Who is plus sized and who is not? Sam weighs in (again) on labels and identity

Of all the fights not to get into on the internet, the worst sort is when someone claims a particular label and you argue that they aren’t it. Whatever it is. Feminist. Fat. Liberal. Plus sized. Cyclist. Runner. Introvert.

The thing is when someone claims a label for themselves they’ve got more at stake than you do. It matters to them in ways you might not understand.

Here is one example from my life.

I say I’m a parent and I rarely identify as a mother. Gendered parenting roles aren’t my thing. I don’t entirely abstain from gender. I mostly wear skirts and dresses and I wear lipstick while cycling! But as a parent, my connection to my kids isn’t experienced (for me) as a gendered thing. There’s no “wait till your father gets home” around here. We don’t roll that way. You can correct me and say that technically I’m also a mother, as well as a parent. Fine. But you’re missing out on my perspective on my life. There’s information there that you don’t have. Labels matter especially when it comes to self identification.

Here’s two more that matter to me:

Thanks Sarah for the birthday pins! (The pins read “feminist” and “introvert.”)

But here the issue is more complicated. It’s about who gets to claim the label “plus sized.”

You’ll recall in my recent blog post about the label “fat” I admitted that sometimes I claimed the label “fat” and sometimes I didn’t. One example of a time when I claim it is when people start opining about the possibility of being fat and fit. Then I stand up proud and say, over here. Look at me. “I weigh x number of pounds and just rode my bike y number of kilometers.”

When don’t I claim the label “fat”? When I worry that relatively smaller fat people like me are crowding out debates and discussion. There’s fat phobia out there in the world that I don’t encounter. I rarely need to seek size accommodation. Regular airplane seats and seat belts fit me just fine and pretty much all clothing stores sell things that fit. I’m fat, yes, but still pretty privileged in terms of my size.

But plus sized seems to me to be a pretty factual label, neutral even. Regular sizes run 0-14. Plus sized is 16 and up. That’s the dividing line in most stores. I’m fat, not plus sized.

So when a friend, a much smaller friend, described herself as plus sized I spoke up and corrected her. You’re size 8, I said. You’re not plus sized.

She pointed out that she feels plus sized. What does that mean? Well, a modeling company she’d spoken to about modeling said they didn’t need any more plus sized models. They saw her as plus sized. People name call her and she’s been bullied because of her size. She’s definitely not thin or skinny. But is everyone who isn’t skinny “plus sized”? Have we lost track of normal?

I’m reminded of a line from the TV show The Good Place about the need for a medium place, nor heaven or hell, but a place for the rest of us who aren’t perfect but aren’t evil either.

Heck, these days people are calling Rhianna plus sized. See Calling Rihanna Plus-Size Could Be The Conversation We All Need.

Here’s Rhianna’s response.

Anyway, the label “plus sized” means something to this young woman. Who am I to decide she can’t claim it? Why do I feel the need to tell her she isn’t plus sized?

What’s your take on these debates about who is and who isn’t plus-sized?

Fit and fat revisited (ultra running doesn’t make everyone thin and lean)

One of Mirna Valerio's selfies, used to prove that she showed up and did it! From http://fatgirlrunning-fatrunner.blogspot.ca/2015/07/thoughts-of-fatultrarunner.html

One of Mirna Valerio’s selfies, used to prove that she showed up and did it! From http://fatgirlrunning-fatrunner.blogspot.ca/2015/07/thoughts-of-fatultrarunner.html

You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it.  Running is supposed to be the “best cardio” for weight loss. Have you seen the people who win marathons? They’re lean sometimes to the point of being barely there.

If marathoners are that thin, ultra runners must be even more so. Except that, no, it doesn’t work that way.  I’ve already talked about how endurance training won’t make you lean any more than basketball will make you tall and lanky. I found this out first hand when I trained for Olympic distance triathlons and then a half marathon and then a 30K and then a marathon. I lost no weight at all. Not one gram. My weight fluctuated by about 2 pounds over the entire 2 year period.

