body image · fat

How equating being fat with being out of shape hurts thin people too

I’ve been trying to write a post for awhile now about the dangers of conflating fitness and thinness. I started out wanting to address the concern a few people have raised about why there aren’t more fat fit people since clearly it’s possible to be both fat and fit.

My draft post on fatness and fitness begins by asking everyone to reconsider the claim that there aren’t lots and lots of fit and fat people. Recall my post Fit, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI in which I talked about the number of Olympic athletes who are overweight or obese using BMI as a measure.

Another important part of my answer is that gyms are hostile environments for lots of people, including fat people. Tracy and I have both written about our negative locker room experiences–A Tale of Two Locker Rooms and Why I left Goodlife Fitness some years ago–and we are relatively privileged gym goers.

Of course, it’s not like things improve once you leave the locker room. My main complaint is that everyone assumes I’m new to exercise and that once I get into the groove the pounds will just drop off. Um, here let me pick up that very heavy weight for you and no, no they won’t. For more on this theme read Myths and Stereotypes Are Ruining My Zumba Class!, Five Things Every Gym Should Already Be Doing, and Working Out While Fat.

But I also want to make a more complicated suggestion that when you think you’re only exercising to lose weight, and you don’t lose weight, then you might just quit. The reason not to quit is of course is that exercise has enormous health benefits, far beyond weight loss. And the connection between health and obesity is complicated. It’s not even clear that it’s in everyone’s health interest to lose weight. See Obesity, health, and fitness: some odd connections.

So, as I mentioned at the start I’ve been having difficulty writing this post. Something felt wrong about it. What? What’s missing? How about this: What about the thin people? The original post leaves them out and thin people are hurt too by the myth that thinness equals fitness. Probably they lose out, for example, on not having their doctors remind them of the benefits of regular exercise. I don’t know, it’s never happened to me, but I imagine they just step off the scales and get told, “you’re fine.”

If you think the main, or only, reason to exercise is weight loss and you’re a naturally thin person, you have little reason to get or stay physically active. And society will treat you as if you’re fit since we’re seem to be big on the problem I mentioned at the outset, conflating thinness and fitness.

An older male relative of mine once said it was odd that the only women he saw exercising outside in the morning are those that don’t need to. But of course that’s just wrong. Our bodies were made for lots and lots of movement throughout the day and that’s true for all of us, whatever our size. Thin people might stay home because they think they didn’t need to exercise. They’re already thin after all. Everyone assumes they’re working out. Fat people might choose not to exercise beside we’re ashamed or because it’s not “working.” We must be doing it wrong. Because we’re not losing weight.

Thin people are hurt by the myth that thinness equals fitness because they don’t think they need to exercise and they do. Thin people are a high risk group. They die at an earlier than fat people. I blogged about this: Lower death risk for the overweight, go us!

From the New York Times: “The report on nearly three million people found that those whose B.M.I. ranked them as overweight had less risk of dying than people of normal weight. And while obese people had a greater mortality risk over all, those at the lowest obesity level (B.M.I. of 30 to 34.9) were not more likely to die than normal-weight people. The report, although not the first to suggest this relationship between B.M.I. and mortality, is by far the largest and most carefully done, analyzing nearly 100 studies, experts said.”

So get out there thin people. Get moving! 🙂


Of course saying that ‘thin people are hurt too’ sounds a bit like saying ‘but what about the men?’ in the context of feminism.

There is an important difference between harm and oppression and the structures of our society are set to to privilege the thin. Saying that thin privilege exists doesn’t mean denying thin people can be hurt too. The language we use matters. Some people prefer the language of ‘fat acceptance,’ while others think we need to talk about ‘body diversity’ to be properly inclusive. The worry is that the latter makes it sound as if thin people and fat people suffer equally from our norms about bodies and size. They don’t.

But here I just wanted to point out one way that thin people are harmed by the mistaken connection between thinness and fitness.

Here are some great posts on skinny bashing, body diversity, and thin privilege:

!. Miss Mary Max argues that “Skinnybashing” claims are fundamentally a display of thin privilege.

“The truth is, the pain skinnybashing causes individual people with thin privilege does not hurt less (or matter less) than the pain caused by fatphobia.  But it does occur in a different context, and it has not been institutionalized to the extent that fat oppression has.  And no matter how genuinely pained thin people are — and no matter how much we should be doing about that — skinnybashing claims re-direct discussions of fat oppression into terms of “body diversity,” erasing the power dynamics between body types and the continued prevelance of fat oppression.  In other words, while body diversity is a laudable goal, to demand that fat-acceptance activists redirect toward “diversity” requires that they quit fighting fat oppression and embrace the false notion that thin and fat bodies are — on a societal level — policed equally.  It’s the more pallatable alternative, which we use to opt out of the challenging admission that our pain and our privilege exist simultaneously.”

Read more here.

2. Thin Privilege Checklist

3. What’s This Thin Privilege Thing?

14 thoughts on “How equating being fat with being out of shape hurts thin people too

  1. I do think that significantly overweight people have tougher time battling misperceptions.

    For thin people, to make other people understand that we can get….diabetes 2 too. Like me. So I had to cut out white rice (which I had almost every dinner for lst 45 yrs. of life) and bread.

    I knew a skinny guy who’s cholesterol was too high…

    Of course we don’t need to go into anorexia and bulimia problems.

  2. Sam, I think I disagree with may of your assumptions about thin people. I say this from the perspective of someone who is naturally small, but definitely not effortlessly thin. I think when you look at someone who is thin, it is often quite easy to determine who exercises and who doesn’t. With less subcutaneous fat, it’s easy to see things like muscle tone. I look at many thin people and assume that they are not healthy because there’s no visible evidence that they exercise. And I strongly suspect that if I make these types of assumptions, a doctor probably would too. I seriously doubt that a skinny person who doesn’t lead an active lifestyle is ever told by their doctor that being skinny is sufficient just because of a number on a scale. As someone who tends to have to work hard to stay small, I have generally been told that my weight was in the healthy range, but I am also routinely grilled about my activity level and my diet, and my blood pressure and cholesterol have been tested like anyone else’s.

    1. I don’t doubt they wouldn’t be told that being thin was sufficient. I was just curious about how often they’re asked. I don’t know. Your story actually makes me happy that thin people are questioned about physical activity. I think that’s good news.

  3. he he he…I like freaking people out by telling them I want to gain muscle and that I don’t want to be runway model thin.

  4. PS as you get older – I am 50 – muscle is worth its weight in gold. No muscle = nursing home!

  5. When I was younger and leaner, I got told “Oh you don’t need to work out, you’re so slim already”, ALL THE TIME. I don’t hear that anymore. In reality, for my heart health, I have always needed to work out. I’m easily 25 lbs heavier than “back then” but I also workout with much greater consistency. Aging metabolism and hormones are ahem, interesting!

  6. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    Last week, amid all the kerfuffle about *that Peloton ad* the thing that bothered me the most were all the people who said the wife didn’t need the bike because she was already fit. How do we know she was already fit? Her size. But that’s just not true. Fitness is one thing and fatness is another. Running them together hurts thin people too. Here’s an earlier version of me on the subject.

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