My family for years has watched trainer Bob Harper help contestants from middle America shed hundreds of pounds on his hit show “Biggest Loser.” The transformations between the heart-wrenching season premiere and the inspirational finale are nothing short of amazing. It makes all the yelling, grunting, squatting, and sweating really seem worth it.
But Harper’s methods are not all related to the physical because each contestant must come face to face with the underlying issue that contributed to his or her obesity. Some have horrible backstories — death of a spouse, abusive parents, car accidents, you name it. Others simply let life get in the way. During these soul-searching moments, the music gets soft, the contestant gets teary and the trainer gets therapeutic.
“What’s going on in your head?” Harper might ask.
Harper really got personal on the Nov. 26 episode of “Biggest Loser” when a homosexual contestant named Bobby visited his family. When his parents saw him for the first time since the beginning of his weight-loss journey, his dad broke into tears. He said he missed and loved his son. But, in spite of the love and affection his dad showed his son, Bobby was hiding something.
“I’m scared to tell my dad that I’m gay,” he said, “And I’m not ready to face his disappointment in that. I come from a very strict Catholic upbringing. Homosexuality was, in a sense, wrong. So, I kind of hid it … I always felt like there was something wrong with me.”
Harper nodded thoughtfully as Bobby spoke. Born in Tennessee, Harper was the youngest of three children, but his parents divorced when he was 13 years old. Both his parents remarried, leaving Bob to fend for himself after high school. “I never had a good relationship with my father,” he told the Globe and Mail.
One day on his way home from his work at a bank, Harper saw a brightly lit sign for a gym. He became a regular and “the gym became my income and my world,” he said. He went to Los Angeles, where he got celebrity clients. Only later, when he was asked to do the “Biggest Loser,” did he find his true calling.
“It all became crystal clear to me when I saw the average Americans coming down the stairs [on the show]. They were these mothers and fathers and I was, like, I get it.”
He encourages people to find their “inner compass” to figure out what caused their obesity. “My way is very spiritual,” Harper said.
When Bobby opened up about his homosexuality, Harper opened up, too.
“I understand what your dad is talking about. I totally get it,” Harper said to Bobby. “Your dad is a strict Catholic? Well, I’m Catholic. I knew a very long time ago that I loved God even though the family that I grew up around repressed [anything] about faith. I decided to embrace this religion when I was 17 years old … I realized there was going to be so many obstacles. Believing that homosexuality is a sin doesn’t mean you’re being hateful. Being Catholic doesn’t mean you’re less than anybody else. It’s just who your dad is.”
Wait just a second.
That’s not exactly how it went down. Can you imagine the reaction from the gay community if Harper had come out and expressed his deeply held beliefs as they pertain to faith and restraining sexuality?
Harper did express his deeply held beliefs, but he didn’t side with the Catholic dad. Harper, a devotee to the mystical Jewish philosophy Madonna popularized called Kabbalah, actually said:
“I understand what you’re talking about. I totally get it,” Harper said to Bobby. “I’m gay. I knew a very long time ago that I was gay and the family that I grew up around was very much the same — there was so much repression there. I think when I ‘came out’ when I was 17 years old … I realized there was going to be so many obstacles. But being gay doesn’t mean being weak. And being gay doesn’t mean you are less than anybody else. It’s just who you are.”
Of course, this statement was celebrated because the “new normal” is really this: It’s OK to espouse religious beliefs on television these days, as long as they are not traditional religious beliefs. “Biggest Loser,” along with other mainstream shows, pretends to be religiously neutral but effectively undermines traditional values.
Plus, there are obviously contradictory messages.
Harper’s advice to Bobby: Don’t change. You are fine the way you are and people should accept you that way.
Harper’s advice to fat people: You are making terrible choices detrimental to your life. You should not accept yourself this way.
Imagine, for example, if Bobby had used a modified version of Harper’s own words at some point during the long, hard hours in the gym:
“I’m fat, Harper. I knew a very long time ago that I liked food but the family that I grew up around had so much food repression. I decided to embrace obesity when I was 17 years old … I realized there was going to be so many obstacles. But being fat doesn’t mean being weak. And being fat doesn’t mean you are less than anybody else. It’s just who you are.”
How do you think Harper would’ve responded? After all, people like Adele and even Winnie the Pooh have claimed to be proud of their weight, which some people believe is inherently tied to identity.
If Bob is so concerned with “not getting people to change who they are,” of course, he wouldn’t be in the business of … getting people to change who they are. Harper wouldn’t have accepted the “I’m proud and fat” line from his contestants. He would’ve encouraged the contestant to try harder, to change, to work against the cravings he feels … all in the name of a better body.
But what about a better soul?
Note the double standard:
“Acceptance” applies in some areas of life, but not all. Are you fat? According to “Biggest Loser,” you need to change, so get used to the trainers screaming in your face to help you change. They’re screaming because they love you. But if you’re gay? Well, anyone who questions that is wrong, especially if their opinion is grounded in thousands of years of teachings of the Catholic church.
“I don’t know your dad, but it sounds like he’s a good man, a smart man,” Harper said. “I think he’s going to accept you the way that you are…”
It’s too much to expect a weight-loss show to dole out bon mots of spiritual wisdom, alongside the “six steps to skinny jeans.” However, spiritual advice is already being given out on the show. Families who believe in traditional religious values need to be aware that our worldview is being undermined … not just in government, but — increasingly — in schools, in the courts and now even on weight-loss shows.