If Fatty Can Do It, So Can I

Photo by Substantia Jones for the Adipositivity Project
Photo by Substantia Jones for the Adipositivity Project

There’s a phenomenon wherein people use fat people as fitness “inspiration” thinking, or even saying to a fat person,  “I saw you [accomplishing some fitness thing] and I just thought, if she can do it, so can I!”

That is not a compliment, and it’s not ok.  Fitness, like health, is multidimensional and not entirely within our control.  (Also, like health, someone prioritization and path to fitness are not a barometer of worthiness, not an obligation, and not anybody else’s business.)  There are genetic components, past behaviors/habits/injuries that can make things easier or harder, our current dis/abilities, what we prioritize and where we are currently on our fitness journey – and that’s for people of all sizes who are working on fitness. Fat people are not automatically the low bar when it comes to fitness and assuming that we are – just like any time we make guesses and judgments about people based on how they look – is stereotyping and bigotry.

Let me try to illustrate how ridiculous this idea is:  I can do the front splits – it took a shit ton of work but it is also because I’m genetically able to stretch in that way.  The fact that I can do it does not mean that anyone who weighs less than I do can also do it.  On the other hand, I cannot do the side splits.  I worked on them for an hour a day for a year and I went from tragically horrible to horrible – I was so far from the ground that you could drive a car under me – at that rate of improvement I was looking forward to celebrating my side splits with a senior-discounted meal. A Pilates instructor finally broke it to me that I simply don’t have the genetic capability to do it – it’s never going to happen.  It’s not because of my size and we can’t assume that because I can’t do it nobody who is bigger than I am can either.  Size does not equal fitness, or fitness capability.

I think that a lot of this comes from misinformation that gets spread (often by people who make their money promising to make people thin) that being thin makes you magically more fit/mobile and is, in fact, the only path to better fitness/mobility.  I’m always frustrated with people who insist that movement will be easier with the same muscle mass but less weight (typically ignoring the fact that weight loss causes muscle loss), but insist that it’s completely impossible that movement will be easier at the same weight but with more muscle mass and/or flexibility.  This leads to fat people getting horrible advice like “don’t lift weights because you don’t want to put anymore weight on.”  It also leads people to think that that they have the capability to do anything that someone larger than they are can do.

The idea that “if [whoever] can do it so can I” is a complete fallacy no matter what we’re discussing, but when applied to fitness – as in “If fatty can do it, so can I” – it becomes not just ridiculous, but insulting as well.

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58 thoughts on “If Fatty Can Do It, So Can I

  1. Thank you for this. Another example of this is that you completed a marathon, and while I am smaller, I could never do that for a variety of reasons, one major one being I have many foot issues which these days make walking even a mile a painful challenge. Let’s call a moratorium on anybody comparing themselves to anyone else.

  2. Oh, yeah. At work our break room was next to a meeting room. I overheard a guy to on and on about how he lost 50 lbs and “now he could touch his toes” and all the usual. I finally got to tired of that I walked over to him (weighing over 300 lbs) and bent over in front of him to touch my toes. I mentioned that his fat was not was in the way. His face was priceless.

    1. That is so awesome. 🙂
      I had a friend half my size who couldn’t touch her toes – she was always pissed that I could even though I had a big belly to reach around. Flexibility is largely genetic. Some people are hyper flexible and actually have to be careful not to injure themselves as a result because their ligaments don’t support their joints the way they should. Flexibility isn’t everything.

      I can’t see my toes (if my belly didn’t hide them my boobs would anyway ;P), but I can touch them. 🙂

      1. I’m super flexible, too, and fat. And I’ve even been guilty of this when I started p90x. I could do it from start to finish, and I couldn’t understand all these thin and/or fit people saying how they couldn’t even get through a single workout the first couple weeks.

        BUT I can’t run to save my life. Go figure.

  3. Thanks for the post. I get this all the time, although typically not in so brazen a form. It is more in the form of “treadmill peeking”, and fawning looks (you know the one I’m talking about, the “you’re SUCH an inspiration!” look), and when I try to describe the phenomenon to others, I get a lot of “it’s all in your head”, but it is NOT. I sometimes used to joke that I was going to get a t-shirt that says “get ready to work harder, the fat girl is in the house”, because that’s another thing big people get at the gym a lot… whoever happens to be exercising next to you just “happens” to stop just a little bit after you, after peeking at your machine for the entirety of the time they have been near you.. just to make sure they are working harder than the fat girl. I now get a lot of really bitchy glee from “beating” them, and will sometimes run much farther than I planned (now, this might really BE in my head, I’m not sure) just for the satisfaction of not allowing this.

