For the past couple of days, I've sat on my hands as divisive discussion whirled around the news that a Nike store put a plus size mannequin on display at its London flagship store. A writer for The Telegraph wrote some particularly nasty things about it. I am not going to link to the piece because I don't want to give them any more direct traffic than they're already getting from this.
The article included such gross nonsense such as:
- “She is immense, gargantuan, vast. She heaves with fat.”
- “She is, in every measure, obese, and she is not readying herself for a run in her shiny Nike gear. She cannot run. She is, more likely, prediabetic and on her way to a hip replacement.”
Plenty of people have jumped in the conversation about this article, and I honestly didn't know if I had the emotional energy to do the same. The article itself, and the commentary and reaction around it have been nauseating. Some comments from the peanut gallery:
- “Nobody that large should wear anything that tight. When you get out the shower you don't want to look at it. Neither does anybody else.”
- “…husky broads definitely shouldn't be wearing tight clothing. Spandex is a privilege, not a right.”
- “Yuk. I see enough of these women on the streets, as well as my own mirror. I don't want to see them in stores.”
- “There is a reason you do not wear that apparel when you are big. Just sayin.”
- “Great just promoting a faster death”
All of this conversation also struck really deep at the heart of the huge zapper of self-confidence I've experienced lately. I wanted to explain why all of this is so harmful, and to provide a personal update, even if it leaves an emotional hangover.
This blog was started because of the fear I had that came with seeking fitness as a fat person.
I'm currently celebrating my 10-year blogging anniversary. For those who weren't here back in the beginning, you may not know that I started out as “Skinny Emmie,” a weight loss blog. Just before starting it, I'd unsuccessfully auditioned for The Biggest Loser. Back then, I wanted to have public accountability as I was trying to lose weight, but a huge part of it was so I could have a fitness safety net. I started something called “Get Emmie Skinny,” where I would reach out to trainers or studios to ask if I could work with them and cover it on my blog. This wasn't about getting things for free: it was all about making up a reason to approach those in the fitness industry who frankly, scared me shitless, in a way that acknowledged “hey, I'm fat and want to come work out, I might need special accommodations with my size and fitness level, and please make sure it's a decent experience because if it sucks, I may say so online.”
It's not that I was unfamiliar with exercise or workouts. I was a lifelong athlete (swimming and tennis), a practitioner of 2-a-day workouts as a high schooler, 4-year fat camp alum, and step aerobics and kickboxing instructor. I was always fat. I fell off the fitness wagon in college, and stayed off it while my binge eating disorder raged on. By the time I was ready to focus on my fitness again, I was paralyzed with fear of being judged. Who wants to put a lot of effort into showing up, only to be stared at, whispered about, or given unsolicited advice by a stranger about how their Aunt Mary finally shed her fat?
“Good Fatty” fueled by weight loss and public validation
For years, I publicly shared my fitness journey to build a safety bubble around my workouts. If people knew I was showing up in earnest, maybe I'd insulate myself from rude comments or stares or trainers screaming at me to do things that my body wasn't quite capable of.
At the time, while I had fitness goals, the success of my efforts was measured by how much weight I lost. I put that measuring stick there because it's what I knew. It's what we celebrate as “success” for a fat person.
I did a lot of things where others' opinions were my measuring stick. Everyone was running, so I took up running. Forget the fact that I really despise running. I went through the motions, did my 5Ks, and then a half marathon. I did a disservice to myself because I ended up injuring my ankle badly and even to this day, years after surgery, I still have daily pain. That's what I get for not listening to my body and going for the public validation of having a 13.1 sticker on my car.
Access is important: clothes are a huge part of that
To some, this Nike mannequin may seem like no big deal. Is it really that groundbreaking to see a plus-size mannequin? Hell yes, it is.
I share so much plus size fashion because personal style is an incredible source of self-confidence and expression. When it comes to workout clothes? Not so much. Offerings are much better than they were a few years ago, but that's thanks in part to a lot of unique, smaller brands who are trying to uniquely serve those of us who have been underrepresented when it comes to functional, fashionable activewear.
It was such a strong need in the past that I spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours working to develop my own line. How can I work out 4-5 days a week and not have clothes that 1) fit; 2) covered what I needed; 3) made me feel like I fit in?
My belief was that by providing the market with stylish and highly functional plus size activewear (as Nike is doing more of), bigger bodies would feel more comfortable going to an already intimidating gym or studio.
I ended up shelving the project for a few reasons, but seeing Nike and their mannequin is an indication that more people see the vision, and also the opportunity that comes with providing access.
Check your fatphobia.
The response to the plus size Nike mannequin (not just the Telegraph article in question, but all the comments coming in support of it as fat people stand up for themselves) is confounding.