And so what? Here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue, we like to challenge the idea that fit and fat don’t go together, and also that being thin is a sign of fitness. It’s not. There are plenty of thin people who could use a regular fitness routine. Sam has a great post that muddies the waters around the so-called connection between inactivity and obesity.

This week, Runner’s World profiled a 250 pound ultra distance runner named Mirna Valerio. Valerio blogs about her running at Fat Girl Running. Mirna runs about 25 miles a week unless she’s training for an event, in which case she ups it to 35. Right now, she’s training for a 50K trail race.

Here’s what people say to her:

“People always say to me, ‘Anyone who runs as much as you do deserves to be skinny.’ Of course, what they’re really saying: ‘If you do all this running, why are you still so fat?’”

Mirna provides a powerful counterexample to the idea that being “overweight” by the lights of the charts is automatically a negative comment on your fitness and health. Recent science bears this out. The RW article states:

“The scientific evidence has become quite powerful to suggest that a healthful lifestyle dramatically mitigates the risks associated with mild levels of obesity,” says Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., author of The Diet Fix and a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine in Canada. “Scales don’t measure the presence or absence of health. A woman with obesity running marathons makes a superb role model.”

Mirna’s training is a huge source of enjoyment in her life too. Part of her regular ritual is that each time she goes out she takes a selfie.

Every run, every race, every traverse of a mountain trail, every gym workout, Valerio begins by taking a photo. “To prove that I was out here,” she explains. “To document the fact that I achieved something today.”

She makes it fun. And she keeps it light. On her blog, she has a page “how to be a fat runner.” She explains it in ten simple steps, including “embrace the name” and “look in the mirror and smile even if it doesn’t feel genuine” and “look in the mirror again and admire yourself for being a fatrunner.”

So here we have an ultra runner who is not thin and lean. But we’re not going to challenge her fitness, right? Imagine how much joy she would have robbed herself of if, after running for a few weeks or months without losing weight, she decided it wasn’t “worth it”?

This is what happens when we focus on one goal only: the goal of weight loss.  When our activities are a means to that sole end, and we don’t achieve that end, we sometimes forgo perfectly good, health-promoting, and enjoyable forms of activity because they don’t “work.” But there are so many other ways that getting more active does “work.”

What an impoverished idea of any kind of training we would have if its only function was to help us drop fat and lose weight. If that’s the only reason I ran, I would have given it up long ago. And so would Mirna Valerio and countless others who found that actually, they didn’t end up looking like elite marathoners when they took up endurance training.

Check out the entire RW article about Mirna Valerio here.  And visit her Fat Girl Running blog here.

What’s Wrong with the “Feeling Fat” Emoticon?

Facebook emoticons, including "feeling fat," with a chubby face.You’ve probably read by now that Facebook has removed its “feeling fat” status update/emoticon from the list of options. Over 16,000 put pressure on the social media goliath by signing activist group Endangered Bodies’ petition.

This article quotes Catherine Weingarten, the author of the petition, as saying:
When Facebook users set their status to “feeling fat,” they are making fun of people who consider themselves to be overweight, which can include many people with eating disorders. That is not ok. Join me in asking Facebook to remove the “fat” emoji from their status options.
And when it decided to do the right thing, Facebook said:

“We’ve heard from our community that listing ‘feeling fat’ as an option for status updates could reinforce negative body image, particularly for people struggling with eating disorders,” Facebook (FB, Tech30) said in a statement.
But media is just about sound bytes (as I myself discovered in a TV interview that I’ll post below), and neither of these get to the full picture.