    1. I now get a lot of really bitchy glee from “beating” them….

      This reminds me of a time when I was traveling and was using the weight machines in the hotel’s fitness center. Another guest, a man maybe in his mid 20s to early 30s, was there at the same time I was. I kept feeling like he was staring at me too long while I was doing any given exercise. Like you’ve heard from others, I tried to tell myself that it was all in my head, that it was just my insecurities playing out.

      Eventually, he came to the leg press just after I’d gotten off of it and wiped it down. I’m not sure if he was surprised, but I was slightly surprised when he couldn’t move it at the weight I was using. I started my next set and didn’t hear any other machines in use for a little bit. Once they started and when I got up again, he was definitely moving a fair number fewer plates than I’d been. (I fully admit I was deliberately looking at that point. There was no TV in the room, so this was fully the most entertaining thing happening.)

      After he finished his leg presses, he came over to me and told me I should consider lifting less weight at more reps so I wouldn’t get as bulky. I didn’t say anything back, but in my head, I was like, No, you want me to lift less weight to preserve your ego in the gym. Let’s not even pretend that’s not the motivation for your statement.

        1. Quite frankly, I didn’t feel safe doing so. I was already a bit creeped out by him, and we were the only two people in the fitness center at the time.

      1. You know, it’s things like this that keep me from the weights! I do cardio… LOTS of cardio, but continue to be intimidated by the weight room, despite five years of gym-going. It just seems to be dominated by men, who seem to have no issues doling out advice, I’m just not sure I can take it.

        1. I understand — though different gyms have different atmospheres, and some places go out of their way to train staff to supervise and create a place where all gym-goers can feel safe and respected. In that light, this — a completely unsupervised fitness area that was only sparsely used (at least at the time of day when I went) — was a sort of worst case scenario.

  4. I’m fat and very flexible and, I think, pretty fit. In the last 7 years I’ve walked 250 miles on El Camino Santiago in Spain, and swum from Alcatraz Island into San Francisco Bay, under my goal time of 1 hour. I trained extensively for both of these events, and yet, I didn’t lose much weight. I got fitter, certainly, and was referred as “buff” by several folks, which made me feel good. I’d a lot rather be “buff” than “skinny”. I’ve never been skinny, so I don’t know what that feels like, but in my head, skinny = weak, which is also probably not a great equation, but it’s one reason I’m just not interested in losing weight in and of itself. If I start training for an event and some weight comes off, fine, but really I’m more interested in completing the event as I am, rather than becoming something I’m not in the process. I love this blog and your attitude. People come in all sizes and I know plenty of skinny folk who never get off the couch and do anything, so keep on preachin’ sister!

  5. I weigh roughly 240 pounds and I cannot do a cartwheel.

    Then again, when I had to work to weigh a hundred pounds dripping wet… I could not do a cartwheel.

    My body does what my body does. I can expand what it does to some degree if I work at things it is capable of doing, but there are some things I will never be capable of doing no matter how hard I try. So I do what my body does naturally, like walking, and let others do the cartwheels. And any kind of splits other than banana.

    And anyone who thinks they can walk for twenty miles standing on their heads just because I have done it as a fat person, well, they’re welcome to give it a shot but they shouldn’t feel bad if they can’t pass the one mile point.

    A lot of people just plain can’t do it.

    1. I think your comment about doing a cartwheel makes a very important point that people miss about physical ability – there is this prevailing myth that physical ability comes naturally. Obviously the majority of what we do with our bodies is learned, not natural. The body needs to train and practice. No one is naturally inclined to be able to do a cartwheel – maybe they can learn to do it more quickly than someone else but they still have to *learn.* This is why we cannot tell what someone is or isn’t capable of just by looking at them.

      1. Oh I tried to do cartwheels. I asked people to help me. I practiced and practiced and practiced… and I never managed a single successful one.

