August 01, 2010

Review of Losing It with Jillian

As noted in Preview of Losing It with Jillian and Jillian Tosses the Frybread, America's latest weight-loss guru tackled the Yavapai-Apache tribe's health problems. I finally watched the episode called Improving a Tribe's Health (airdate: 7/6/10). It was good overall, but with several bumps in the road. Let's take a look:

[spoiler alert]

  • Dr. Katja Van Herle apparently gives the Plunkett-Marquez family initial check-ups, or at least a talking-to. She's blunt, telling the Indians they're 100 or whatever pounds overweight with little preamble. Traditionally, Indians don't like blunt talk from strangers; it's considered rude.

    I don't know if that applies in this case. Since the family is participating in a TV reality show, it probably doesn't consider itself traditional. Cora-Lei, the woman who invited Jillian Michaels to the rez, is a tribal councilwoman. Also, the family asked for the doctor's advice, and doctors are supposed to be honest and direct.

  • Jillian drives up and everyone is hugs and smiles. It's not clear if she knows anything about the family, other than their names, or the tribe. But she doesn't say anything condescending or embarrassing.

  • Jillian starts training the five family members. Immediately she yells at them, harangues them to do better. This is so obnoxious it becomes uncomfortable. Jillian isn't haranguing them for not trying hard enough, or for quitting, although she does that too. Her style is apparently to shout at exercising people whether they're doing well or not.

  • The tribe prepares a welcoming ceremony for Jillian. Someone says they'll be serving frybread. Jillian innocently asks what that is and is shocked to hear it's a dish baked with white flour and lard.

    Really? Are we supposed to believe Jillian didn't do any research on tribal health issues or practices before the show? That she's totally ignorant about frybread? I suppose that's possible. It's also possible that every scene was scripted and staged--that nothing happened spontaneously.

    The frybread incident

  • Jillian attends the ceremony with its traditional dancers. She notices that people are serving everyone frybread--even little children. She decides she has to save them from what she calls "poison," so she grabs a box of frybread and dumps it in a trashcan.

    A boy approaches with a plate of frybread, perhaps wanting more. Jillian says he's got to be kidding. She tries to grab the plate from his hands. He warns her that he'll throw the frybread at her, then does it. She brushes it off and says okay, maybe you'll live longer, kid.

    I'd say Jillian got what she deserved for her rude behavior. The boy is 11 or 12 and not overweight. He's exactly the type of person who can eat frybread without worrying about it right away. What's next...snatching bottles from babies and forcing them to breast-feed?

    Sure, Jillian may be concerned about his future health. But to take the frybread from a healthy person's plate? At a welcoming ceremony in her honor? I don't think so.

    Interesting to note the power dynamics here. White woman moves to physically assault a Native boy. Yet it seems to work out okay.

    If Jillian had snatched the frybread from a grown woman, an elder of either sex, or a girl, it might've seemed like bullying. The boy is one of the few people she could've confronted physically without looking bad. Since she's an older white woman and a celebrity, the boy wouldn't do anything too challenging in response. And since boys are supposedly rambunctious, no one would get too upset at the altercation.

    Of course, Jillian and company may have staged some or all of this incident. Beforehand, she even hints that the Indians may not like what she does. Whether she staged the boy's response or not, she apparently had a good sense of how far she could go without going too far.

    The diabetes lecture

  • As the frybread controversy buzzes through the community, Jillian decides the tribe needs more information. She invites Dr. Van Herle to fly out from Los Angeles and give a presentation on diabetes. She makes up fliers and distributes them.

    Only about 20 people show up. Which conveniently gives the show more drama. How can I get through to these people? Jillian asks the camera. This is her toughest challenge yet.

    The poor attendance isn't surprising. There's no evidence the tribe lacks health and nutrition information. This is a tribe located on a well-traveled freeway between Flagstaff and Phoenix with its own casino. It's not in some remote location without doctors or clinics.

    What the tribe lacks is something else--perhaps motivation or willpower. But Jillian isn't asking them what they need, she's telling them. She's harangued people and disrupted their ceremony; now she's flying in an outside expert to lecture them about something they probably already know. The Indians naturally don't respond to this Great White Father (or Mother) routine.

  • Jillian and Cora-Lei go jogging in the desert. Jillian is realizing that she can't save a thousand Indians singlehandedly. She has to empower tribal members such as Cora-Lei to lead the effort.

    Gee, really...ya think? The tribe won't listen to a rude outsider but may listen to a respected insider? Brilliant deduction, Sherlock!

  • Jillian meets an overweight mother and harangues her for serving junk food to her 4-year-old. "Why don't you care?" Jillian demands. Jillian gets the woman to break down and admit she doesn't know what to do. Jillian then promises to help her--to "teach" her day and night.

    I wonder if Jillian really hands out her phone number so people can call her at 3 am and say, "I have an uncontrollable craving for ice cream. Can you talk me out of it?" It's possible, but somehow I doubt it.

    The big walk

  • The frybread controversy is still shaking up the community, so Jillian meets with an elder to smooth things over. She says she's sorry for offending people, but she considers frybread "poison," not food. The elder says that some people agree with her that they don't need frybread.

    Left unsaid is what the other people think. Jillian allows only her side of the story on camera. If others think she's rude, disrespectful, insulting, outrageous, an ugly American, a smug know-it-all, a rich white phony, etc., we don't get to hear it.

  • Jillian organizes a tribal walk and again distributes fliers. The big question is whether the people who didn't come to the diabetes lecture will come to this. After a few tense moments, we learn the answer: yes! A couple hundred people show up to walk.

    At the end of the walk, Jillian congratulates them on taking the first step. She says she's given them the "tools and information" they need, which apparently refers to her harangues and her website. As a special bonus, she'll give them free memberships in, where they can develop personalized recipes and workout plans.

    This seems ludicrously wide of the mark. How many of these Indians have computers and Internet access? How many of the older ones know how to navigate websites? Etc.

    What these people seem to need is leadership and motivation, not "tools and information."

  • Jillian's week on the rez is up so she leaves. The Plunkett-Marquez family continues to exercise and train for the next six weeks. This goes by in a rapid montage so we don't have to see the grueling work involved.

    Jillian returns to check on the family's progress. Lo and behold, they've lost an average of 33 pounds each. Not bad for a six-week effort. Jillian finally gives them something real. She says local trainers have developed a five-week program and she'll help fund it.


    Some key questions go unanswered. Does tribe still serve frybread at events? Did it continue the walking program? Has anyone other than the Plunkett-Marquez family committed to losing weight? A year from now, will the family members have gained the weight back, or will they continue to diet and exercise?

    Despite my criticism, Jillian's "tough love" approach may be the only one that'll work. These people know they're overweight. They know frybread is bad for them. They know they're susceptible to diabetes and heart disease. They know they need to diet and exercise.

    It seems they're in denial, which is probably true of a lot of overweight Americans. If a kinder, gentler approach hasn't worked, maybe they need someone yelling at them to their faces. As I'm sure Jillian would agree, they can blame the messenger all they want, but it's the message that counts. Even if it means being unpopular, someone has to set them straight.

    For more on Losing It with Jillian, see How Jillian Came to the Rez and Jillian Stirs Frybread Furor.

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