview into 3 parts, and give you the actual audio to listen to if you so desire.
On how the contestants dehydrated themselves before weigh-ins:
“I didn’t learn how to dehydrate until I got on the ranch. It was every week. Every single week, this is what a weigh-in would look like: the real weigh-ins were at 10 o’clock in the morning and they were on a cattle scale at the ranch and they weren’t filmed. . . . Now, mind you, it was shot in Simi Valley, so it’s a desert, so it’s hot. And on the morning of the weigh-in you would get up and you’d put on your underwear, your spandex shorts, and you’d put on sweatpants and then you’d put on a sports bra, a tank top, a long sleeve shirt, and your sweatshirt, a ball cap, and then you’d zip up your sweatshirt, you’d put your hood on and you’d go down to the gym. [The gym] wasn’t a real gym, it was a temporary structure just for shooting and it didn’t have any air conditioning and you’d shut all the doors and all the windows in the gym. Then you would work out for two, two and half hours (as long as you could stand it) without any water. (The boys would take water, rinse their mouth out, and spit it. I couldn’t even do that — if I was going to put water in my mouth, I was going to drink it.) Most, if not everybody, had cut their water about 24 hours beforehand, if not 24 hours then at least by 5 o’clock the afternoon before. And then, you would drink coffee if you had anything the night before, because (a) it would clean your system out and (b) it would dehydrate you.
“So after you did the 2 hours of working out in full sweat, sweating off as much as you can, you would go back to the house, shower, blow dry your hair, and strip down to the lightest clothing you could find, which was usually spandex shorts and a sports bra. Then you’d go downstairs and you’d weigh yourself in and the second you got off that scale you would chug water because you were so dehydrated. ”
On her most painful weigh-in:
“The worst one I can remember is the very last one, before the final weigh-in, and it was down to five contestants left. I remember being on the elliptical and being so exhausted and so ready to go home and so dehydrated that I burst into tears and I’m crying . . . and I’m still working out and it set off a chain reaction and every single person in the gym, all of the five contestants that were left, were crying. And we were so brainwashed at that point that I remember saying out loud, ‘Well, at least we’re losing more water-weight by crying.’”
On how the contestants learned to dehydrate themselves:
“The trainers tell you. And it was [trainer] Kim [Lyons]‘s first season, and I remember Kim having a conversation with [trainer] Bob [Harper] where she said, and she said it to her team, ‘You know, look, let’s do this the right way this season — no dehydrating, let’s just do it the healthy way.’ And Bob completely agreed to it. Then, right before our very first weigh in, Kim came over to us and she said, ‘Guys, I’m really, really, really sorry. I know that Bob and I agreed not to dehydrate our teams, but I’m watching Bob, and if you look right now, he’s dehydrating his team. And if you guys don’t dehydrate, you don’t stand a chance. You’re going to get picked off one by one and have to leave. And that’s when it started.”
On how the show is edited to make contestants look bad for refusing to work out with injuries:
“You really get brainwashed into thinking everything’s your fault, [that] you’re just not strong enough, you’re just not good enough. . . . For example, Heather, on my season, was told by the medical trainer, not one of the personal trainers, . . . ‘Here’s the deal, both your knees are messed up, and I believe you ripped your calf muscle.’ So he told the trainer that too but when you watch the show, Heather’s arguing with our trainer and saying, ‘Look, I can’t do it.’ And they made it look like it’s because she’s lazy and refuses to work out, when actually she’s been told by the doctors, ‘Do not run, do not do this, you cannot do this.’ And production and her personal trainer wanted her to do it anyway, just for the cameras. And when she refused to do it for the cameras because it would have damaged her body even more (she ended up needing steroid shots in both knees while we were still there by the way) it was edited to make her look like she was lazy and disobedient, basically. So then you’ve got the 22 million Americans that watch it thinking that you’re this horrible, lazy, ungrateful person. And she literally got death threats on the NBC web site. I just have people that tell me stuff like, I’m ugly when I cry, or I’m lazy. She got death threats.”
On people’s reaction to Kai telling her story:
“I get hostility now, now that I tell the truth about what happened on the show. I get told I’m ungrateful or I must be lying because everyone else says it was so positive. . . . I actually had one person friend me just to send me a hate letter. . . . The worst ones are the rabid fans of the show who desperately want a magic cure-all, and when you tell them that it’s not they get upset. I tend not to get my feelings hurt so much by those. . . . But the ones that kind of get me the most are the contestants that also have been on the show and either have something financially invested or emotionally invested in keeping the myth going that will say something to me about it. But at the same time, I get really bolstered by the [contestants] that were like, ‘Thank you for saying something. We can’t speak out because we’re still under contract and we’re afraid what it’ll do to our family.’ Those make it all worth it. . . . It’s just too bad that I get all of those e-mails in private because they’re afraid and I get all the hate comments from the other contestants out in public.
“I have to say that there are some people that probably had a very positive experience there. I don’t know, I’ve only lived my experience. If you’ve been overweight you’re whole life and conditioned to believe that you’re not worthwhile until you’re thin, and they bring you someplace that, no matter how bad they beat you, it makes you thin, and that’s all you ever wanted, then I guess that’s a positive experience. . . . Being thin is not the end-all-be-all for me.”
On the fantasy of being thin:
“They said that they were very surprised by me as a contestant because, if you watch from the beginning of the season to the end, my personality doesn’t change at all. And my comment was, ‘Why would it?’ But I guess that 95% of the contestants start off one person and end up a different one at the end. And it’s because they believe that being thin will make all my dreams come true. [But] your mortgage is the same if you weigh 144 or if you weigh 268. You’re either happy with your life or you’re not.”
On a member of the Biggest Loser staff who intervened on behalf of the contestants:
“There was one person, that I think really tried to stand up for us. His name was John (sic) and I believe he’s the sports trainer for University of South Carolina now. I’m not certain. But they brought him in on our season, because, I guess, the previous two seasons, if the contestant turned their ankle or had blisters, they were wrapping their own feet and they were taping their own wounds up and they brought “Doc” John on to help with our injuries and treat us. And he was very compassionate. And when we went down to his pool house to get treatment once in a while, when we could (eventually, the crew tried to stop us from even going there), it was kind of a safe place. You could go in and talk about what was going on and a camera wouldn’t be in your face. But by the end of filming, it stopped being a safe place too, because they thought too much drama and too much good, juicy stuff winds up being said in his little treatment place. And they didn’t bring him back again after [the third season].
“He desperately tried to intervene a couple/few times and the crew would shut him down a lot, or our trainers would. For example, when he tried, on the doctor’s orders, to give us the electrolyte solution, or when he tried to tell our trainer that Heather’s calf muscle was probably ripped and she couldn’t work out and the crew intervened and Heather looks like she’s a whiner.
On her message about the Biggest Loser going forward:
“Kill your scale. It’s ridiculous to measure your worth based on a number in a little box that you get on in the morning. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It has nothing to do with your worthiness. Nobody needs a reality TV show to be a healthy human being. And love yourself no matter what you weigh. If somebody comes up to you and tells you you’re fat or if somebody comes up to you and tells you your beautiful — that has absolutely nothing to do with who you are and everything to do with who they are. And remember that.”
To keep up with what Kai’s up to, follow her on Facebook.
Click here to listen to this third and final portion of my interview with Kai:
Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. To learn more about Golda and her work, click here.