        Then again, I have balance issues. Put me on solid, flat ground and set me walking and I’m great. Set me a task that involves balance challenges and I will land on my face. I am not balanced and I am not particularly flexible. I spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence face down in the dirt.

        So the fact is that all the effort in the world wasn’t going to make me good at cartwheels any more than Ragen is going to become a side-splits champ. We just aren’t built to do those particular things. But each of us has other things we are built to do.

        True, nobody is born knowing how to do cartwheels, but natural abilities do enter into the question of whether one will be successful with effort.

      2. That’s very true. I can’t and never have been able to do a cartwheel. However, my hips are very flexible and I can do yoga pigeon pose with almost no trouble and sit with my heels together and knees flat on the ground when other skinny folk can’t even cross their ankles. None of this make me or them “better” or “worse”…just different.

    2. And I’m 230 pounds (and 44) and can do cartwheels all day long. I have the proprioception and balance and shoulder flexibility, and all the other myriad things that you need to do that sort of dynamic upside-down balance. Blows peoples minds. Had the color-guard coach start yelling at his girls because the “old fat lady” was turning better cartwheels than they could.

      Can’t do twenty miles on foot though. I trained for a half marathon last year, and made it to about 9 miles before plantar fasciitis, and knee/ankle problems kicked in. Kudos to you that you can!

  6. I have to ask, though, is there a difference if you are identifying with the person rather than competing? For me, it’s a lot more reinforcing to see people of all sizes, not just thin ones, moving in ways they enjoy. It doesn’t make me feel better than them — it just makes me feel as if size is not a barrier. Is this disrespectful?

    1. This is my thought too.
      It’s my opinion though, that if we’re inspired by others who are heavy in the same way as we are inspired by any other person of another size, athlete or no, who is being active (and there isn’t a “what’s your excuse?” shaming tag line running through our minds) then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

      Being inspired by fat people is not always because we think ‘oh if Fat-Person-A can do it so can I’. I AM a fat person, I feel inspired (aside from the normal admiration for athleticism way) because it reminds me that my fatness doesn’t have to be a barrier to being active.

      And I think essentially it’s a case of “this post isn’t meant for you” because we’re not doing the ‘not-good’ thing is discusses, so I think we’re probably fine.

    2. I have to disagree with the other two responses. I’m not saying you admiring/identifying with the fat person at the gym is wrong, but what I will say is that you should always and forever KEEP IT TO YOURSELF. I can’t read your mind, and going to the gym is already fraught with issues for me, showing up is an act of courage, especially at first. I am NOT there to be your inspiration and it pisses me off when people do that just as much as when they appear to be critical. Admire/identify away… but do not give me fawning looks, in fact, just don’t look at me at all. And do not, for the love of all that is good and holy, say anything to me.

      1. Thank you. I do keep it to myself, and I don’t give more than a glance, much less fawning looks. But what you said about it taking courage for you is why I will confess that I do have some admiration. If this is something as a relatively thin-privileged woman that I need to work out of my system, then I will take your words to heart and try. I’ve been inspired by seeing people larger than me doing things physically that I can’t do yet. Not because I want to beat them, but because it takes away the lingering doubts about whether my own weight stands in the way.

        I promise, I will not embarrass you by going over and patting you on the head. 🙂

        I’ve been rolling this around in my head a lot the last day. I wonder if inspiration in its good sense where we look to role models has been co-opted by horrible things like fitspo and thinspo. Those two are not about role models and shared humanity and recognizing others’ efforts — they’re about competition and being “better than” another. They’re about putting down anyone who doesn’t single-mindedly work toward whatever goal you’ve chosen — not about showing that it can be done. In what sense can inspiration be a good thing, without objectifying the person who inspires? I’m really not trying to be argumentative, I am just trying to learn where the boundaries are and how to extricate the good from the bad.

        1. EC, I think you may already be where you’re trying to go.

          You look at a fat person doing something you don’t and say ‘my weight doesn’t stand in my way.’ The problem is when someone looks at a fat person doing something they don’t and says ‘clearly I will do it better because I am not fat.’ In short, you are seeing a barrier to trying something new fall, where another person is seeing  a bizarre and skewed world where they have magical powers to do stuff just because they aren’t fat.

          It’s a pretty big difference.

