In an unnamed California gym, Will Ontiveros, a 27-year-old casting director from Los Angeles, arrives for a workout with celebrity trainer Gunnar Peterson. Ontiveros is sheepish and apologetic for missing a previously scheduled appointment. The stakes are high: His boyfriend recently left him because of a weight gain, which is why Ontiveros is here.
Peterson gives him a pep talk. “I’m so psyched with my body,” he tells Ontiveros. “I’m so jazzed with my relationship. I’m happy. Look, couldn’t be happier. You want to be muscle cub, not muscle blub, right?” he asks. “Yeah, that’s true,” says Ontiveros, nodding.
This is Revenge Body With Khloe Kardashian, a new program that premiered in January on E!. Each week it follows two or three hapless nobodies looking to get “revenge” on people in their lives who’ve body-shamed them. We watch as a team of fitness and beauty consultants make the guests’ Instagram dreams come true in 20 minutes or less via brisk montages. Each hour-long episode (with commercials) culminates in an unveiling party where the guests can show off their new looks in front of an ex-romantic partner or frenemy.
While the show has gotten kudos for being LGBTQ inclusive — in the first two episodes, we meet Ontiveros as well as two women who are in a relationship together — this twisted Cinderella story doesn’t deviate much from the standard weight-loss reality show formula: crash diets, extreme exercise, and bullying. In an effort to cross-promote its projects, the show’s emotional manipulation has even gone as far as bringing in fake medium Tyler Henry of E!’s Hollywood Medium to use the memory of bride-to-be Lauren Hennessey’s deceased father as motivation for her to drop the weight.
Revenge Body also pushes the false promise that being thin is just a matter of hard work, and those who aren’t thin just don’t want it enough, when in fact the science says effective weight loss is much more complicated and strongly influenced by genetics.
The paragon of weight loss reality TV is of course The Biggest Loser. On The Biggest Loser, contestants from around the United States competed to see who could lose the most weight in the least amount of time, with creative twists such as a “temptation challenge” in which contestants undermined their diets by eating high-calorie foods in exchange for a prize or other beneficial trade-offs. The show reportedly got 3.5 million nightly viewers even after its peak.
“You want to be muscle cub, not muscle blub, right?”
It’s been almost a year since the last episode of Biggest Loser, however. Former contestants accused the show of encouraging them to take drugs and lie about eating the recommended 1,500 calories when they were actually eating much less. Others said the show should be taken off the air and “destroyed.”
One major study contributed to the backlash. Dr. Kevin Hall, an expert on metabolism at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, followed 14 contestants from The Biggest Loser for six years after they left the show. His findings, published in the scientific journal Obesity last year, showed that contestants came in with slow metabolisms that got even slower while on the show and continued to slow after the show ended. In other words, the show actually made it harder for them to lose weight or even maintain their current size.
Dr. Hall theorized that this is possibly owing to a shift in the production of the hormone leptin, which regulates hunger levels and metabolism in the brain. Contestants came in producing the hormone at normal levels, but — owing to what scientists theorize are the body’s survival mechanisms — they left producing almost no leptin at all. As they gained the weight back over the six years, the group’s leptin production has only returned to about half of what it once was.
But the genre of reality weight loss TV lives on. Revenge Body shares DNA with Extreme Weight Loss, one of ABC’s Extreme Makeover series with a weight-focused twist; Shedding for the Wedding, a CW show in which contestants compete by dropping pounds any way possible in order to win a dream wedding; and Fat Chance, a TLC show that follows prospective weight-loss success stories over a three-month period, among many, many others.
Revenge Body is not as extreme as The Biggest Loser. Contestants don’t have as much weight to lose, and they aren’t sequestered in a house for three months. Rather than subjects dropping nine pounds in a week, we see contestants like Nicole Harvey — who joined the show with girlfriend Sam McCord to save their struggling relationship after a mutual weight gain put a stop to their sex life — losing just over four a week during the 12-week program for a total of 50 pounds. However, subjects are still immediately thrown into grueling workouts (one guest was driven to vomit eight times on camera during his first session), advised to drastically change their diets (for a while Harvey and McCord subsisted on three smoothies and a “crunchy” snack each day), and emotionally counseled by a woman whose strongest qualifications are her 23 million Twitter followers. (Revenge Body is also significantly lower budget than Biggest Loser; Kardashian herself barely appears in the show, preferring to literally phone it in.)
