“Act Your Age”: A Weighty Issue on The Biggest Loser
The Biggest Loser (TBL) is a popular reality series designed to empower dangerously obese contestants with the knowledge, resources, and time needed to lose large amounts of weight and transform their lives. Record numbers on the scale are what really count, but TBL makes age matter in various ways. With its grim comparisons of each contestant’s (younger) chronological age to (older) biological age and overarching promise of reclaimed years through weight loss, TBL both reflects and comprises a youth-oriented consumer culture focused on preventing or correcting the bodily decay associated with aging. Indeed, as a society, we are always constructing, challenging, and transforming meanings of age through communication.
TBL focuses its eighth season—“Second Chances”—on particularly poignant stories from disparate individuals needing to transform themselves after heartbreak and tragedy. In a season devoted to redeeming bad choices and reclaiming lost lives, 49-year-old Liz Young outlasts 12 other contestants and sheds 85 pounds from her 267-pound frame. Still, according to devoted viewers and even fellow contestants, she ultimately fails to transform in meaningful or lasting ways. Instead of desiring and embracing lasting change, Liz clings to her identity as a Southern grandmother and portrays herself as old.
Given that age is always personal, collective, and social, an examination of the ways in which Liz acts her age would be incomplete without also considering the ways in which people talk about and respond to her performance. To understand how viewers interpret and respond to Liz’s performance of age, I examined all public posts related to Season 8 and Liz on two now-defunct message boards with sections devoted to ongoing TBL discussions. When viewed as performed, age and gender are not what one is but what one does. To increasingly angry and bewildered viewers, Liz does both wrong.
First, viewers quickly tire of Liz’s “granny identity,” believing that Liz equates having grandchildren with being old. Liz’s continual self-references as a Southern granny—her identifiable character and ongoing story arc from the first episode—make one viewer wonder whether “she’s identified so much with the role that she’s forgotten that she’s still young.” To emphasize their point and simultaneously distinguish themselves from her, many posters draw on youthful experiences from their own or others’ lives. Some viewers even blame TBL for Liz’s failed performance. “I’m so glad I’m not the only one on this thread who thinks Liz (and the show’s producers) are wayyyyyyyyyyyy overdoing the whole ‘granny’ thing,” posts one viewer. “It’s driving me crazy. And it seems to get more pronounced every week. Gimme a break.”
Second, viewers object to what they see as Liz’s ongoing “geriatric demeanor.” Throughout the season, viewers respond incredulously when they first learn of Liz’s chronological age: “Liz is only 49?!?!?! Are you KIDDING ME? Based on her acting like she’s totally decrepit, I thought she was way older.” Liz’s ongoing claims of lost youth and impending old age also baffle and anger viewers. In one episode, Liz wins by channeling her TBL identity as a Southern grandmother and bemoaning that she “lost cute 30 years ago” in a successful ploy for sympathy. Later in that same episode, Liz raises viewer ire again when she campaigns to stay at the ranch after falling below the yellow line, this time stating that at 49 she doesn’t “have much time left” to effect change in her life. By the end of the season, most viewers decide with disdain that Liz’s geriatric demeanor will continue to prevent her from obtaining the “renewed lease on life” promised by TBL and expected by the viewers. Indeed, viewers automatically equate Liz’s poor attitude with her so-called geriatric demeanor. Others invoke gendered stereotypes of age, calling her “a mean old lady,” complaining that “she is turning into a nasty old witch,” chiding her for “talking like a crotchety old lady,” and demanding she “stop with the crusty granny crap already.” To them, Liz plays a lousy role and, worse, performs it wrong.
On the other hand, when Liz does show the desire she’s criticized for lacking, viewers again take issue, this time for giving in to the game play inherent in TBL’s manufactured challenges. When Liz hides the blenders in retaliation against contestants who leave a mess in the kitchen, one viewer scolds, “Liz is way too old to be acting this way.” When Liz vows revenge against a contestant who wins the right to reassemble the teams, another viewer claims, “Liz is older and should be wiser.” Liz is not the only contestant upset by the surprise turn of events, but the viewers specifically call out female contestants in general, and Liz in particular, for resorting to game play. Ultimately, the viewers hope for—and expect—greater maturity from Liz. Now, not only does she perform a lousy role wrong, she also fails as a good person in real life.
Finally, viewers criticize Liz’s older appearance, noting “the woman is so unpleasant she has permanent FROWN lines, that’s what makes her look so old.” Others blame Liz’s overall style: “Liz needs to be smacked out of her Granny Zone. Grandmother doesn’t have to equal dowdy and frumpy.” Overwhelmingly, viewers agree Liz looks older than she should. As the season progresses, they increasingly call for the popular makeover episode to “do something, anything!” for Liz, whom one viewer dubs, “Grandma, aka the oldest looking 49-year-old in the world.” Even after her professional makeover, however, viewers are still underwhelmed with Liz’s appearance, primarily because “she still looks old” on a show that explicitly equates health with youth.
On a competitive reality show where viewers tune in for the “drama of success” and fat equals biologically old, 49-year-old Liz loses weight, but passively—and persistently—believes her best years are behind her. TBL offers Liz the opportunity to physically reclaim biological years, remake herself, and transcend her repeated assumptions that the best of her life is behind her. Although her body is remade by the end of the season, Liz’s performance remains unchanged. From beginning to end, she lacks desire; that is, Liz fails to want more. Worse, she seemingly cannot or will not act her age: Viewers claim she’s too young to be so old and too old to behave so young.
Ultimately, Liz’s unacceptable performance of gendered age grows so polarizing that it all but dominates discussion between and among her fellow contestants, the viewers, and herself. Rather than a corporeal example of increased strength and vitality at the end of a disciplined and meaningful journey, Liz’s body emerges instead as a site of struggle where cultural, social, and institutional forces reinforce and contradict expectations, experiences, and accomplishments of age.