5 Insane Realities Behind the Scenes of a Weight Loss Ad
As a young non-union actor starting out in a big city, sometimes you have to do shameful things in back alleys or run around naked for no pay in order to work your way up in the business. I did neither. I did something far worse, and of my own volition. I lied, I abused my body, and I psychologically abused thousands of others. That's right: I was in a weight loss infomercial.
This is my story.
The Before/After Models Don't Follow the Same Plan as You
If you've ever been drunk at four in the morning with an empty bag of potato chips, you've probably run into an infomercial like this:
But wait, there's more!
Those last two ads might actually be using the same girl. There's no way to tell, because both of them are demographically sound, milquetoast Caucasian/Photoshop hybrids. On paper, all of these plans sound like a lazy fat person's dream: "Pop these pills and lose weight!" "Drink three cayenne pepper shakes a day!" "Do this special 20-minute fat-blasting workout three times a week!" There are two things all of them have in common: They sound really easy, and they don't even sort of work. My plan focused on short bursts of high-intensity exercise to supercharge very short workout sessions. I don't know much more about it, because none of us were allowed to follow the actual DVDs we were selling. The very first time I watched any of the exercise DVDs was six hours before the final "after" interview with our producer.
The real plan was for us to work out three to six hours per day for a month. They also put us on a strict diet (the DVD emphasized that you didn't have to diet at all, but this is the real world), locking us down to 1,000 calories a day, which you may recognize as the caloric value of the smell of a Big Mac.
Even a small person needs at least 1,250 calories to be healthy, but when you eat that little and exercise constantly, you bet you'll lose weight. All of it save for the bones, if you're not careful. Because ...
The (Secret) Plan the Models Follow Is Wildly Unhealthy
They told us to take water retention pills. A lot of the girls took laxatives. I started drinking this yogi tea that makes you poop more. We would have happily defaulted on a loan with Shylock just to be rid of that unsightly extra pound of flesh. And it's not like any of us were overweight from the start; we had maybe 15 or 20 pounds to lose. When you're that close to your goal weight, it's harder to cut pounds. But their goal was for us to lose a pound a day for a month, because that looks awesome on a banner ad. And since losing a pound a day for a month is just all kinds of unhealthy, they plied us with, uh, "diet aids." I have no idea what they were -- they told us they were vitamins -- but it sure sounds like a polite pseudonym for "shady Chinese amphetamines."
We agreed not to drink any water for hours before the weigh-ins, because those few seconds under lights on the scale were all that mattered. During weigh-in, we'd all pump our arms in the air and cheer and high-five -- shit no one actually does to congratulate friends outside of an '80s teen comedy. But when you celebrate like that, even when it's forced, you start to buy into it. They give so much positive reinforcement for the weight loss, and you're sort of isolated with all these hungry, tired people. It's like a recipe for breaking down a person's psychological barriers. This is how they get people to turn state's evidence. Or join Scientology.
The Pressure Will Break You
The woman who led our group had been fat when she was younger, and she knew exactly how to prey on our fears. One girl got cast as Jan in Grease, and this woman used that as a teachable moment to point out that if we lost more weight, we wouldn't get cast as fat characters.
Under that kind of pressure, one girl ended up losing 11 pounds in four days, which, besides being spectacularly dangerous, earned her a $500 prize. She was overjoyed, because who the hell doesn't need $500? Not people who star in informational weight loss ads, that's who. The rest of us got angry at her mild increase in wealth and status. We started to resent her -- and really, I think that was all part of the plan. They wanted us competitive. They wanted a fat-based Lord of the Flies.
The producers freaked out halfway through the process when many of us were gone and those of us who were left weren't meeting their goals. Unlike the people who'd be buying this "program" at home, we had actual trainers and wranglers to ensure that we were always on the brink of starvation, exercising like Conan the Barbarian at his slave wheel, and pooping like a family of four. And the results still weren't impressive enough.
The Pictures and Testimonies Are a Colorful Parade of Lies
Our goal was to lose weight by Thanksgiving, so we all needed a story. I'd say 98 percent of us were married or had an SO, but we'd all take off our rings for the videos and say ditzy stuff like: "I'll finally put that profile up on OKCupid now!" They once asked me, "Can you say you're going home to show off for anyone from high school? We've only got three people with that story."
Then we took our "before" photos, which were artificially rigged to look as bad as possible. We were told not to wear makeup or brush our hair, and then they stuck us in tiny outfits in rooms with shitty lighting and told us to stick out our stomachs. No, I'm not exaggerating, check it out:
All told, I lost around 20 pounds, but they didn't like the real "before" picture because I looked too thin in it, and I had the audacity to smile. I think I maxed out at 215 in college, so they used that picture. There was another woman who weighed 291 pounds like two years before the show started. She spent years and got major surgery to get down to 160. She applied to be in this infomercial to lose 15 pounds, but they used a picture from when she was nearly 300 pounds as her "before." They compared those two pictures, a whole human being's worth of weight apart, and yet still advertised it as "LOST 15 POUNDS," as though the only difference between you looking like a steaming pile of food-meat and a yoga teacher is that last bit of stubborn holiday belly.
The "After" Pictures Are Fake, Too
Remember when I said they didn't like me smiling in the "before" picture? Here's how that conversation went:
"The producers think you look too happy for the weight that you're at."
"You're overweight, aren't you depressed?"
I don't take sad, unflattering overweight pictures. That's not what I do. That's not what anyone does, actually. The human ego is a fragile thing, and Facebook photos are the flimsy scaffold we use to prop it up. Speaking of which, I was one of the very first "success stories" they put up on Facebook, but they strategically cropped my photos, because I've always had thin legs. In the "before" picture, the legs weren't visible, but in the "after" picture, the program was like "LOOK HOW THIN HER LEGS ARE" -- even though they didn't actually look any different.
Those testimonials you see at the end of every weight loss infomercial were the only times we actually met a producer. We were sprayed up, given multi-hour makeovers, and put in corsets. We were told to always use complete sentences so they could get sound bites. And even though we hadn't been using the DVDs, we were briefed on what was going on in each of them because we had to pick a favorite trainer and write down how much we liked her. I had a friend who didn't play by the rules and tried to take a stand at that point. She was kicked out. But I was very good: I said what I was supposed to say with a smile. I remember shame-binging on Ben & Jerry's afterward. And yes, I did gain it all back.
For more reasons you can't trust what you see, check out 13 Mind-Blowing Tricks Advertisers Use to Manipulate Photos.
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