Intense calorie restriction makes people obsess about food, said Dr. Alexis Conason, an obesity psychologist based in New York. This increases the risk of developing an eating disorder.
“These diets very often evolve from, you know, wanting to get revenge on an ex, or a friend, or whatever by changing your body to full-fledged eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia,” she told The Outline. “It’s unfortunately not uncommon.”
Furthermore, it doesn’t work. “Typically what we see is that people regain the weight,” Dr. Conason said. “They blame themselves. They think it’s their fault that they couldn’t sustain the weight loss even though that’s the expected outcome from these kinds of dramatic weight-loss attempts.”
It’s not surprising: Contestants go from living in tightly controlled circumstances with personal attention from trainers, to real-world conditions without the same resources.
Pam Geil, a contestant on Season 14 of The Biggest Loser, started gaining weight rapidly after the show. “Once you get off the show, you just think, ‘Geez, I'm never going to be fat again!’ And that’s just not true,” she told The Outline. While Geil said she doesn’t regret the experience, she also noted, “It also gave me a resounding amount of guilt and feeling like an utter failure that I was not able to maintain my goal weight.”
Programs like Revenge Body also push the myth that losing weight is the solution to all of life’s problems. “A lot of times people think that their whole life is going to be perfect,” said Dr. Lynn Saladino, a clinical health and wellness psychologist. “That ‘everything is going to be perfect, if I can lose this weight.’ And that’s definitely not true.”
To the show’s credit, not all of this disappointing truth is edited out. We see guests reach their goal weights and go on to their reveal parties only to be underwhelmed with their results. In the first episode, Stephanie Perez, whose former friends called her their “DUFF” (or “designated ugly fat friend,” in teen slang), asks one of these old pals to rekindle their friendship. The friend refuses. A guest who lost 30 pounds in 12 weeks gets a proposal from her girlfriend but laments that “Even though I’ve lost some weight, I still feel like I don’t look that great.” Ontiveros never gets to have his “revenge” moment, since his ex apparently refused to attend the taping.
Even if their metabolisms somehow fare a bit better than the cast of The Biggest Loser, life after taping will likely not contain a fairy-tale ending either. (E! did not respond to questions from The Outline.) When the professional trainers, nutritionists, stylists, and makeup artists pack their bags, it’s unlikely guests will be able to maintain their changes on their own.
Proponents of these shows might say they spark conversation about the obesity epidemic in America. However, that conversation is based on a false premise. These shows “have changed the realistic expectation of weight loss so dramatically,” Dr. Saladino said, that her clients are hoping to see 10- or 20-pound losses in a week and are taken aback by a more moderate one or two. She also believes clients get discouraged because they don’t have access to personal trainers or chefs.
Even the show’s stated goal, to “make our haters our biggest motivators,” is nonsensical. If your “hater” is bringing you down by making fun of your appearance, changing your appearance to please them or anyone else is only an admission that their bullying was valid. The show pays lip service to mental health, but it’s unconvincing. Kardashian says, “It’s not about a weight number — it’s about how you feel” in the second episode, shortly before trainer Corey Calliet says, “I don’t want my clients to just be in shape — I want them to look amazing. If you can’t look amazing, then what are you doing?” It’s pretty clear that the show is telling contestants and the audience that physical transformation is the answer to their emotional issues.
“What people are searching for is a sense of acceptance and peace with themselves, and that comes from changing your mindset, not changing your body.”
“What people are searching for, I find, is a sense of acceptance and peace with themselves, and that comes from changing your mindset, not changing your body,” Dr. Conason said, stressing the importance of finding an experienced and compatible therapist to help tackle these issues.
However, if someone is looking to improve their nutrition and exercise habits for health reasons, there are more effective, long-term strategies available than seeking revenge via crash dieting and exercise binges. Dr. Saladino recommends a team-based approach that helps ease patients into new habits. She believes the best place to start is with a general practitioner, who can refer patients to a trainer or nutritionist — then work together as a group to create sustainable nutrition and fitness plans.
With only 630,000 viewers tuning in, its early ratings haven’t been much to write home about, but Revenge Body will likely find success at plugging the Kardashian brand to the faithful. However, prospective guests should be warned: Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but perhaps it’s one they should cut out of their diets altogether.