  7. I have a similar question: If I wouldn’t have tried something before because I thought that I as a fat person could not do anything like that, and then I see someone who is fat like me do that very thing, and it provides motivation for me to try it, am I in fatism? or more accurately, bodyism?

    1. Hi Lynn,

      Great question! I think that this is different – it’s about having role models. Fat people who are successful at anything other than weight loss are often intentionally hidden under the guise of not “promoting obesity” at the same time that those trying to sell us weight loss lie about the realities of being thin and fat. So to me, if a fat person sees someone who can do something that they previously thought was impossible at their size and they think “hey, that might be possible for me, too” that’s having a role model and is totally healthy. If that person thinks “if that fat person can do it, then I definitely can” than they are making the same mistake that I wrote about in the article, though absent the layer of offense of assuming that because one is thinner one must be more physically fit. Hope that makes more sense!



      1. I was going to make a comment similar to the one above… At 300 lbs, I was just on the cover of a citywide yoga magazine. I was showing the magazine off, and had several people (who were fat) tell me they didn’t realize fat people COULD do yoga, but since I am fat and I can, they wanted to try it too. So to me, that seems totally fine! I was doing dancer pose, and it did look pretty great! No wonder they felt inspired, lol. ^_^ And I also felt proud of the magazine, to put a fat person on the cover doing yoga in skin tight pants!

      2. Thanks for the reply Ragen. I am grateful to have you as such an eloquent, committed, and health-achieving role model.

  8. I super-hate those weight loss ads that imply you can do things as a thin person that you couldn’t do as a fat person.

    Not only is the weight loss a myth, but I worry it discourages people who don’t fit the ideal from trying anything. Or thinking if they are bad at something it is due to weight, not because they need to practice it.

    It’s also just flat out ableist.

  9. I had the most painful (and embarrassing) lesson on that when I , being young and foolish, believed that 200 lbs, 25 yo me could drink a 130 lbs featherweight of barely 20 under the table. I still occasionally underestimate petite women, but I have learned to keep my mouth shut. 😉

  10. This reminds me of a time about six years ago when I was driving some former friends home after an outing. We were stopped at a red light, and a fat girl jogged by my car on the sidewalk. She was not going particularly fast, but was sweaty, panting, and appeared to be working very hard. My thin friend “Rose” piped up from the back seat, “Wow! That girl is my hero!”

    I felt a little nauseated, and a lot irritated. It was a nice day, and we live in a city with lots of sidewalks, trails, and fitness-focused people, so in the course of driving around that day we had probably seen at least twenty people running or biking, but Rose hadn’t selected any of them as her “hero.” Just the fat girl.

    Neither Rose, nor I, nor anyone else in the car had ever met this girl before; none of us knew a damn thing about her. For all we knew, she could have been in the middle of a 20-mile run as part of her marathon training program. She could have been sweaty and tired because she had just run up one of Seattle’s signature giant hills (which I, personally, can’t even walk up without turning roughly the color of a tomato and feeling like my lungs might explode). She could have been someone who’s not great at running, but is a champion weight lifter/swimmer/dancer/whatever. Or maybe, because she was just plain not athletic and/or was new to running or exercise in general, jogging along that sidewalk was demanding and exhausting for her.

    That last possibility was no more or less likely than any of the others. But, because of the girl’s size, that was the conclusion Rose jumped to, that running was just soooooo much harder for this girl than for any of the other people we’d seen running that day. It doesn’t matter that she chose to express that with the theoretically positive statement “That girl is my hero!” She had made an assumption about another person based purely on their physical appearance. That is prejudice, and that is repulsive, whether or not the person doing it chooses to cloak it under their condescending “praise,” “admiration,” or “inspiration.”

    1. In a certain respect though, it IS harder for the fat girl to run. Skinny people running are much less likely to be a target for harassment, and therefore it is easier for them. Fat people are going to have people commenting and yelling and disrespecting them in many more cases, and IN SPITE of our current fat harassment culture, she was running anyway. So, she is my hero too!

      1. Yes, that’s definitely true. I’m certain that’s not what my friend was referring to, so it didn’t/doesn’t mitigate the “ew” factor of the moment for me, but it’s still a very valid point.

    2. Hm. She was going on when the going was hard, she was going against what people expected of her, she was out on the street exercising when she had to know that people will put her down for it.

