Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Jillian Michaels's Hurt Locker

It’s body image madness in the media lately – all day, every day. It’s mayhem, people, mayhem. I’m not talking about old-school mixed messages, like those from Us Weekly, who put “Is Tori Anorexic?” on the cover one week and “How Kim Lost 10 Pounds in a Week” the next. I’m talking about a creepy, exploitative relationship between the media and eating disorders. This shiz gets ugly – just ask overeaters, who in recent weeks have been taking a beating in the media vs. food scramble, with Ms. Jillian Michaels leading the ill-conceived assault. You may remember Jillian from “Jillian Michaels Maximum Strength Fat Burner,” the pill that magically melts away fat. Or perhaps you’ve witnessed her work on the humiliation festival “The Biggest Loser.” Her latest attack comes in the form of her own show, “Losing It with Jillian Michaels.”

In fairness, I should admit that I have a "thing" about Jillian Michaels. I have expressed my frustration with her several times in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!” as well as in a column or two. So, yes, she starts at a disadvantage with me. Given how much time I spend enraged by her, I can’t in any good conscience watch her show, which is convenient, because I really, really don’t want to. So I hadn’t seen it until tonight. Unfortunately, I read two articles this week about how awful the show is, and I had to see for myself. I watched the entire episode. Bias or no bias, it’s bad.

“Losing It” follows the same formula every week: Jillian moves in with an unhealthy, overweight family for seven days, she works her magic on their emotional and behavioral issues, she forces them to complete extreme boot camp style work-outs, she yells in their faces, and there is a lot of crying. Jillian leaves after one week but returns two months later to “reveal” the family members, who (generally, I presume) have lost a lot more weight. Jillian is revered as a hero, she praises the family’s tenacity, and then there is more crying. Obviously, the process begs questions. How can anyone in one week address the myriad problems these families reveal? Why is she screaming so much? Isn’t it dangerous to start exercising at that intensity? I don’t have time for all of those, so let’s just talk about all the screaming. It’s an embarrassingly obvious shtick. In tonight’s episode, Jillian enters the scene with a discernable swagger and immediately antagonizes the group by saying, “Wow, I didn’t think one family could get me this pissed off in one day.” She was angry, you see, about the unhealthy, high-calorie lunch she watched them eat -- on camera, broadcast from their own kitchen. And it continues like that from there. Jillian berates the father, who has been depressed since losing his job, for “failing” at his workout. She yells insults as the family struggles to keep going. Then she forces the parents to talk about their marital and family problems in front of their 14 year-old twins.  As a result, all four end up sobbing as the children, who fear their parents will die, beg them not to quit, and the exhausted, ashamed parents break down at the horror of hearing their kids beg them to live. I think it’s a great idea for Jillian to strut into a family’s house all Terminator-style and force a huge, traumatic, emotional upheaval. Don’t you? Plus, nothing makes school more fun for a 14 year-old than having your peers watch you bawl over your sweaty parents on TV. Good call, Jillian.

It can be argued that the families are willing participants, so what’s the harm? They agree to be on the show; they know how it’s going to go down. Well, in tonight’s episode, the father was unemployed, both parents were morbidly obese, and the show gave them $50,000 plus Jillian’s services. So, is it exploitation on NBC’s part or opportunism on the family’s part? It sounds to me like a game of “How Much Is Your Pride Worth?” and I don’t care whose fault it is -- it’s gross. To an extent, I blame Jillian Michaels, because she is the self-proclaimed expert who puts herself in charge of the experience. I think she owes the families a little more than hasty pseudo-therapy and verbal abuse. Also, I wonder how the public would respond if Jillian were screaming in the face of an 80-pound anorexic woman. Sounds cruel, right? I guarantee there will never be a show like that.

Of course, Jillian Michaels is not the entire problem. It’s airbrushed models and liquid diets and fast food and “Celebrity Fit Club” and “The Biggest Loser” and my beloved/despised Us Weekly and more. But whichever end of the spectrum or part of the issue one looks at, whether talking about those who starve or those who binge, the problem is really the same: our society encourages a toxic and disordered relationship with food. I don’t know what should be done about it; I have my own issues. But I’m pretty confident that creating a public showcase out of people’s problems isn’t really helping the relationship any. That means you, JMic. Stop yelling.

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