What Fat Olympians Prove (And What They Don’t)

Nothing to proveAs the Olympics happen, we’re seeing athletes of lots of different sizes compete and win, which is super cool! What follows is a lot of people trying to interpret what that “proves” which is often super not-cool. While almost all are well-meaning, some of these interpretations end up being healthist and problematic for lots of reasons. So I wanted to look at some of the claims that I’ve been seeing and break them down.  I’ll also point out that a lot of the mistakes that are being made are mistakes that I’ve made in the past, and my pointing them out are the ways of honoring the people who were kind enough to educate me.


This proves there’s no excuse not to be fit at any size

Nope, nope, nope.  Nobody of any size is obligated to “be fit” by any definition.  Nobody needs an excuse to make choices about their free time that don’t include fitness, just like nobody needs an excuse to make choices about their free time that do include fitness.  This whole “no excuses” fitness culture is a steaming heap of bullshit. Everyone should have the opportunity and access to participate in fitness if they want to, nobody has an obligation. People who participate in fitness are no better or more “moral” than people who do other things with their time.

This proves that anyone of any size can be an Olympian

Slow down there sparky.  Becoming an Olympian requires a combination of physiology, opportunity, privilege, and hard work. There are many, many people who have the  work ethic but don’t have the combination of physiology, opportunity and privilege required. When we gloss over this we ignore the fact that these opportunities are not accessible to everyone who is interested in them (and how that is often expressed in ways that are racist, classist, sizeist, ableist and more.)

This proves that everyone of every size can be healthy

This one is a problem for a lot of reasons.  First, don’t confuse athletically successful with healthy.  Many athletes push far beyond what would most support their bodies’ health – risking  and getting expensive sports-related injuries that they wouldn’t otherwise be at risk for – in order to be successful at their sport.  They are absolutely allowed to do that – their bodies, their choice (though that doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t be asking questions about the way that sports are managed/judged and what is really “required.”)  Moreover, health is difficult to define, multi-faceted, not an obligation, not a barometer of worthiness, and not entirely within our control or guaranteed under any circumstances.

This proves that anyone of any size can be an athlete

This should be true, and it would be true in a world where people had the same levels of access to the athletic endeavors that they are interested in, and didn’t deal with sizeism as an excluding factor (along with racism, classism, ableism, ageism and more.) Unfortunately that’s not the world that we live in.  Fat people regularly have terrible experiences within the fitness world, from people abusing them, to coaches refusing to work with them unless and until they become thin, to people insisting that no matter what they achieve they can’t be an athlete until they are thin.

This proves that we shouldn’t make assumptions about athletic ability based on body size

This one I can get behind, though I’d point out that we shouldn’t make assumptions about anything based on size.

In general, I think that if you want to celebrate fat athletes, that’s awesome, but be careful not to celebrate in ways that end up hurting others, and consider not letting your celebration get in the way of asking critical questions about how people are oppressed in the world of athletics, and how athletics are used to oppress people.


This year we have a kick ass line up of speakers talking about everything from Re-Imagining Fashion from an Inclusive Framework” to “Activism for the Introverted and Anxious” to “Building Fat Patient Power While Accessing Healthcare” and moreThis is a virtual conference so you can listen by phone or computer wherever you are, and you’ll receive recordings and transcripts of each talk so that you can listen/read on your own schedule.  We also offer a pay what you can afford option to make the conference accessible to everyone. The Conference will be held September 23-25, 2016

Click Here to Register!

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4 thoughts on “What Fat Olympians Prove (And What They Don’t)

  1. Also, while the Olympics has room for a wide range of body types, they’re body types which are optimal for the sports which happen to be in the Olympics. _The Sports Gene_ has more about non-obvious traits which are important in sports.

  2. “This proves there’s no excuse not to be fit at any size”

    You know what this reminds me of? The idea that if a man wants a woman, she is obligated to go out with him, unless she can think of an “acceptable” reason to turn him down.

    Just as “Because I don’t want to date you” is a good enough excuse not to date a guy, “Because I don’t want to” is a good enough excuse not to be fit at any size.

    Another valid excuse not to be fit at any size is “Sure, I want to, but not as much as I want X, Y, and Z, and I have chosen to focus on those things, instead.” If X, Y, and Z are working three jobs to keep a roof over one’s head and food on the table, or if X, Y, and Z are reading, writing, and knitting all day, the fact is, human beings are allowed to choose their own priorities! People with economic privilege have greater lee-way in choosing hobbies or fitness over survival.

    Even if we had universal health care, universal education, and universal base income, so that people didn’t have to struggle just to get by, let alone get ahead, it would still be a matter of personal priorities and preferences.

    “Because I don’t want to” is the only “excuse” necessary. And that’s a good thing because there are oodles of people in the world who “do everything right,” and still have health issues, injuries, and just plain unfortunate genetics that would prevent them from reaching the societally-mandated ideal.

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