      But you probably had some info from context that made the remark “Ew”. Did you ever find out why Rose felt that way about the girl?

      1. Part of my instinctive “ew” response to Rose’s remark was its over-the-top nature. I think it’s pretty strange, and not particularly smart, to say something as extreme as “She’s my hero” about someone you’ve never met and know nothing about. In my opinion, there is no way a remark that hyperbolic can be sincere.

        Also, like I said above, because I know Rose (although we’re no longer friends, for reasons unrelated to this incident) I am very confident that she was not referring to the unique challenges this girl faced by going running as a fat person. Even if that had been what she was referring to, however, I still would have found the remark somewhat distasteful. If you’re going to pick someone to be your “hero” or your “role model” or your “inspiration,” I think it’s advisable to pick someone you know personally and/or someone who is doing whatever activity you admire them for doing in some sort of deliberately public way. For example, if Rose knew the girl, I would have seen nothing wrong with her saying something like, “I think it’s awesome that Mindy makes time to go running regularly even though she’s so busy with work. She’s inspiring me to make more of an effort to fit movement into my schedule” or “I know Mindy’s gotten a lot of shit for being out running in public, and I think she’s so brave for just going back out there no matter what. She’s my hero.” Those would be sincere statements praising the specific accomplishments/attributes of a specific person, not just generic lip-service directed at a stranger solely because of her physical appearance. Also, I think it’s totally fine to be inspired by fat athletes who put themselves out in the public eye, whether that’s a fat Olympian you see on television, someone like Ragen who talks/blogs openly about her physical achievements, or someone on the Fit Fatties Forum. If someone’s creating a public profile for their athletic accomplishments, I think it’s safe to assume that they’re comfortable with being a role model/inspiration to others, or at least aware that they might become one.

        But as far as we know, that girl wasn’t a professional athlete or any kind of public figure, nor was she trying to be Rose’s, or anyone’s “hero.” She was just trying to go for a run. You’re absolutely right that in doing so, she faces challenges and barriers that a thin person would not. But in my opinion, the most effective thing we can do to dismantle those barriers is have no more or less of a reaction to her than we would to any other stranger we see running by our cars. In my opinion (and I know people will disagree with me about this, which is fine) reacting to a fat stranger exercising with insincere and excessive praise is only marginally better than reacting with an insult or a disparaging remark, and is not fundamentally different.

  11. I loved reading that piece you posted about the girl in a dance class you were in, who was a total beginner, feeling better because ‘at least she wasn’t as fat as you’ (confession – I didn’t go back to check, so I am totally loosely paraphrasing here). This hit that same nerve of people assuming that fat = (low) ability level, but I also remember that was one of the first of your posts I read which talked about how just doing the things you love, as a fat person, being an act of, well, activism. Which so totally inspired me – suddenly the thought of being the fattest person in a yoga class or on a dance floor was not scary but was, amazingly, an exciting prospect.
    …Just remembering that moment and thank you for the reminder!

    1. I think it was even worse than that; as I recall from reading the post, the girl was upset because, as she put it, “Even that fat girl [in reference to Ragen] is doing better than me!” It was apparently inconceivable to her that a fat person could be more experienced and/or naturally skilled than she was at any physical activity. Definitely in the same vein as this post though, as far as the theme of setting fat people as the automatic low bar for physical achievements.

  12. I’m really curious about the splits things.
    I’ve never heard of any limitations on flexibility due to genetics, only hyper mobility, and trained flexibility. Is there anything specific I could read about that? Like a study on regular ligament flexibility perhaps?
    (Everything I seem to be able to find is all about hypermobility of joints, not regular flexibility <.<)

    My dad was able to do the splits both ways when he was younger, but has never been able to touch his toes. Since childhood I've always wondered why. Perhaps that is the reason?

    1. A friend managed to damage his hips when attempting side splits, because he kind of forced (he used leverage to be able to do the exercise) the top of his leg bones out of the hip pans. Major ouch.

      Bones are shaped a little differently for each person, and sometimes it just does not bend that way.

  13. These kind of ‘gym reactions’ can either make or break my day.

    “I noticed you doing X! Wow, that’s neat. Do you think I could do that? Can you tell me about it and how you got started with it?” Yay! Sure, I’ll talk your ear off and offer any advice I can.