First of all, it’s not just about people with eating disorders and it’s not just about making fun of people. No doubt, Catherine Weingarten said a lot more than that. I’m almost certain of that because the Endangered Bodies offers a more nuanced set of reasons for what the problem is. The petition talks about fat-shaming, body hatred, and Facebook’s influence and reach as a significant social media platform:

Fat is a substance that every body has and needs. Fat is also an adjective – a descriptive word about a physical attribute. Just like tall, short, black or white, it should not be misused to shame oneself or others. However, the fashion, beauty and diet industries have an interest in making us feel insecure about our own bodies and over time “fat” has become a negative word, not a simple statement of size. There is nothing neutral about it. The stigma and criticism of fat and the elevation of thin make them stand-ins for other kinds of words, feelings and moods.

Endangered Bodies sees this fear of fat and idealisation of thinness throughout society as a form of weight stigma, which can have a serious impact on the millions of people dealing with negative body image. Body-shaming and weight stigma are associated with lower self-esteem and disordered eating, an issue that Facebook – being a social platform – needs to take seriously.

I myself blogged about “feeling fat” a long time ago, when the blog was just a month old. There, I talked about the difference between feeling fit and feeling fat. Most especially, we need to be aware that feeling fat has nothing to do with body weight. It has to do with the assumption that fat is bad. When we feel bad about ourselves, that self-loathing can express itself in feeling fat:
It’s a strange and complicated thing, feeling fat is.  It can settle in overnight, or even through the course of a day. Clothes that fit just fine when I put them on in the morning might by lunch time start to feel like they’re pinching and snug, especially if I had a bad morning.  Even the red silk scarf, not a body-hugging item, might not look right when just yesterday it accessorized perfectly. And a general feeling of unworthiness accompanies feeling fat. It’s astonishing and sad that internalized cultural stigma against weight and body type can feed so powerfully into these negative attitudes about oneself.

Remember, feeling fat is amazingly unconnected to actual body size and even percentage of fat. But it is also, for many women I know, the “go-to” feeling when they are unhappy with themselves about something…about anything.  This says a lot about the hold that our culture’s attitudes about weight and body size has on us. Even those of us who are explicitly and consciously attentive to the irrational and unfair social stigma, even working to challenge it, latch onto fatness (real or imagined) as a personal deficiency. It then spirals into an energy-sucking, self-defeating stick that might make a person feel motivated to get active (but for all the wrong reasons) or thoroughly hopeless about exercise because it doesn’t “work” (as if its only purpose is to lose or control one’s weight).

When we can use feeling fat to articulate low self-esteem, as a stick to beat ourselves with, then it’s not funny. It’s sad. One thing I believe is that when we feel fat it’s a good sign that something else is going on with us. And that’s probably not the time to invoke a glib emoticon that announces to the world: “I hate myself right now.”

The social meaning of feeling fat ensures that it’s not simply self-abusive. Not at all. A purely individualistic explanation of why it’s harmful to include it among “impatient, amused, better, discouraged” doesn’t capture the social harm. It’s fat-phobic and fat-shaming.  Even if lots of the people who feel fat don’t appear to others to be fat, they’ve internalized the message that fat is loathsome to such a degree that it’s what they latch onto when they want to express how much they despise themselves in that moment (because, and this is one thing it has in common with actual feelings, it can pass as quickly as it set in). That’s a pretty awful thing for people who others actually do think of as fat.

We live in a fat-phobic, fat-shaming world. In providing that emoticon, Facebook is perpetuating an oppressive social attitude.  The local news came to see me about this today. I said a lot of stuff that was more interesting than what they chose, but if you’re interested, here’s a link to the clip.  They will make you watch an ad first and for that I apologize.

And from the Endangered Bodies’ Fat Is Not a Feeling campaign:

With social influence, power, and reach comes social responsibility. It’s good to see that Facebook can respond appropriately at least some of the time even if they don’t have a very nuanced public presentation of their reasons.

It’s not, as the other person interviewed in my clip said, that they can’t afford not to be “politically correct.” Why do people always talk about “political correctness” as if there is something wrong with simply choosing a socially responsible course of action? That charge that mega-corporations are always having to bow to political correctness is a simplistic and dismissive response to genuine concern about real social harms.

