Tag Archives: fatphobia

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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Imagining a Body-Positive Future

Laurie and Debbie say:

Anna North’s recent article in Vox, “The past, present, and future of body image in America,” is an interesting experience for the two of us to read. We have recently completed an academic article, on submission to a special issue of Fat Studies, which is surprisingly similar in its scope and outlook to North’s piece. Assuming it gets accepted, we’ll share that here when it is published in 2022; meanwhile, North’s piece is a different trek over much of the same ground, well named as “the past, present and future of body image.”

North’s conventional journalistic opener quotes a directly affected person (in this case, Elena Ariza, now 21, talking about her experiences with body-shaming as a Latino student in a predominantly white California middle-school and high school.

bullying over weight and appearance is far from a thing of the past. In some ways, it might be worse now: The sheer number of images young people have to deal with every day has multiplied a thousandfold, and those images are often manipulated with Photoshop or filters that create a homogeneous appearance that’s unattainable for many people. “They manipulate your features to become Eurocentricized,” Reanna A. Shanti Bhagwandeen, a freshman at Bates College, told Vox. “It gets rid of, I guess, me.”

Meanwhile, many young people today say the term “body positivity” has been coopted by thin, white, or light-skinned celebrities and influencers — the same people whose looks have been held up as the beauty ideal for generations. What’s more, some of those influencers celebrate features once stereotypically associated with Black women, like full lips, even as Black women themselves remain discriminated against for their appearance.

She goes on to discuss the Facebook/Instagram issues which Debbie wrote about here last week, and later some of the public reaction to the leaked documents.

young people and educators say what’s needed most at this particular stage in the body image wars are guides to help people navigate the torrent of information they now get about their appearance. Teens and kids especially need regular education about “social media and what healthy relationships look like, and what body image means,” Pascale Saintonge Austin, who oversees the Just Ask Me peer education program at the New York nonprofit Children’s Aid, told Vox. “There just needs to be more of a conversation with our young people.”

North then takes us back into a very brief history of the roles of thin-ness and fatness in earlier centuries in Europe, and a somewhat deeper dive into the history of the fat acceptance movement. She is scrupulously careful to keep reminding her readers of the links between fatphobia and racism:

[In the early 1970s,] Black writers and activists were also linking weight discrimination and racism, as Briana Dominici notes at Zenerations. “I’m a woman,” welfare activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972. “I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.”

“If you are a fat Black person, particularly a fat Black woman, you are more likely to receive worse medical care, you’re more likely to be discriminated against at your job,” [Sabrina] Strings [author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia] said. “There are all these ways in which having more than one identity characteristic that Americans deem to be coarse will put you in a position for facing greater amounts and different forms of oppression.”



In the last ten years, North recounts, things have begun to change:

Nothing happened overnight — in 2012, when writer and influencer Gabi Gregg posed in a “fatkini” and wrote about it for xoJane, the image of a size 18 woman proudly modeling swimwear was still unusual enough to go viral. And swimwear options for women Gregg’s size were still few and far between. The winds of change were blowing, however, as companies realized they could make money selling to the millions of American consumers who were being ignored or alienated by ultra-skinny models and restrictive size ranges.

In 2016, Sports Illustrated put its first plus-size model, Ashley Graham, on the cover. In 2019, brands like American Eagle and Anthropologie began expanding their sizing. The rise of direct-to-consumer brands advertising on Instagram also meant a wider array of sizes and a more diverse group of models appearing in customers’ feeds.

As both our forthcoming article and North are very aware, social media, of course, is a major driver of all the different things that are going on at the same time:

Maybe the biggest difference between the media environment today and in the ’80s or ’90s is that there’s just more now, of everything. Growing up, magazines were dominated by super-skinny models, but “you could take a break,” Austin said. “There was no Facebook or anything like that,” and “it’s not like you had Netflix or DVR.”

Today, by contrast, “it’s so much information,” Austin said. That information can include body-positive messages, but it also, increasingly, includes images of people who have had plastic surgery or use filters or Photoshop to look a certain way. “Everything is so enhanced,” Austin said.

And North and the two of us end on very similar positive notes. While the problem remains huge and the damage being done every day is real, nonetheless there are new kinds of paths through and resources to draw on:

In the wake of revelations about Instagram’s impact on young people, Congress has shown an appetite for increased regulation of social media platforms. Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who helped bring the company’s internal research to light, has suggested a number of reforms, including increasing congressional oversight, greater scrutiny into Facebook’s algorithms, and increasing the minimum age for users from 13 to 17.

It’s too soon to tell whether such reforms will pass or whether they’ll have a meaningful impact on the kinds of messages young people get about their bodies. But in the meantime, young people themselves are navigating the confusing sea of contemporary body image discourse, offering guidance and inspiration for others along the way.

Ariza’s advice is to “unfollow accounts that make you feel like you need to compare yourself or you need to change,” she said. “Follow people who are going to influence you to go on a 30-minute walk or read a new book or go visit this exhibit.”


Although she never says it in so many words, North’s article implies that she believes, as we do, that nothing can change if we can’t imagine it changing–and if we aren’t willing to work to convert our imagined future into reality.

All photographs (c) 1994, Laurie Toby Edison, from Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes.


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