In NYLON’s monthly column Plus Us, writer Gianluca Russo explores the many ways in which fat people are discriminated against — both systematically and on an interpersonal level — in society today, and looks to open up difficult dialogue in order to provide support, advice, and resources to the community.
With each new year comes an upswing of short-lived resolutions, the most popular being the desire to lose weight. And despite evidence that shows that 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail, those hopeful to lose weight become entangled in this mostly unattainable pursuit. Their hope has allowed fitness corporations to capitalize off insecurities, opening the door for a new profitable market: faux “body-positive” fitness.
From gyms to exercise apps, the world of fitness has begun a pivot into the realm of body positivity, or so they claim. But can exercise be body positive if the primary goal is weight loss? And what exactly does it mean to create an inclusive workout space?
“We have become a marketing pitch,” says Latoya Shauntay Snell, athlete and founder of inclusive food and fitness platform Running Fat Chef. She compares it to the performative activism seen within the recent height of the Black Lives Matter movement, explaining, “I’ve seen so many marketing techniques put out there where companies align themselves and call themselves an ally, because they think that if they give a certain amount of dollars, that makes them a ‘good company.’ And then soon after, they abandon the stories that they started off venturing into.”
That couldn’t be more clear with fitness organizations using the fatphobic concept of the “Quarantine 15” to try and persuade potential customers into signing up for their “mega deals” this holiday season. But with COVID-19 on the mind — and the incessant fat-shaming it’s caused — the last thing the plus-size community needs is another diet. Or, shall I say, “lifestyle change”?
In theory, a body-positive fitness organization would rework its values to prioritize self-love, personal growth, and the mentally-stimulating effects of exercise. Weight loss would, in effect, not be the sole focus, because while losing weight is a personal decision that all should feel welcome to make, it is often led by the desire to escape fatness and seek a “better,” thinner life.
“Let’s [see this ‘body positivity’] in your instructors, let’s see it in the people who are working behind the desk, let’s see it in the way that you talk about weight and fitness in class,” says Hunter McGrady, model and designer of QVC’s All Worthy.
Fitness is about much more than weight loss, despite what this diet culture-led industry has led many to believe. Elle Woods explained it best: Exercise releases endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy people just don’t kill (or, in this case, hate their bodies).
Fitness is about much more than weight loss, despite what this diet culture-led industry has led many to believe.
The push to label exercise as “body positive” feels disingenuous to many, like a cash grab on our transformative movement towards equality. Fitness is an aspect of life, like cooking and acquiring an education. Why must this faux label be added, other than to attract a wider audience of “New Year, New Me” hopefuls? Additionally, the diet industry uses this time of year to capitalize off the plus-size community, pushing us towards unsustainable diets that, as studies show, fail over 90% of the time.
This cycle of dieting is fueled by the fitness industry itself, which pushes quick gratification, and the notion that exercise is a form of self-control — something plus-size people are believed to not possess — that all should strive for, even if it leads to unhealthy habits.
In her teens, McGrady viewed exercise as a form of self-punishment for indulging in certain foods, “and it actually became really dreadful.” As she grew older and more comfortable in her figure, she flipped her mindset to focus on the reasons she fell in love with fitness as a child: to feel energized, powerful, and confident. “We’ve been brainwashed to believe that plus-size equals lazy, or plus means that you can’t do certain things.”
Part of that process involved finding a group of like-minded individuals to exercise with, as McGrady explains that the gym and workout classes can often be “a scary place.” In late 2018, she launched BabeBody alongside friend and fellow fashion insider Katie Sturino as the go-to destination for plus-size women looking to get active and feel embraced for their bodies.
“We would vet every class that we would go into first and say, ‘Hey, we want to know, what are your stances on this? Who are your instructors? Do you have an inclusive staff of various sizes? And is this something you’re truly about?’”
The response to BabeBody was overwhelming, and it showed McGrady one solid truth: that plus-size women do want to work out, and more than anything, want to feel embraced in doing so.
“I can’t even tell you how many women would cry after we would finish a workout,” McGrady recalls. “We had women who would come up to us and say, ‘I have not worked out in 10 years because the anxiety is so crippling stepping into a gym.’”
Canada-based organization Body Positive Fitness has accomplished something similar with their now-virtual selection of exercise classes, covering everything from Zumba to stretching. Taught by truly body-positive instructors — people of diverse body types, each knowledgeable on how to use inclusive language to motivate participants without placing an emphasis on weight or performance — the classes welcome all sizes to come, learn, work out, and not worry about unnecessary stresses, like whether your stomach is showing or if your waist is cinched. (Note: Having taken a select few classes from Body Positive Fitness myself, I can confidently confirm that the space they’ve developed is truly inclusive and remarkable.)
Claiming to be inclusive and then only showing ripped, muscular bodies on your Instagram is the very definition of performative.
As displayed, creating an inclusive, body-positive fitness space is possible, but only when those behind the scenes can reflect that message. Having a staff of various body types and physical abilities — as the disabled community is also heavily left out of the conversation — is just as essential as promoting various body types in ads and campaigns. Because claiming to be inclusive and then only showing ripped, muscular bodies on your Instagram is the very definition of performative.
“I know that it takes people out of their comfort zone when they are exploring things that’s not their norm,” Snell says, “but if we do not dare to explore the things that make us uncomfortable, how do we ever expect to grow?”
As 2021 rolls around, McGrady suggests ditching the “New Year, New Me” mantra altogether, and recommends pivoting to a mindset grounded in self-love.
“Rewire your brain into honoring your body, what it brought you through the previous year, what you did, and what accomplishments you were able to achieve,” she says.
The concept of fitness is a triggering one for many within the plus-size community due to the shame around it. But for those wanting to break a sweat, the possibilities are endless. Ensure, however, to avoid the smokescreen of faux body-positive fitness and diet leaders who claim to support all body types, but only in shrinking them down. Because, as radical as it may seem, weight loss is not the sole goal of exercise. Your happiness should be.