And to those who think that in removing this choice FB has somehow done us a disservice, it’s not some God-given right that everything we experience needs to be expressible in a canned status with a matching emoticon. I’m glad they took it down and I will be happier still when we stop using “feeling fat” as a form of self-abuse and a socially acceptable way of body-shaming in a fat-phobic culture.

Facing Fears of the Group Ride—One Cyclist’s Saga (Guest post)

Last weekend I went on my first long group bike ride in more than a year.  This is odd because I’m an avid cyclist, in a Boston cycling club (Northeast Bike Club), have raced on road, cyclocross and mountain bikes, own very many bikes (the exact number is available on a need-to-know basis), and am pathologically sociable (in a good way).   So why haven’t I been riding with groups?  Here’s why:

  • Insecurity about decreased FITness
  • Consciousness of increased FATness
  • Accumulation of years, recently passing FIFTY
  • Leading to one big pileup of FEAR

Fear sucks.  Fear sucks the joy out of activity.  Fear sucks away our energy.  Fear causes us to question ourselves.  Fear keeps us from doing what we want, what we can, and what we ought to do.  Fear kept me from group riding in the past year.  What was I afraid of?

1) I’m too slow to ride with other people

Cyclists think they are too slow in the same way that academics think that their articles/books/dissertations are crap.  Everyone thinks it, but it’s not based in reality.  Of course, maybe that paper really does need a major revision, and maybe you haven’t been riding much or you’re recovering from an injury or a period of overwork or a family crisis.  That’s not the point.  The point is this:  even though it’s painful to hand over that draft to someone for comments, it is one of the best ways to improve it.  Riding with others does reveal your strengths and weaknesses, but it is a great way to get feedback, support, fun, and a workout. Fear of being too slow is not a reason not to ride with others, it is a reason TO ride with others.

2) I simply won’t be able to do it

In this frame of mind, I think to myself… What?  I’ll be stuck crying on the side of the road? I’ll spontaneously combust? (insert your favorite irrational worry here.)  The activity at hand (50-mile road ride, 3–4 hour mountain bike ride, day-long tourist vacation bike jaunt) can seem too big or too hard to manage.  Again, academics often have this problem at the start of a project.  Keeping the focus narrow, breaking things down into manageable chunks, thinking about pedaling to the signpost at the crest of the hill in front of you— these are ways to stay in the moment.  And in the moment, nothing much is happening other than turning those cranks, which is sometimes heavenly, sometimes hard, and sometimes ho-hum (like life).

3) What will happen if everyone is way faster than me?

This is easy—one of two things will happen:  1) people will slow down to accommodate the slowest rider.  Agreeing to a “no-drop” ride or regrouping at the top of hills is common in social and even training rides.  2) I might get dropped.  This is only really bad if I don’t know how to get back home.  GPS or an old-fashioned cue sheet can solve this problem.  And yes, it feels embarrassing, but happens to everyone.  It can even be a badge of honor (of sorts).

With these fears in mind but also with steely resolve (sort of), I drove out to western Massachusetts with my boyfriend Dan (also a cyclist), to meet bike racer friends Rachel and Ethan for two days of country-road, sometimes-hilly cycling.  We rode 50 miles the first day and 27 miles the second day.  It was fun, hard, sweaty, exhilarating, familiar, and intensely satisfying.  Here is what happened when I faced my fears.

1) In fact I was not too slow to ride with others.  True, I was the slowest rider of the group, but it was not a race—it was fun rides with friends.  I did experience frustration going up a few hard hills, but also the thrill of screaming downhill past my friends (yay gravity!).

2) The 50-mile ride was hard at times—although we didn’t take the hilliest route, there were some climbs.  One unfortunate climb was up a super-steep road that we had to do from a dead stop.  I ended up having to get off the bike and walk because I ran out of steam.  I had company on the walk up—a swarm of mosquitoes, happy that I was going slow, joined me along the way.  This was not a fun moment, but it passed.

