I’m not here to talk about Rachel Fredrickson’s dramatic weightloss. I’m here to talk about those talking about it. And what it says about all of us.
A little background for those not acquainted. Rachel was a constestant on the show, The Biggest Loser on NBC. For those not familiar with the show, it takes dramatically overweight people and attempts to help them get to a healthier weight and change their lives by taking them from their families and putting them on a ranch where they have specialty meals made for them and train for 12 hours a day. No easing into it. 12 hours. Each week three teams led by the trainers (Jillian Michaels, Bob Harper and Dolvett Quince currently) weigh in and the team that’s lost the least weight by percentage has to eliminate a player. The final three left are weighed in at a live show at the end of the season. The “biggest loser” wins a prize of $250,000. Rachel weighed in at the start of the show at 206 lbs and is 5’4″ tall. On Tuesday night she was crowned “The Biggest loser” when she weighed in at 105 lbs. She lost just under 60 % of her body weight. Now for about a month prior to the finale, the contestants are sent home to continue to lose weight on their own. Sort of a “can they do this” litmus test. In video of the finale, the reaction shots of Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels show astonishment, disbelief and concern at Rachel’s appearance. Rachel was trained by Dolvett Quince on the show. A couple of factual things to keep in mind, while contestants are training at home, they are not under the show’s medical nor training supervision so as not to give one contestant an “edge” over each other. Also, the contract they sign to be on the show says, that the “medical professionals” who are monitoring them may or may not have actual medical experience. So people, are questioning both Rachel’s results, the means she took to get to them and if the show has any culpability in her situation.
I’ve seen a range of responses to Rachel’s weight loss and it is those that are far more revealing than her weight loss itself is of how we, as a culture, function.
First we can discuss the defenders of Rachel and her weight loss. The first most common sentiment shared by these people is, “isn’t that the point of the show? to win the money? She did that, good for her!” (or some variation). Here we find that old familiar enemy, Mammon. As in Matthew 6: 24 “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Greed is good according to Gordon Gecko and our entire society seems to be okay with that. Even passé. And it’s the indifference there that gets us every time. According to what society tells us, we should do whatever it takes to get the cash. Even if it’s dangerous or unhealthy or ethically questionable. Greed is a sin. It is one of the seven deadly sins. In fact, the Catechism explains how the Ten Commandments deals with greed:
2536 The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit. It forbidsavarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power. It also forbids the desire to commit injustice by harming our neighbor in his temporal goods: (2445)
When the Law says, “You shall not covet,” these words mean that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us. Our thirst for another’s goods is immense, infinite, never quenched. Thus it is written: “He who loves money never has money enough.”321
It also goes on to address desires in general in this way:
2537 It is not a violation of this commandment to desire to obtain things that belong to one’s neighbor, provided this is done by just means.
Now, it is not a far leap to see that losing weight, a crazy amount of weight, on a game-show to get a large sum of money is a very gray area for greed. But “just means” is a telling phrase. If Rachel wanted that money so bad that she was willing to cause herself potential bodily harm and just to ensure that prize money was hers and so that she could claim it like a two year old snatching a toy from another in the sandbox and hugging it to his chest while proclaiming, “It’s mine!” than yes, she is sinning. I do not know Rachel’s heart and cannot make that judgment, however the commentators who defend her by saying “it’s all about the money, honey” are revealing that they don’t think greed is all that bad. And that is sinful. And it is the way we move in society today. A fellow blogger once put out a post in which she said her husband was urged to read the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by co-workers who chided him for being a “Poor Dad.” The book is a monetary primer for middle and lower class dads on how to teach their kids skills to end up rich. Monetarily rich. I, like most readers at her blog, resented the implication that a life without gobs of money is a life of poverty. While literal poverty may prevail without hoards of dough, spiritual poverty is rampant in the lives and hearts of the money-grubbing people who are telling you you have to teach your children how to become financially wealthy. As a culture we have mistaken teaching our children how to wisely spend and save their money with how to become financially wealthy and morally bankrupt. Don’t believe me? Well, have you heard of Bernie Madoff? Or the pre-prison Martha Stewart? Money is an idol in our culture and our world. Which is why we now, more than ever, need the examples of the saints. Saint Francis of Assisi could not have been a better patron for Our Holy Father to choose with his devotion and love of the poor and his willfully casting off the riches of the life he was born into. It was unpopular even then and the evidence of that is his own father imprisoning him for doing so. But those are the lives we need to align ourselves with. Not the Wall-Street moguls. Not the spiritually bankrupt on account of their love of Mammon.