For years, people have screamed at fat people to lose weight because we're glorifying obesity by existing. By dressing cute. By posting Instagram photos in celebration of our beauty. We're told we're ruining our health and taxing the healthcare system because we MUST have diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure (which, BTW, I don't.)
So why is it when fat people show up to exercise:
- People snicker behind our backs?
- Others try to sneak photos of us exercising as a joke to send to their friends?
- Fitness facilities aren't quite sure how to handle us unless they're talking about weight loss goals?
- We get yelled at by passers-by on the street (or in my case, yelled at and egged)?
And why is it, that when an activewear giant decides to add a plus-size mannequin to show off extended sizes, they get roasted for it? If people were truly concerned about our health, they should be cheering fat people invading the gym, wearing all the fantastic workout clothes!
There's a meme that makes its way across the internet from time to time that says: “making fun of a fat person at a gym is like making fun of a homeless person at a job fair.”
This Twitter thread from Michelle Allison of @fatnutritionist really resonated with me. She's also the writer of this fantastic piece from The Atlantic about diet culture.
Fat people don't owe haters an explanation.
A lot of the Instagram posts and articles that I've seen clapping back at The Telegraph article are plus size people working out, explaining their fitness and health accomplishments. While I love seeing fat bodies working out, we often forget that we don't owe anyone an explanation. We don't have to justify that we're fit. The right to exist as a person and the right to respect and dignity doesn't change whether we're fat or thin or run marathons or are champion Netflix watchers.
For years, I justified all sorts of things to strangers that I didn't need to:
- I didn't lose weight this month, but I ran 30 miles this month in preparation for my half marathon
- I'm not losing weight as fast as I'd hope, but here are my lab results to prove I'm not lying when I say I'm exercising
- You think I'm fat now? I used to weight 113 pounds more than I do now!
Fat is an easy target for people because it's a physical characteristic. None of the negativity should require a response or justification on our part. The size of our bodies shouldn't be subject to ridicule, vitriol, and disrespect. Outside commentary is never helpful, whether people are super athletes or sedentary, fat or thin, able-bodied or not.
A reminder of how far we have to go
The fatphobic comments in praise of this article amplify a personal insecurity I've had since I moved to Louisville. Last week in conjunction with celebration 10 years of blogging, I asked for questions on Instagram Stories. One of them hit me in the gut, because it's something I think about every day.
“I miss your workout posts – did you lose steam?”
I started crying because I am not personally happy with my lack of workouts. I've lost a lot of the strength and conditioning I worked hard to achieve. I loved my trainer and gym in Lexington. I felt pushed appropriately, and never judged by anyone. Workouts were functional and were highly enjoyable. I didn't have to exercise until I puked in order to make gains with my strength and endurance.
The thought of finding such a welcoming space and really knowledgable trainers in this new city was so overwhelming that I didn't do it. This was my response to that question:
It took me years of trial and error to find movement that felt good and space where I didn't constantly dread being stared at or scrutinized. As I mentioned earlier, I literally started this blog to help me feel more “justified” in seeking out body positive fitness spaces. Back then, I was still OK operating in a weight loss mentality. These days, it's much more difficult mentally to be surrounded by weight loss talk. I spent a lifetime attempting to stop hating my body, and constant weight loss talk throws me back into a shame spiral.
In an effort to find spaces that might work for me, I'll look at social media. Are there any bodies represented that aren't thin and shredded? Are there weight loss or caloric burn promises splashed every post? Is the entire feed a set of before and afters?
There are no standards when it comes to finding a safe space for fat bodies to exercise, save for a few trainers (none that I've found around here) that declare they're body positive or embrace health at every size (HAES.) There are a couple directories here and here, but not helpful for the majority of the country.
Every day, fat people with or without a platform such as mine try to work up the courage to move their bodies in a way that feels good. Then something like this Nike mannequin story comes out and we're reminded of all the negativity that still exists. It's validation that our bodies are still not welcome by many. Damned if we do, damned if we don't.
Some final thoughts:
- If you're someone who reacts negatively to seeing a plus size mannequin because it means more fat people may be in your gym wearing Spandex, please politely leave this space and maybe reflect on what is so personally offensive about a fat person living.
- If you're a fitness professional, consider incorporating more diverse body types in your imagery and weight-neutral language on your website or social media. It will go an incredibly long way to welcome people of all sizes and abilities to your space. Also, don't assume that every client that comes in has a weight loss goal.
- If you're someone who is thin or hasn't experienced this sort of judgment directed at you, be an ally by speaking up if you see someone being mistreated.
I know this is a really long post, but it's a complicated subject. If you liked this post, you may want to read more of my thoughts on one of my favorite posts, ever.