There is an overlap between the fitness world and anti-fat bias and bullies that is sometimes even seen as necessary or natural. It’s neither, and it’s something that I’d like to examine today. I recently got a question from reader Wendy that read:
Do you know if any of the health programs like crossfit actively teach their converts to hate fat people? I ask because I was shocked this week when a friend of mine who has become a serious workout-holic compared fat people (in general) to [drug users]. I’ve known him for 20 years and he’s never before displayed this kind of bias.
Unfortunately I know of a lot of these cases. Here are some of the ways I see it happen:
The fitness industry and the diet industry are deeply intertwined, such that we are encouraged to believe that the only “correct” outcome of a fitness program is a body that looks a certain way (thin, muscular, swimmer’s build, etc.) Because that is seen as the goal, bodies that don’t fit the mold are seen as bad, or wrong, or failures at fitness, and those of us with fat bodies are often used as “cautionary tales” by those in the fitness world.
I have more than once told someone leading a fitness class that I am not motivated by their suggestion that everyone in the class should be working hard to not look like me. The truth is that self-loathing sells and many fitness programs take advantage of that.
A case in point is a series offered online by Crossifit called “Killing the Fat Man.” The story is about a guy who had gotten out of shape and gets back in shape using Crossfit, and they made a film equating this process with killing the fat man. (Of course, not all crossfit is like this and I know fat people involved in Cross fit gyms (“boxes”) who are very happy there and don’t experience fat shame.)
Now, people are allowed to try to manipulate the way that their bodies look, and they are allowed to hate their bodies (Underpants Rule!) The problem happens when they transfer their self-loathing of their fat body onto other people’s bodies. Sometimes it’s just about the development of an appearance-based prejudice.
Sometimes people aren’t able to comprehend that their experience is not everyone’s experience and so they are unhappy with their experience/behaviors/current state for some reason and they assume that 1. All fat people have the same experience/behaviors/current state as they do and 2. All fat people should be made to feel the misery that they feel. It can also be about the reinforcement of anti-fat sentiment by instructors who feel comfortable making generalizations about fat people and then using us as motivation for those in their charge.
This can spin out of control pretty quickly. Some of the most horrible hate mail that I get is from online forums that are supposed to be about fitness but that dedicate threads, and sometimes entire days, on their forum to what they call “fat hate”. This includes ridiculing fat people on their forum, and also sometimes encouraging people to send e-mails to fat people for the express purpose of bullying/being cruel. Some of the worst of the worst bullying I’ve received from these sites have been because I chose to engage in fitness activities.
I think that this is often about the lack of maturity, on the part of those perpetuating the hate, to understand that people can make different choices than us about own bodies and health, and that doesn’t threaten or invalidate their choices. In other cases it can be about people who are benefiting from a world in which their body size is seen as more valuable and so those of us who come along and insist that all bodies are equally valuable are a threat to them.
Regardless of why it happens, it’s not ok. For me it’s important to remind myself that the problem isn’t me, it’s them. Nobody is obligated to participate in exercise or fitness of any kind, and participating doesn’t make anybody better than anybody else. Those who want to participate should be able to do so without fear of shaming or bullying. This is one of the reasons that Jeanette DePatie and I co-founded the Fit Fatties Forum, and Facebook Group so that people who want to talk about fitness from a weight neutral, body positive perspective have a place to do that.
Given our current culture and all the messaging from the diet industry, unfortunately it’s all too easy for fitness to become fat hate, and it does a disservice to all of us. For those of us who are interested in participating in movement/fitness, there are lots of ways to do activism around this – we can show up with our big fat bodies and participate. We can be encouraging to others who want to participate regardless of size. And speak out when we see people trying to turn the movement we love into the prejudice that we abhor.
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