“Now THAT’s a trainer!”: Our abusive relationship with Jillian Michaels

By | June 1, 2010

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Warning: I generally don’t do “trigger” warnings, but these two videos are pretty disturbing to me. Given that I am not real easily disturbed, I figured it’d be smart to give y’all a heads up about that.

The Washington Post has an article up today reviewing Jillian Michaels’ latest effort in her life’s mission to save us all from french fries, a new TV series entitled “Losing It With Jillian”, which premieres tonight on NBC. In “Losing It”, Michaels goes to the homes of fat families — in the first episode, half of the family is gastric-bypassed and still fat — to, I don’t know, abuse them into giving a shit. Oh, it’s hard for me, my dears, to describe these shows with any semblance of objectivity, because frankly I find them revolting.

Luckily, Washington Post writer Hank Stuever has more patience, and does a fine job of breaking down the nuts and bolts of this new series. Stuever rightly says of reality television in general and weight loss shows in particular:

[I]t’s about the underlying rot and the psychological baggage. To get it off, you gotta get it out. Crying is exercise. “Losing It With Jillian” takes what was good about “The Biggest Loser” — the weigh-ins, the workouts, the touchy-feely fussbudget who is Jillian’s co-star, Bob Harper — and replaces it with all that oopy-goopy lard of the sorrow of being fat. It encourages people to find the supportive Hallmark greeting card that is folded up deep within one’s soul.

I have it on good authority that Jillian Michaels is a lovely-enough individual in person. I’ve not had reason to doubt this, likely because I’ve never managed to consume a full episode of The Biggest Loser, the popular weight-loss reality show which she co-hosts, in one sitting. And in her favor, Michaels was clearly uncomfortable being lumped in with anti-obesity whipping girl MeMe Roth and bizarre sociopath The Anti-Gym Guy (whose actual name I always forget, but as I am no more than a nameless “chubby” to him then he can be the nameless Anti-Gym Guy to me) on Dr. Phil’s “Ultimate Fat Debate” episodes. On that panel, Michaels tried to emphasize that she only trains people who employ her to do so, and that she does not go around shouting at fat people for free. Oh, and she doesn’t believe in being evil to fatasses just because you can. I want to believe her. But it’s difficult to reconcile that with this sort of behavior:


Or these unscripted, oops-didn’t-know-the-mic-was-live comments:

Y’all, I am burned by Jillian’s hot fat-hatin’ fire. Are you burned by Jillian’s hot fat-hatin’ fire?

Jillian Michaels is a troubling figure to me, even without extensive exposure to her antics on The Biggest Loser. I know there are folk out there, even fat folk, who adore her. Adore her. The comments to both the videos above were filled with Jillian Michaels apologists falling all over themselves to defend her and her rage-alicious ways; indeed, the title of this post came from a comment on the first example. It seems for some people Michaels can do no wrong, even when she is way out of bounds. Personally, I had Physical Education coaches in my school years whose demanding teaching methods were but a fraction of what Michaels employs, and all they accomplished in me was the cultivation of a deep and seething hatred for team sports, one that persists to this very day, though seventeen years have passed between me and my last P.E. class.

It’s not simply Michaels’ fat-hatin’ that bugs me, nor is it her penchant for yelling. My problem is that her methods of engaging and motivating her clients is frighteningly close to a relationship which in any other context we would call abusive. Working off the two clips above exclusively — two clips I chose pretty much at random from a multitude of possibilities — I can make this case. For one, Michaels dehumanizes the fat people she works with (”They’re not like normal people”, “half-dead”). She seems to think the brains of fat people have been compromised such that they can only respond to repetitive screaming, not unlike wayward cattle. She makes threats, not just to their physical safety, but to their very lives (”The only way you’re coming off this damn treadmill is if you die on it”). Her abuse is calculated to break her clients down until they weep, and even then she doesn’t let up. She is unpredictable, with a vicious and quick temper, and is apathetic toward (if not gratified by) her clients’ discomfort, be it physical or emotional. There’s even elements of codependency in there, as it’s only when the fat people in question behave as instructed that her mood might change and they may receive some encouragement or support, which is only meted out in doses small enough to keep them craving more. And before any of this happens, the people she trains must first be convinced that they cannot possibly survive without her, that their lives prior to this introduction were worthless, their bodies but hollow shells — or, in this case, shells filled with soulless fat.

