Fat and Fit: The Mountain Fat Athletes Have to Climb

naked fat woman lifting a heavy weight with another woman spotting
Copyright (c) 1994, Laurie Toby Edison.

Debbie says:

My friend Stef sent me Kelsey Miller’s article in Self,The Relentless Reality of Anti-Fatness in Fitness,” a thoughtful and intelligent examination of how hard it is for fat people to become fit, be fit, and be recognized as fit. Miller starts with Sarah Jaffe, a 32-year-old endurance athlete who joined a gym when she’d just returned from a 550-mile bike ride. Jaffe, disappointingly but unsurprisingly, could not convince her new personal trainer that she wasn’t there to lose weight, or that she understood her own body’s metabolism. Tellingly, as Jaffe tried to get her point across, the trainer reportedly said ““So you did those things you wrote on your form?” Jaffe, at the time, was a size 16, what we would call “culturally fat” or “mid-size.” Miller says, eloquently and accurately:

The widespread consensus on fat people is that they are lazy, ignorant gluttons who simply will not get off the couch and get on the treadmill. The lesser-known reality is that treadmills typically have weight limits between 200 and 300 pounds (as do many bikes, stair-climbers, and other common gym types of equipment). Then there’s the dearth of activewear, the majority of which is not produced in plus sizes (Nike, for example, started adding plus items in 2017). Fitness is already a practice of the privileged; it requires time, money, and access that many people don’t have. Fat people have to jump those hurdles and more just to get to the gym. And when they do, they’re often met with judgment, discrimination, and calorie lectures they didn’t ask for. The problem keeping fat people out of the gym is not their fatness. The problem is fatphobia.

Laurie and I understand not just these obstacles but the driving urge to overcome them. The picture above, from Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, was taken in response to one of the most common requests we got when we were designing the book: show us fat women being active, being athletic, moving. The urge to move is present in most of us; stifling it is a form of dehumanization.

Miller’s analysis of the history of fatphobia is notable for its focus on the relationship to fitness. One particularly useful insight comes from Danielle Friedman, author of Let’s Get Physical [How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World], a study of modern fitness culture. As life got more sedentary in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Cold War stoked fears that could comfortably be channeled into body anxiety,

fitness became thin, hard, and estimable—a sign of moral and mental fortitude—and softness became its opposite. (Friedman cites the enduring issue of “flabphobia,” the insidious sidekick of fatphobia, that underpins concepts like “spot training” and “skinny fat.”) Back then, as now, Friedman says, fitness came to mean fat-less: “It’s [not] enough to just be small and thin. You have to be totally devoid of fat.”

Half a century later, this novel idea—that fitness is something lean, virtuous, and measured by the scale—has settled into our cultural consciousness. Fitness has gone from a niche subculture to a vast, global industry valued at nearly $100 billion in 2019,

The article goes on to discuss the rise of BMI (body mass index or, as Laurie and I call it, Braindead, Meaningless, Insidious) as an indefensible but completely accepted metric, and the difficult role of fat fitness champions,

who are often called out, not for advocating an active lifestyle, but rather for “promoting obesity.”

“That’s the biggest one,” Latoya Shauntay Snell, a marathoner and fitness influencer known to many online as the Running Fat Chef, tells SELF. “It gets under my skin,” she says of the phrase that routinely appears in her Instagram comments. “Just living and breathing and thriving in the space, as myself, is ‘promoting obesity.’”

Snell has been running and blogging since 2013—a time when mainstream culture was suddenly interested in body positivity, but mostly as it applied to thin, white people. Snell, who is neither, hasn’t seen the needle move all that much since then. Over 200 races in, she still gets heckled from the sidelines, or “encouraged” by those who see her as a struggling newbie: Keep going! Don’t quit! Don’t worry girl, if you keep that up, you’ll lose some weight!

Miller repeatedly points to the dearth of plus-size exercise wear, especially above 3X. And then she highlights a remarkable exception:

[I]n 2020, one brand—Superfit Hero—made the bold pivot to plus-only clothing. Why? Because plus-size exercisers were their best customers.

Micki Krimmel founded Superfit Hero in 2015 with a line that ran from XS-5X. In 2019, while reviewing sales data, Krimmel realized that most of their repeat customers were in the plus range—“something like 95%,” she says. …. Plus shoppers broke down crying, saying how grateful they were to be able to play their sport or do their workout in comfortable, appropriate clothing. For them, “it’s life-changing,” Krimmel says, “It’s access.” Superfit Hero was serving a vast and virtually untapped market. Krimmel and her team decided to drop the smaller sizes and produce their line only in sizes 12-42. … Early this year, Superfit Hero is launching a partnership with Kohl’s—a milestone for the brand and its customers. “This is going to be the very first time that people can go in-store, in a major retailer, and try on size 6X and 7X in activewear,” Krimmel says.

The article closes with a persuasive and detailed case for legislation against fat discrimination, not just in the fitness arena, and a final aspirational rallying cry:

In a world where size is not used as a measurement of intelligence, competence, or mental stability, it might be possible to stop using it as a measurement of fitness too. If fat children and adults were valued and welcomed in workplaces and schools, they might feel safer (and more capable) walking into workout class or entering a race. If anti-fatness rather than fatness itself were deemed shameful and ignorant, the fitness industry would very likely be a different place—one accessible and beneficial to many more people than it is today.

Say it, sister! We’re all working for that world.


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2 thoughts on “Fat and Fit: The Mountain Fat Athletes Have to Climb

  1. Glad to see an article in a mainstream publication like Self that separates fitness from thinness. BTW, I recently discovered the Girlfriend Collective, which makes fitness clothes in sizes ranging from XXS to 6XL. I was looking for compressive leggings because of aches in my joints and legs — I normally don’t like tight clothes — and came across them. The leggings worked well for my purpose and I noticed in shopping that they not only offered a range of sizes, but their models demonstrate an extensive variety of body types. I gather they’re trans friendly as well as fat friendly. I contrast this to REI, a store I generally like to patronize, but which rarely has a wide selection of women’s clothes even in XL — my usual size — much less anything larger. It’s catering to active people, but their idea of active women is very limited.

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