If you’re not familiar with Parkrun, here is how they describe themselves:
From humble beginnings in 2004 with 13 runners at Bushy Park in London, parkrun has grown to become the world’s biggest running event with over 800 volunteer-led events worldwide and more than two million registered runners. Committed to breaking down barriers to participation in regular physical activity, parkrun hosts 5km timed runs on Saturdays and 2km timed runs on Sundays for juniors.
Recently there has been some controversy because the Stoke Gifford Parish Council voted to charge the Parkrun organizers a fee to use Little Stoke Park on Saturdays. Since this happened, I’ve been seeing tons of Parkrun PR pieces. They mean well, but they typically show us exactly what not to do when one is “committed to breaking down barriers to participation in regular physical activity.”
A number of these pieces focus on eradicating fat people as a worthy goal. The one that has been forwarded to me by well over 100 readers has a video about two guys personal stories, which is fine, then it moves on to state a projection about how many people will be fat by 2030, then says “We can do something about this” and then:
WE BELIEVE THAT BY BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS TO PARTICIPATION AND MAKING REGULAR PHYSICAL ACTIVITY FREE, FUN AND SOCIABLE WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
They then list statistics about how many “previously inactive” people participated at parkrun in 2015.
And that’s where this really went wrong.
First of all, if you want to break down barriers to fitness, you don’t start by labeling some bodies as bad, or engaging in appearance-based stereotypes. Trying to get attention by glomming on to the ridiculous OMGDEATHFATZARECOMINGFORYOU panic builds barriers, it doesn’t break them down.
Their message manages to both stigmatize fat people, and make absolutely no sense. “Fat people” is not synonymous with “inactive people,” nor is “activity” synonymous with “weight loss” or “thinness.” They are suggesting that they are “making a difference” in the number of fat people despite having no idea how many fat people even participated, but rather based on the number of “previously inactive” people who participated in Parkrun. If you’re not sure why they would fail a statistics 101 class, keep in mind that every single one of those previously inactive people (except perhaps the guy in the video) could have been thin. Or every single once could have been a fat person who is now participating in Parkrun run, but is still fat.
Nobody is obligated to participate in fitness, ever. It doesn’t matter what size we are, it doesn’t matter what our current “health” status is (by any definition), it doesn’t matter if doing 3 minutes of exercise every other year would make us immortal, nobody is obligated to do it, and those who choose to aren’t any better than those who don’t. If you don’t agree with this, consider how comfortable you would be if people made things that they consider “healthy habits” compulsory – are you prepared to be forced to eat a raw foods vegan diet? How about being forced to go Paleo? Are you prepared to be forced to do the kind of physical activity that you like the least? Are you ok with some agency tracking your sleep and punishing you if you don’t get 8 hours? We each get to choose how we define health for ourselves, how we want to prioritize it, and what path we want to take, anything else quickly becomes horrifying.
If people want to make fitness options (whether it’s running or something else) accessible, that’s fine, but not at the expense of singling out, stereotyping, or increasing the social hatred of fat people (whether those people participate or not.) If Parkrun really wants to break down barriers to participation in regular physical activity, then they should actually do that.
It’s reprehensible for them to use the fear and hatred of fat people that exists in our culture as a justification for their existence. “Don’t charge us to run because FAT PEOPLE EXIST!” or “If you charge us to run, it’s your fault that fat people exist” are not logical arguments, and are instead marketing messages created to score cheap points based on stereotypes and prejudice.
If they want to work on accessibility, then they could work on making things accessible geographically, financially, to people of different dis/abilities, to people of all speeds, they could work to break down oppression and marginalization that can exist in these (and in all) spaces including racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and sizeism, which includes not suggesting that the existence of fat people requires the existence of running programs, or that fat people’s choice to participate in fitness or not is anybody’s damn business.
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