Fat Shaming

One of the single worst things about people in the fitness industry, or people who are just really excited about physical fitness and exercise is the horrible ways we tend to treat people who don’t share our obsession/fascination/excitement out exercise, nutrition and all the other stuff that goes along with it.

By far the worst manifestation of this is fat shaming.

This American Life: Tell Me I’m Fat

I don’t agree with every single thing said by the advocates for body positivity/fat acceptance in last week’s This American Life episode (linked above) but I do think every trainer, every nutritionist, every coach and every fanatical fitspo selfie sharer needs to take an hour out of their lives to listen to it.

Justifying your interests and/or points of view based on subjective morality is certainly not exclusive to the world of fitness. Politicians do it. PTA boards do it. It’s pretty much baked into American culture, but it’s bad stuff.

One of the key points made by Lindy West in this episode, and in her book, Shrill, is that making judgements about the motives of a person simply due to superficial cues is bullshit. Heck, I’m guilty. I’ve chuckled my way through one of those “people of Walmart” slideshows before. I don’t do that anymore though.

See, like Lindy West says, you have no idea of knowing why someone is fat. You don’t know how much they exercise, what they eat, how many hours a day they work, how much sleep they get, or really anything about them from looking at them. That person you’re passing judgement upon may be a single parent, working three jobs and caring for an elderly relative at the same time, who is just struggling to get by, so cut her a little slack for not being able to “eat right” or “move more.” That fat guy on the bus might have a hormonal imbalance that’s wrecked his thyroid so badly that even when he works out three hours a day and watches what he eats he’s still going to be obese.

And guess what, that fat person you find “disgusting” might just actually and legitimately not give a shit. Here’s the kicker – you still don’t get to judge him.

This is sort of a radical notion for 2016, but you don’t get to force your values on anyone. That’s actually a founding principle of the United States. It was messy and complicated in the 18th and 19th centuries (just read up on the bitter rivalries and disagreements between the founding fathers, or, hey, there’s this whole civil war thing that tore the nation in literal half over a disagreement about values), and it’s only gotten messier and more complicated as the country has become more full of more diverse people.

Sticking to the subject of fitness, it’s pretty easy for people who like to exercise, who want to watch their diets and care deeply about these things to justify their interests in a moral context. That’s partially the fault of the fitness industry itself.

Gyms, publishers of diet books, Weight Watchers, Beachbody and other entities who wish to profit off of fitness find guilt is a great motivator. If you feel bad about yourself you usually want to change. All of these fitness businesses do some marketing designed to make you believe they can make you feel less guilty. And at their worst they encourage anyone who hasn’t already bought their products to feel that way. Basic marketing 101: name the problem and offer the solution.

Government is guilty of this too. Health care spending in the US is nearly out of control, so in true American fashion our government blames the victim. Obesity is blamed for preventable illness, which is labeled as THE cause of out of control health care costs. But here’s the problem with that reasoning – it’s cherry picking of statistics to avoid talking about the 800 pound gorilla that’s really driving up the cost of every social program: we are simply living longer than any of our systems were designed to deal with.

I’m not denying that obesity has health consequences. What I’m saying is that people regularly living into their 80s in a nation whose social programs were all designed to support a population who rarely made it out of their 60s is a much, much bigger part of the problem.

Being fat isn’t a crime. Being uninterested in exercise is also not a sign of moral failing. The real morality problem that we suffer from in American society is lack of empathy. When you fat shame you’re being heartless. You’re dehumanizing people because you’re not willing to make the effort to walk a mile in their shoes, not even for a minute.

I met a young woman at a facilities management conference last year who talked about a method she and her colleagues had developed for testing accessibility in hospitals and nursing homes. They constructed a suit that limited your range of motion, diminished your hearing, interfered with your balance and impaired your eyesight in exactly the ways an elderly person would experience. They used these suits to test the facilities they managed, to judge whether signage was actually readable, audible announcements were actually intelligible and corridors and doorways were navigable. But the real value, she said, was putting a 20-something building manager or architect into the suit made them immediately and viscerally understand what it’s like to be an elderly person, and it altered their approach to design and implementation of building services and systems.

Turn off your Judgy McJudgerson impulses toward obesity. Being a dick doesn’t help anyone.

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