    “Wow! You are so inspirational out there! You really make me want to work harder.” At this point I’m laughing nervously and edging away while giving side-eye. Not your inspo, thanks.

    “I saw you doing X… I could never do that.” Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself, I built up slowly to doing X and I bet you could too. Give it a try! Even if you don’t get to X, you might find something you like between.

  14. The inspirational thing also comes in when you are disabled & if you are both fat & disabled & dare to be seen walking around under your own power in public, you get it by the bucket. I have, over many long years of walking nearly everywhere (I have done a lot of other things over the years, not always gracefully or well, but I have lifted weights, exercised with aerobics shows, attempted yoga {NOT something I can do}, & spent years of doing my version of pushups &, for over 8 years, 1500 stomach crunches daily, as well as wearing out an exercycle & a machine called a cardio glide, but walking has been part of my life forever & will be as long as I can take a step, though now I use a rollator walker) been given so many of these backhanded ‘compliments’ & encouragement to ‘keep trying’, ‘good for you’, along with, “How do you do it? You make me ashamed of myself for not walking more, if you can do, I can certainly do it!” I have been told that I was ‘inspiring’, ‘remarkable’, or that I ‘hardly seem like a cripple at all’ for going about my daily life. More than once people have come within a hair’s breadth of patting me on the head & one day at my son’s Senior League baseball game, Stephen King (Yes, THAT Stephen King, I live in Bangor, Maine, about three blocks from his house) did pat me on the knee. I somehow didn’t consider it the compliment he probably thought I should find it, nor did I vow to never wash that knee again.

    However, I have spent a fair amount of time in my 64 years being patronized & condescended to, though in my case it has usually been more about my cerebral palsy than my fat, & I can attest that it does not make you feel good & it sure as hell does not make you feel grateful toward the jackass whose foot is firmly inserted into his mouth. No, don’t use me as inspiration, don’t treat me as anything except another human being, & don’t make assumptions about who I am, what I can or choose to do, or how healthy I am, how worthy of respect I am, based either on my body size or my disability, or, increasingly now, my age.

    1. I can identify with a lot of what you say here. I won’t go swimming any more – it’s too soul-destroying, comments like, “Good for you! At least you’re doing something about it!” I get those kind of comments in the gym too, but there is something, I’m afraid, which hurts just a shade too much when you’re cold, wet and almost naked. Plus in the gym you can headphone-up.

  15. Thank you for this. I am about 220lbs and 5’4″ tall. I’m 49 years old. I’ve been fat for about 20 years and haven’t managed to shift it despite years trying different diets (eyeroll, yes of course, I know why now). I’ve always had fairly mobile hips and can still do the forward splits. I have arthritis in my knees, which are pretty painful, and so I need a stick if I walk more than half a mile or so (which means I have to take a stick all the time because I always want to walk further than that, and do). Question: My GP says I need to lose weight because the weight on my knees is making them more painful and will cause the arthritis to become worse at a faster rate than if I was slim. Is this true?

  16. I always get the feeling that the people who make the “If Fatty…” statements to/about strangers are ticked off at the thought that their target has even one “positive” in her column that they themselves lack. (“But– but– you don’t have permission to achieve things and be proud when you look like–THAT!”)

    To me at least, that’s very different than actually admiring another person’s determination to do/be something interesting or awesome– then trying to understand and get into the mindset that allowed the other person to do what she did.

    (Also, Ragen, I meant to say this a coupla’ weeks ago but I’m a chronic procrastinator: Your photographs are really something. 8) )

    1. Yeah, it’s hard to take admiration as a compliment when you know they set the bar so low to begin with. :-\
      I compare it to the backhanded feeling that comes when you get told how good you look from losing weight or otherwise changing your appearance. If people are stunned and gushing over a change, you think “Just how bad did you think I looked before!?” >:-(

      1. Yeah. :/ That always makes me think of an old Jules Pfeiffer monologue. A guy discovers that ads have been telling him the truth: Changing his soap, shaving lotion, toothpaste, et al really does make his wife and kids worship him, his co-workers treat him like a god, etc.

        A few weeks later, at the end of the story, he goes back to using his older, inferior brands, because he can’t stomach the idea that everyone suddenly adores him just because of some crap that came out of a bottle or tube. 😀

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