The average American woman wears a size 16 to 18, so when Nike launched a plus-size collection of fitness wear in 2017, then introduced plus-size mannequins in select North American stores the following year, it was good business sense. However, last month’s placement of one of those mannequins in Nike’s London flagship store unexpectedly kicked a hornet’s nest. The ensuing media frenzy was a flash point in a debate that continues to smolder, highlighting the fact that the “war on obesity” remains a war on individual humans in bigger bodies. But this time, some of those humans fought back.
In case you missed it, Tanya Gold, a writer for The Telegraph, penned a blistering column accusing Nike of harming women in larger bodies by displaying a mannequin that she described as “immense, gargantuan, vast. She heaves with fat.” She voiced several pervasive — and false — stereotypes, including that fat people don’t exercise, can’t exercise and are unhealthy. She even said that making plus-size athletic wear available would encourage people to be fat. It was a single article, but it is symptomatic of a societal problem.
It’s a mistake to create barriers to exercise for anyone who wants to exercise (and in America, at least, we should be encouraging people to move more: Only 26 percent of American men and 19 percent of American women meet exercise recommendations). However, it’s especially hypocritical to tell people in fat bodies they should exercise while making it more difficult for them to do so. People in fat bodies who dare to exercise in public are walking (or running) targets for all manner of verbal abuse. Effectively, they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t, and it’s the stereotypes and associated abuse that discourage exercise that harms health, not plus-size athletic wear.
Here are three reasons Gold’s argument is wrong.
It denies fat people representation and respect
If you believe, as Gold does, that Nike’s plus-size mannequins promote “obesity” as a new beauty standard, you’re thinking too narrowly. Representation in magazines, on screens, on fashion runways, in public and in clothing stores is about far more than beauty, it’s about humanity and belonging. This is a real issue, because research shows that people in fat bodies are deemed less human than people in thinner bodies.
“Regardless of how much a person weighs, regardless of whether they are ‘healthy’ or not, everyone deserves respect,” said stigma researcher Jeffrey Hunger, assistant professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio. “Respect should not be conditioned on a scale number or whether you went for that morning jog.”
The U.S. government — one major player in the “war on obesity” — gets this. Its 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans report includes photos of women who are the size of the Nike mannequin — and some who are larger — engaging in a variety of forms of exercise, including running. The report also states, “Health is a human condition with physical, social, and psychological dimensions, each characterized on a continuum with positive and negative poles. Positive health is associated with a capacity to enjoy life and to withstand challenges; it is not merely the absence of disease.”
People who perpetuate stereotypes about people in fat bodies don’t care about their health and well-being, or about their capacity to enjoy life. Telling someone their weight will kill them isn’t encouragement, it’s concern trolling. And it has roots in the myth of personal responsibility.
It makes assumptions and oversimplifications
Gold asserted that most people who weigh “too much” do so because they are addicted to sugar and depressed — taking her personal truth and applying it to strangers. One article in support of Gold called for people in fat bodies to “put down that fried pizza milkshakes,” which, even if that’s an actual thing, is every bit as unreasonable as yelling “eat a cheeseburger” at people in thin bodies. Unfortunately, there’s a widespread belief that we can determine someone’s health by looking at them and that we have to right to comment publicly. You don’t have to look hard to find someone with no education or qualifications in weight science or weight stigma offering unsolicited advice and presenting opinions as facts.
“We still have a lot of work to do to communicate that you cannot read someone’s fitness or food habits from the appearance of their body,” said Australian dietitian Fiona Willer, host of the “Unpacking Weight Science” podcast. When looking at population-level data on dietary habits, she said the differences between people in different BMI categories are small.
Hunger said the intent focus on individual control over weight glosses over the complex genetic, biological, and social determinants of health. “A lot of individuals still strongly endorse a simplistic, ‘calories in/calories out’ model. Of course weight and weight loss is far more complex, and the evidence seems to suggest that long-term weight loss is unachievable for most.” Further, he said the ‘personal responsibility’ rhetoric — which even obesity researchers say needs to stop — is not only intertwined with negative weight-related stereotypes, it’s used to justify these stereotypes.
“Weight is portrayed as simply a function of personal control, so people who ‘fail’ at this control must simply be lazy and must overindulge,” he said, adding that this rhetoric perpetuates stereotyping and discrimination, and has additional harms. “We know from years of research that this weight stigma is incredibly corrosive for mental and physical health. It’s linked with higher rates of depression and anxiety, greater health-compromising behaviors such as disordered eating and substance use, and fewer health-promoting behaviors such as physical activity and routine medical visits.”
It doesn't work
Why do so many individuals — and our culture as a whole — continue to adhere to the idea that we can shame people into better health, which is typically falsely translated as losing weight? From a public health perspective, Hunger said this notion may have its roots in antismoking efforts, which were steeped in stigma and shame. As public service announcements portrayed smokers as unattractive and foul-smelling and policies that ostracized smokers in public spaces became more widespread, smoking rates declined. “Even if shame was the driver of this decline, I can say definitively that stigmatizing and shaming people is not going to miraculously translate into a healthier diet or more physical activity,” he said. “Rather, it’s likely going to lead to disordered eating and other forms of unhealthy weight control.”
Feeling bad about yourself is not a motivator for positive change, especially given that most people who lose weight gain a significant portion of it back — sometimes ending up at an even higher weight than when they started dieting. Furthermore, yo-yo dieting and weight cycling are neither healthy nor motivating. Know what is healthy? Participating in forms of physical activity that you enjoy, especially when you have exercise clothes that fit. That simple but important fact, along with basic human decency, is why the pushback to Gold’s article, online and elsewhere, drowned out the trolls — this time.
“The very fact that there has been widespread condemnation of the Telegraph article criticizing the mannequin rather than the mannequin itself is a great sign that the tables are turning,” Willer said. “People are realizing that they are the targets of these toxic attitudes and they don’t like it, especially larger bodied people who live an active lifestyle. And individuals are feeling empowered enough to speak back to the bullies, which means that shame is finally taking a back seat for some people.”
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.