About eight miles from the end of the first ride, I asked if we could stop for some iced tea; I was tired and wanted a little break before the last leg.  Guess what happened?  We stopped!  And it was the best iced tea ever—a mix of Earl Grey and black currant teas with an infusion of strawberries and blueberries.  Refreshed, the last miles were not bad at all.

The second day was harder because I was a bit tired from the previous day’s ride, and fear number two was looming large.  But I realized that I can ride when tired.  I’m strong, I love this sport, I enjoy being out with friends, and more fresh iced tea is never too far away (in this case, at a nice café in Easthampton, MA).

3) Everyone on that ride was faster than I am.  Sometimes I was last in line, sometimes we all rode together, and sometimes we split into two groups and the faster group waited for the slower one.  No biggie.

So how do I feel now?  Excited, still nervous about group rides, but filled with plans for more of them.  Last Tuesday I went on my bike club’s weekly Women’s Ride.  I was a ride leader for one of the beginner groups (12—15mph average for a 20-mile ride).  It was great to be back in a group of women in motion and feel that sense of belonging, of athletic identity.  I feel more like a cyclist than I have in a year.

Hmmm– maybe I should buy another bike…

Catherine Womack is a professor of philosophy at Bridgewater State University, south of Boston.  She works on issues at the intersection of ethics and epistemology, focusing on public health, food, choice, and public policy.  She has many bikes and loves to ride them.  She also plays squash when she can get a court and a partner.

“Nutrition is the foundation of health and fitness. You simply cannot out train a poor diet.”

The quotation above is from Greg Glassman, the founder of Crossfit. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between nutrition and fitness and thinking about where there’s room for improvement in my efforts to be the ‘fittest by fifty.’

Unlike my co-blogger Tracy who has decided that sports nutrition counseling isn’t for her and who has stepped away from the scale, I’m continuing with habit based nutrition counseling. I’m a numbers geek, I like tracking, and I’m looking forward to getting leaner in the year ahead.

It’s not about hating the body I’m got, I’m quite fond of it thanks, and it can do amazing things, but I need reminders to give it the love and attention it deserves. With three kids and a busy career, I sometimes struggle to take care of myself. I’m not quite the opposite of the food obsessed dieter but it’s true that for me, more often than not, convenience and the needs of others, take precedence over my own food choices.

Whether it’s a banana and a protein bar before Crossfit, a drive thru coffee and bagel on the way to rowing, a pizza slice post Aikido or instant oatmeal as a warm bedtime snack, some of my food choices aren’t the best. And given the demands I place on my body, I need to do better.

For some reason, for me, physical activity is easy. I love it, can’t get enough of it, but nutrition is another matter. And yet, eating well supports everything else I do. And I do a lot so I need to eat very well. So I’m setting out to work on the foundation this year, to try to pay as much attention to nutrition as I do to other aspects of sports performance. I’m trying to think of eating as part of sports training. Nutrition counseling helps serve as a reminder that this matters.

I’ve blogged here about my reasons for wanting to be leaner but I need to balance that goal with making sure I eat enough to support my physical activity.

I just did another check in at the Bod Pod this week and I’m happy with my progress so far. I’ve lost another 4 lbs overall but more importantly, as part of that overall, I’ve also gained 2 lbs of muscle since my last check in, and so my per cent body fat is down 2%. Yay Crossfit! Yippee new muscles! I’ve joined Tracy in the merely “excess fat” category, heading towards “moderately lean.”

I’m also now following the Lean Eating program at Precision Nutrition.

You’ve probably read a few wonderful rants I’ve linked to by Krista Scott Dixon. Here’s my faves:

In addition to having put together the best women’s weight lifting site on the web, and having a PhD in Women’s Studies she’s also the Coaching Program Director for Precision Nutrition.  I’m actually working with another Precision Nutrition Krista though. Krista Chaus is another woman with a pretty impressive bio.