Another popular defense of Rachel and her weight-loss is, “as long as she’s happy, it’s ok!” Um, not necessarily. We are a sick culture and one of our diseases is desire of the flesh. Now we are most commonly associating desires of the flesh with sexual sins but it also extends to obesity, eating disorders and addictions. I am not a doctor and cannot say that Rachel has acquired an eating disorder by being on the show, but the attitude of “if it feels good, do it” embraced all over in our culture, could certainly lead a person trying to lose weight down that road. Rachel was most certainly obese at the show’s start. She ate to fill whatever void she had and it made her feel good so she kept on eating until her weight was in excess. She failed to care for her body, her temple of the Lord, and to fix it, turned to a television show. It is possible for women and men who have gone to one extreme to go to the other. Yes, of course it is, what could initially be confidence and a new appreciation for one’s body can easily become a mental disorder or addiction. A contestant last year on another show, Extreme Makeover, Weightloss Edition, in fact, did just that before the cameras. Our moral laxness is not just a disease of the mind and spirit, but the body as well. In his book, Rediscovering Catholicism, author Matthew Kelly talks about our bodies vs our souls in the context of fasting, he writes:
Whether we are aware of it or not, the body is always crying out, feed me, sleep me, please me, pamper me, nourish me, wash me, relieve me, water me… In the modern climate, most people’s bodies are winning the battle for dominance between body and soul.
In a sense, the body is like money–a great servant, but a horrible master. (emphasis mine)
When a person says they are happy at one extreme or the other and want to continue destructive behaviors be they excessive exercise, starvation, dehydration, purging or complete inactivity, binging, and poor food choices, they have made their body an idol. But we don’t even have to be the one engaging in those particular behaviors to be sinning in that way. Our teaching what acceptable body types are is just as much a sin of the flesh as sexual sins, addictions and eating disorders. Who can forget Karl Lagerfeld’s criticism of actress and comedienne Melissa McCarthy’s weight? Just as engaging in harmful behaviors hurts the person doing it, so does making an idol of one type of body. In an interview after the controversy, one of the show’s trainers, Jillian Michaels, “weighed in” without a criticism of Rachel saying only that previous contestants of hers at the same height came in at still healthy, but drastically different weights than Rachel’s. God’s creation includes people who short, tall, skinny, chunky, and all shades in between. When we send the message that only certain body types are beautiful we are denying the uniqueness God gave each of us. All of us, every single one, was made PERFECTLY in His image (Gn 1:26). To ignore or deny that is in violation of God’s design of us as human beings. To make someone who is healthy at their current weight feel less than or to even attempt to is an act of wrath. Which is again, a deadly sin. And both Rachel’s detractors and supporters could easily become guilty of that either in their attempt to question her health at her current weight or cheer her on it if it is in fact unhealthy.
