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The online world is absolutely full of people arguing with Maria Kang alternatively known as “fit mom” or “what’s your excuse mom”. She stirred up a whole lot of controversy with her picture showing her teeny tiny sports shorts and perfectly toned abs next to her three children along with the headline, “What’s Your Excuse?” Naturally this photo infuriated a lot of women who didn’t feel they should need an excuse to not look like Maria Kang looks. And there were plenty of women ready to point out that Maria has no right to make assumptions about their lives and their priorities and their choices, based on the fact that they fail to look like fitness magazine cover models.
She stirred up a whole other hornet’s nest of controversy recently by speaking out against a Curvy Lingerie company. Curvy Girl chose to help boost women’s self esteem by asking their customers to post pictures of themselves on their Curvy Girl facebook page. Curvy Girls touted this as an opportunity for average women who have NOT been airbrushed or spray tanned, surgically altered or photoshopped to show off their sexy selves including stretch marks, bumps, scars and rolls. Naturally, Maria couldn’t stay out of the fray and just had to say something about how some of those women (based on some criteria known only to her) should not feel good about themselves because they just can’t be healthy looking that way. The owner of Curvy Girl then got Maria kicked off facebook, at least temporarily for engaging in hate speech against those who submitted pictures to the Curvy Girl site.
And of course, I can’t sit just idly by. Oh, honey, no. I have to jump in here and say, that this is an absolutely perfect, text book demonstration of why I choose to call myself “The Fat Chick”. Maria describes herself as a fitness trainer. Maria even looks like our American stereotypical ideal of how a trainer should look. She also conforms to many stereotypes regarding what a fitness trainer should think. But I think many of the notions that she has tried (in her not particularly clear way) to articulate during the many multitudes of media interviews are not only flawed but dangerous to her clients and to the world at large. So, if y’all will bear with me, I’d like to take a quick look at some of them right here and right now.
1. Everyone, if they tried hard enough, could look like Maria Kang. Um, no. There are many, many factors that go into how a person looks including age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, genetics, fitness level and so on. The vast majority of people in the world could do situps until the end of time and squats until their bums fall off and they will never, ever look like Maria Kang. I’m not saying that Maria doesn’t work very hard to look the way she does. I’m sure she spends an enormous amount of time, energy and money making that happen. I am saying that she is coming from a different starting place from many of us, I think this may be a case of “born on third and thinks she hit a triple”. I have participated in many running races and track events in my life despite the fact that I am not naturally gifted with any athletic talent for running. Despite a serious training regimen and a lot of determination I think Usain Bolt’s record is safe from me. That said, he probably can’t hit a high “C” or sing the soprano role in a French Opera like I can. I think that’s true even if Mr. Bolt really wanted it and trained for it. He just doesn’t have the right kind of body to accomplish that. And that is OKAY.
2. Well at least all fitness teachers should look like Maria Kang. Again, no. A thousand times no. Fitness teachers work with all different kinds of people. Therefore, fitness teachers should look like lots of different kinds of people. Some students will be extremely motivated working with a teacher like Maria. Some would be put off or even terrified in working with somebody who looks like her. One very important reason I call myself “The Fat Chick” is to get across the notion that while some fit people look like Maria, plenty of others look more like me. In fact, on the Fit Fatties Forum, there are THOUSANDS OF THEM who look more like me. There is not just one way to be fit. There is not just one way to look. Maria looks like a fitness teacher, but SO. DO. I.
3. But some of those women just don’t look healthy. Um, how the heck do YOU know Maria. You absolutely, positively, truly cannot look at a person and determine if they are healthy. You cannot look at a person and determine if they have healthy habits. You. Can. Not. As my dear friend Ragen Chastain says, the only thing you can know for sure when you look at a fat person is your own bias towards fat people. This notion that you can tell that fat people are unhealthy by looking at them has caused untold harm to people of size in this world. Because it’s not just attention-seeking personal trainers who harbor these biases. It’s also doctors and nurses and college admission officials and tenured professors and office health care managers. It’s our mothers and fathers and second cousins who all feel that our size should generate concern which in turn generates the need to generate unsolicited advice.
4. But saying that fat people are unattractive and unhealthy doesn’t mean I’m a bully. I hate to burst your bubble Maria, but that’s EXACTLY what that means. You are taking a stigmatized group and you are using faulty logic to justify your attempts to further stigmatize them. Yup. That makes you a bully. Even if you don’t believe you are being a bully, and even if you take care to point out to anyone that will listen that you are not a bully, you are still being a bully.
5. But Maria is just trying to help. The question I have here is, “Help who?” Clearly Maria is trying to help herself. No doubt that she will enjoy a certain notoriety for her part in this whole brouhaha and her facebook and YouTube hits are no doubt off the charts. But if you are going to help people, if you are going to help normal, everyday people get fit, it’s important to do your homework. You should know as a fitness instructor what is likely to hurt (shaming your clients) and what is likely to help (encouraging and empathizing with your clients). When you are responsible for teaching others, it’s so important to read the research and really understand what is happening rather than simply repeating something you heard from somebody somewhere.
In a way, I am extremely grateful to Maria. She’s made the dialog come to light, she’s made the bias come out in the open, and she’s contrasted my own approach to fitness in such a clear way that my role as “The Fat Chick” has never been clearer. As a fitness teacher or trainer you could always take the tack of asking people, “What’s your excuse?” But I’ve always found it quite a lot more effective to ask, “What do you need?” or “How can I help?”
AKA The Fat Chick
P.S. There is a lot of great advice about how to go from zero to moderately active in YOUR life in my book–The Fat Chick Works Out! Now get both the book and DVD for only $25.
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