“Since beginning her competitive career as a strength athlete 10 year ago, Krista has become one of the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s Top 20 Female Powerlifters. She is also a National champion, provincial record holder and two times Commonwealth Championship medalist.

Recently, Krista has turned her competitive attention to the physique side of the industry, capturing 7 overall finishes in bodybuilding in 2008 and placing 5th at the 2009 Arnolds Amateur Bodybuilding Championships.  She’s currently working towards a National bench press record with the Canadian Powerlifting Association.” from her PN bio

It’s not a diet, in terms of short term change. Instead, I’m trying new habits on for size and trying to make them part of my life. The first big change for me is that one will sound familiar to those who’ve been following the blog: slow mindful eating.

There’ll be no vibrating forks for me though. I’m hoping to pay more attention to my food and less attention to electronic gadgets at the dinner table.

Anyway, wish me luck.

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.”

This is in keeping with a declaration made by The New York Times in 1912 when they declared Elsie Scheel, “the perfect woman” at 171 lbs.

Read more here: The ‘Perfect Woman’ In 1912, Elsie Scheel, Was 171 Pounds And Loved Beefsteaks

Blogger Kate Harding described Scheel in these terms: “Miss Elsie Scheel’s BMI would have been 26.8, placing her squarely in today’s dreaded “overweight” category. At Banana Republic, to pick a random contemporary store, she would wear a size 8 top, a 12/14 bottom, and probably a 12 dress with the bust taken in.” (Kate Harding is the author of the BMI Project.)

I’ve written a bit about the so-called obesity paradox, Obesity, health, and fitness: some odd connections.

That’s okay. I’m not worried. I’ve been in the overweight category all of my adult life, even at my thinnest. Given my 122 lb base of muscle and bone, I’ll always be overweight. Which is, I’ve argued here, part of the problem with weight and BMI as measures of anything meaningful.

I often wonder about the effect of news like this on the naturally lean. One of thing that interests me is that it seems it just doesn’t matter how big the health benefits of being overweight are, no one would suggest that underweight people try to gain weight. It’s just too tough. Why doesn’t this work the other way?

Fear of fat more dangerous than actual fat

On my 2013 list of books to read is What’s Wrong With Fat? by Abigail Saguy, published by Oxford University Press.

What caught my was this press release from UCLA in my twitter feed.

Public obsession with obesity may be more dangerous than obesity itself, UCLA author says

“”What’s Wrong With Fat?” shows how debates over the best way to discuss body size — including as either a health or civil rights problem — do not take place on an even playing field. Saguy contends that powerful interests benefit from drawing attention to the “crisis,” including the International Obesity Task Force (a lobbying group funded by pharmaceutical companies), obesity researchers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On the other hand, fat-acceptance groups, which try to reframe fatness as a civil rights issue, are at a disadvantage because they have considerably less economic power and cultural authority, she says.”

But beyond the incomplete and misleading information on the issue, America’s obsession with obesity is itself unhealthy, she argues.

Saguy cites studies demonstrating that fat women are reluctant to get medical care for fear of being chided about their weight or treated insensitively by their doctors. In fact, research has shown that obese women are more likely to get cervical cancer because they are less likely than thinner women to get pap smears.
Meanwhile, Saguy’s own research shows that people who read news accounts of the “obesity epidemic” are more likely than people who have not read such reports to perceive fat people as lazy, unmotivated, sloppy, and lacking in self-discipline and competence.
Those attitudes have been shown to play out in a variety of socially damaging ways, Saguy says, including in increasingly widespread weight discrimination. Recent research has shown, for example, that bias against fat people in employment, education, health care and other areas is now comparable in prevalence to reported rates of racial discrimination in the U.S.
Heavier women in particular, Saguy notes, are less likely to be hired and less likely to earn a higher salary, compared with their similarly qualified but thinner peers.
“American attitudes about fat may be more dangerous to public health than obesity itself,” she says.”
The scary critters in the image above are from the first episode of series 4 of Dr Who  which features Adipose, the drug that makes your fat “just walk away.”