Finally, a third support I have seen is “stop being so judgmental.” Non-Christians and less than Bible-literate Christians love to quote Matthew 7:1: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged,” when they want to justify a particular behavior or belief not limited to a particular sin or heresy. In the context of the Gospel of Matthew, this particular phrase occurs during the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus preached to his many disciples. Now, contrary to secular belief, this verse DOES NOT mean we get the luxury of overlooking and ignoring the sins of others, however, it does mean we don’t get to look down our noses at others for their sins in arrogance. Just because we sin differently from someone else does not allow us to pretend to be all high and mighty about it. Now are people who are saying Rachel lost too much weight being judgmental? Some of them surely are. But others are just shocked and pointing out a potentially dangerous situation. But the immediate resorting to “don’t judge her!” or more often the indignant, “how dare you judge her!” is a symptom of a much bigger societal problem. Permissability. None of us gets a pass where sin is concerned in our salvation. I love how clearly the Catechism explains what our culpability is in sin that is not ours:
1868 Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them: (1736)
—by participating directly and voluntarily in them;
—by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;
—by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;
—by protecting evil-doers.
1869 Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.”144 (408, 1887)
So when does one speak up and when does one not? Well, it’s all situational, unfortunately. If we know someone is going to commit murder, yeah, calling the cops if we can’t dissuade them first is probably a good thing. But everything else is best revealed to us in prayer for the most part. When we are called to speak up or not (sometimes God has plans that make no sense to our puny human understanding) we must remember to always love the person. And when that love is present, we can be assured that God is present there as well in our words and actions.
Rachel has more than her share of detractors as well. As I stated above, many of her detractors are guilty of wrath and sometimes envy in their criticisms of her. They are also sometimes guilty of slander in saying she has anorexia nervosa based upon her one appearance. They are often reflecting the hyper-critical nature of our society where a woman at the weight Rachel was when she started on the show is fat and undesirable and as she is now is skeletal and therefore also undesirable. This “Three Bears” complex our society has when it comes to women’s bodies and physiques has created an entire industry of dieting, weight loss, and plastic surgery as well as eating disorder clinics. And shows like The Biggest Loser. The show, like the diet industry, presents itself as trying to help those with obesity become healthy. However, it sinisterly dangles a cash prize out there not based upon health but based upon a society’s standard of beauty and “worth.” Disturbing in the comments of many detractors is the insistence on mentioning muscle definition. What if Rachel does not have a naturally muscular build? In that case, even at a few pounds heavier, she might not look particularly well defined. And would that result in people thinking she looks “too fat.” Again, this is an indicator of the larger issue of not addressing the inherent worth of all people and instead placing that worth on one’s weight or one’s appearance. This excessive vanity is closely linked to lust and should be avoided. Beauty is subjective, of course. And the definition has changed many times in the course of history. And just now as much as ever, we must avoid making an idol of it, lest we resort to self-destructive actions or destructive words about others.
There are antidotes to these problems. Most notably there is the Cardinal virtue of Temperance. Temperance does not mean denial of something we like. On the contrary, we should enjoy things. However, we need to restrain ourselves particularly when it comes to our desires or passions be they food, alcohol, sex or some other thing. We lack discipline. Discipline that tells us when to shut our mouths or stop eating or get off our fat butt and go for a walk. Discipline can aid us greatly in our quest for temperance. But it’s not easy. Like all good things, it’s work. It’s an act of will that we do not get good at unless we put in the effort.
And (cue the groaning) we need Confession. We need to acknowledge our sins. All of us. And we need to ask forgiveness. All of us. And receive absolution. In a world with more Confession there is more grace and where there is more grace there is less sin. But as creatures of free will, we must CHOOSE to go and receive the sacrament and the grace and make an actual effort to “go and sin no more.” Confession makes us painfully aware of our sins and our sinful nature. And by putting ourselves under this microscope, we choose to acknowledge that we can do better and be better. And we make more of an effort. And when we do that, we begin to make a difference, even if we don’t know or can’t see it, in the world around us. We shift from the paradigm of secularism and hedonism back to the paradigm of salvation. When we begin to see Christ in others, it changes us and it also changes them.
We can and must win these culture wars that are revealing themselves in the comments of people in relationship to a 23-year-old’s appearance on a television show. We must confront what these comments reveal about ourselves and the world we live in. If we don’t, if we fail, then WE become the biggest loser on the day of Final Judgment.