Snickers, sin, and salvation: the Puritan themes of TV's 'The Biggest Loser'

Puritans confronted the weight of sin. The obese contestants on 'The Biggest Loser' face up to the sin of weight. Both know that willpower alone isn't enough to conquer bad habits.

In 1678, when the Puritan John Bunyan wanted to share his message of redemption from sin with the masses, he used a book-length allegory – at the time, a popular platform. If he were alive today, Bunyan would probably use a correspondingly demotic medium: reality TV. And the program he would create, if it didn’t already exist, might be “The Biggest Loser,” in which obese contestants compete to lose the most weight.

“The Biggest Loser” is a modern-day allegory of self-transformation, one that speaks to our culture as compellingly as "The Pilgrim’s Progress" spoke to that of our forebears. Being on “The Biggest Loser” – or striving to lose a lot of weight under any circumstances – really is a kind of pilgrimage, one beset by the usual hazards of temptation, weakness, and doubt. It’s a journey one makes in the direction of self-mastery through a hostile landscape studded with fast food and malevolent coworkers bearing baked goods.

Willpower plus practical wisdom

What this show demonstrates is that willpower is weak, and without practical wisdom unlikely to triumph. We are likely to have more success, to cite one relevant example, keeping ice cream out of the house than resisting its siren call from the freezer. The good news is that even the weak of will have opportunities to constrain their own choices, if only they acknowledge their weakness and take up arms against it.

At the same time, the show and its many knock-offs vividly dramatize the challenge of moderation – that virtue of virtues – in a world of freedom and affluence.

They are cautionary tales about the ways in which we can fall short of our own fondest wishes for ourselves by succumbing to powerful unwanted desires on a daily basis. Each indulgence of these appetites is insignificant in itself – What’s one bite? – but taken together they can impose a burden heavy enough to warp our lives.

For "Biggest Loser" contestants, being selected for the program is a dream come true. Most of the contestants are so heavy they seem beyond hope of redemption. They have a great weight they’re trying to shed, just as Bunyan’s Everyman hero, Christian, is trying to do with the weight strapped to his back.

The weight of sin

“Pilgrim’s Progress” was about the weight of sin. “The Biggest Loser” is about the sin of weight. Yet whether you believe in original sin or just the virtue of self-mastery, at some level all sinning, ancient and modern, is about the loss of control over desire. In this sense “The Biggest Loser” is a morality tale just as Bunyan’s was. Contestants who desperately want to behave differently are defeated by their own uncontrollable appetites, a position in which almost all of us find ourselves sooner or later.

“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do,” Paul lamented in his letter to the Romans, who went on to note that “it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”

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The answer to this problem, Paul held, was to allow the Spirit of God to dwell in us. To Puritans like Bunyan, this was to be reinforced by rigorous self-examination and accountability to a virtuously minded community. “Biggest Loser’ contestants aren’t nudged to come to Jesus, of course. But the program they embark on is remarkably Puritan nonetheless.

Obesity as a scarlet letter

Much of the action on “The Biggest Loser” takes place at a retreat where the contestants are subject to verbal flagellation – for their own good of course – at the hands of painfully thin conductors on the rocky road to fitness. Having failed to regulate their desires, they begin the show as fallen, and this profound spiritual infirmity is visible to all in their great unhideable girth which broadcasts their shame as clearly as if they wore a scarlet letter. Their goal on the program is to put down that weight, unburden themselves of their sin, and number themselves among the elect – the minority of American adults whose body-weight is in the range of normal.

All this is to say that "Biggest Loser" contestants have already been through Bunyan’s Valley of Humiliation by the time they are on the show. But the powerful premise of this series is that America’s fatties have the power to change. Like Bunyan’s pilgrim, they can choose salvation. The difference is that self-discipline alone, rather than Jesus, is held to be the answer. This is America, after all, where each of us is supposed to be our own savior.

Yet “Biggest Loser” participants know they can’t do it alone. None of us can, which may be why contestants tearfully embrace the show’s glamorous trainers – hard-body messiahs who hold out the prospect of redemption through suffering. Virtue, it seems, requires struggle, for dieters as much as for Bunyan’s pilgrim, and in both cases it’s a life-and-death conflict. Indeed, redemption for “Biggest Loser” contestants can occur only if they are reborn in a different body.

Contestants testify that they haven’t had a boyfriend or girlfriend, that they are the life of the party who inevitably goes home alone, that they dream of the love and happiness which will one day be theirs if only they can slim down. Their goal, in other words, isn’t just weight-loss but a new life in a version of heaven – a heaven of normality – that they can only reach by emerging from the chrysalis of the program’s retreat resurrected as their own masters.

Social ties are key

The desire to attain the promised land of thinness – and a recognition that, on their own, they are powerless in the face of their appetites – goes a long way toward explaining why people sign up for these programs. Sartre’s famous comment notwithstanding, hell is not other people. On the contrary, social ties are crucial for establishing and enforcing norms – and helping each of us defer gratification and resist unseemly excess.

Those ties have become frayed in modern society. In some cases, as when an entire family or neighborhood is overweight, communal ties reinforce harmful norms. On “The Biggest Loser,” the audience performs the norming function that tight-knit communities once did, applying social pressure, moral support, and a sense that for better or worse somebody is watching. This is how a great deal of human behavior is moderated.

“Our friends and relatives,” the psychologist Howard Rachlin writes, “are essential mirrors of the patterns of our behavior over long periods – mirrors of our souls. They are the magic ‘mirrors on the wall’ who can tell us whether this drink, this cigarette, this ice-cream sundae, this line of cocaine, is more likely to be part of a new future or an old past. We dispense with these individuals at a terrible risk to our self-control.”

But giving individuals the tools to commit to virtue isn’t the same as establishing a social climate that uses the power of inertia to make virtuous action into a kind of default. Today’s hypercaloric environment, in which family meals have disintegrated, portion sizes have exploded, and snacks are ubiquitous, has made fat into something like a national norm. It’s a truly massive public health problem. One study suggests that if we could get everybody in America to slim down to an appropriate body weight, we’d prevent 216,000 premature deaths annually.

Few of those lives will be saved by means of a painful personal pilgrimage like the ones portrayed on “The Biggest Loser.” Instead it will require cultural and political changes that make us more active and less susceptible to our own unruly appetites. We’ll need to help one another to form better habits, and perhaps better priorities as well. In short, we will have to come together in some way, at the very least for meals, but probably for policy changes as well. Virtue, in this arena as in so many, is a collective activity, and the revolution in our behavior, when it comes, is unlikely to be televised.

Daniel Akst is an editorial writer and columnist at Newsday. He is also the author of “We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess.” A longer version of this essay was originally published in the book, “Acculturated: 23 Savvy Writers Find Hidden Virtue in Reality TV, Chic Lit, Video Games, and Other Pillars of Pop Culture,” edited by Naomi Schaefer Riley and Christine Rosen.

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