And people love it. They say, yeah! That’s what these fat people need! They need to be abused!

And fat people love it. They say, yeah! That’s what I need! I need a stranger to scream hurtful things at me while I exercise!

My loves, if the person your best friend was dating exhibited these behaviors, what advice would you give? Would you say, “I’m sure s/he has your best interests at heart,” or would you say “In fact, you really were an insignificant piece of shit until you started dating so-and-so,” or would you say, “It’s nothing less than you deserve”? I rather hope you would go with something along the lines of: “This relationship is toxic and horrifying and I will do whatever you need from me to help you get out of it.” To put a finer pop-culture point on it, Jillian Michaels is basically the Joan Crawford of physical training. No matter how vicious and unstable her behavior may be, at the end of the day all we want is for you to love us, Mommie Dearest.

Oh, I am aware that people who hire her do so of their own free will; indeed, most abusive relationships begin that way. But let me be clear: if a fat person wants you to scream at, humiliate, or otherwise demean them, that itself is a problem.* It is a problem because it illuminates the fact that so many fat people believe they deserve humiliation and disrespect, and also believe that these things are their only means of finding health and happiness. That their immorality has to be beaten out of them, emotionally or otherwise. That their evil has to be exorcised. That they and their bodies are not entitled to care and dignity but only to punishment and pain.

It’s not just Jillian Michaels who is responsible for this cultural phenomenon; abusive trainers have been around for as long as there have been gyms to train people in. But she is, at this moment, the single most visible example, and she is the only one with a hugely successful television series which is helping to shape — for better or worse — our national consciousness about what it means to be fat. Thus I’m using her here to illustrate this very ugly and abusive aspect of our culture. It’s difficult to argue that Michaels couldn’t be “successful” with her clients if she were less monstrous, unless Michaels herself really does believe that her clients cannot understand the potential benefits of nutrition and exercise without being berated into obeisance, that fat people aren’t quite people at all, and that they need to be rescued from the fat scourge robbing them of their humanity.

Self-respect and self-esteem are not things that are delivered automatically along with a new, slimmer body. How you do or do not value yourself is something that you will carry throughout the bodily changes that will inevitably take place in your lifetime. If you love yourself unconditionally — as you should, even if no one else does — then fatter or thinner, you are at home in your body, and you neither want nor need abusive outsiders to instruct you on how to survive. This model of weight-loss-by-abuse is irresponsible, designed to produce good television more than to encourage healthier lifestyles. Our hatred of fat bodies is enabled and reinforced; if Michaels, who claims to do this because she cares, is allowed to berate fat people under the auspices of doing them a favor, then certainly I am free to openly mock the next fat woman I see. Even if she’s with her family. Even if she seems to be having a good time. How dare she. The popularity of Jillian Michaels, in spite of (or because of) her abhorrent behavior, illustrates that we as a culture are continually and passively consuming media that underscores the idea that fat people are asking to be malevolently attacked simply for daring to exist.

On an individual basis, Michaels’ abuse may make her clients lose weight, and her clients may even swallow the idea that simply weighing less entitles them to feel better about themselves, but this kind of self-confidence ultimately rings hollow, as it’s not rooted in their own selves, but instead is tied to Michaels’ approval. What happens when Michaels leaves, as she ultimately will, and they are left without the only person they believe can save them? A person cannot care for a body they’ve been so thoroughly trained to alienate and despise, and when they are utterly lacking in the basic tools that would enable them to reclaim their bodily autonomy and self-respect. Michaels may think that she cares — many abusers do — but her methods are poisonous, both to the people she trains and to our culture as a whole.

* At least it is when it happens in an environment that doesn’t involve mutual negotiation and the establishment of a safe word in advance.

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