One year after Cosmopolitan Magazine ran glossy covers promoting obesity to young girls at the deadliest point in the coronavirus outbreak, declaring “This is healthy!”, Self Magazine is doing the same. On Tuesday, the women’s beauty publication debuted its first editorial package of 2022 with a campaign advertising the “Future of Fitness,” depicted by the visibly obese anti-health activist Jessamyn Stanley as its mascot.
“It’s time to break free from fitness’s anti-fatness,” wrote magazine editor-in-chief Leta Shy in a column announcing the project, although individuals with obesity are three times as likely to end up hospitalized with Covid-19 and experience many other serious health risks.
Over the past few years, thanks to the body positivity movement as well as other thoughtful explorations that have challenged complacent ideas about weight and size, we’ve seen an important shift in how we discuss larger bodies. But fitness spaces can be a final frontier in a particular strain of body discrimination, where anti-fat bias and weight-related stigma are entrenched in our collective understanding of what it means to be ‘fit.’
The magazine’s lead essay, “The Relentless Reality of Anti-Fatness in Fitness” chronicles the challenges obese people face within fitness spaces. From gym equipment unable to handle the excessive weight of its users to limited clothing brands that cater to plus-sized individuals, Culture Writer Kelsey Miller highlights the obstacles to gym accessibility.
“Fat people have to jump those hurdles and more just to get to the gym,” Miller wrote. “And when they do, they’re often met with judgment, discrimination, and calorie lectures they didn’t ask for. The problem keeping fat people out of the gym is not their fatness. The problem is fatphobia.”
What Miller uncovers are common excuses to evade exercise that the outlet attempts to validate to the more than 20 million it claims to reach. The opposite of “Anti-fatness fitness” is a pro-fat movement cloaked in the moral righteousness of “body positivity,” and is just as dangerous as it is irresponsible, especially in the lockdown era that has directly contributed to major weight gain among Americans.
Nearly everything we’ve learned about the coronavirus has exposed the urgency at which the nation needs to reckon with its underlying epidemic of obesity. According to a study published in Science Magazine in September 2020, overweight patients infected with Covid-19 were 113 percent more likely to be hospitalized compared to patients of an otherwise healthy weight. Obese patients were found 74 percent more likely to be admitted to intensive care units (ICU) and 48 percent more likely to die.
Indeed the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released data in March last year that revealed nearly 80 percent of those hospitalized with the novel Wuhan coronavirus were overweight or obese. Meanwhile, the agency’s latest nationwide figures show a nation whose residents at a healthy weight are in the minority. More than 42 percent of Americans were considered medically “obese” in 2017-2018, marking a 31 percent spike since 1999-2000. More than 70 percent of adults 20 years old and older were overweight.
“Normalizing this stuff is not helpful,” said Dr. Tim Logemann, a cardiologist and obesity specialist in Wausau, Wisconsin, who acknowledged while the Body Mass Index (BMI) used to quantify obesity is imperfect, it’s scalable to analyze a large population.
BMI “doesn’t take into account body shape,” Logemann explained, “In other words, how big one’s skeletal structure is and your muscle mass, but it is available very easy.”
A linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, for example, might be inaccurately labeled overweight based on BMI but is no doubt in better condition than someone who might otherwise be “skinny-fat,” meaning at what is considered a healthy weight but with little muscle mass.
BMI, however, still offers an important indicator of metabolic health, and the nation is in serious health trouble. Miller attempts to navigate the sensitive biases of a public now susceptible to the message of fat acceptance, and make them complacent with a status quo of excessive weight and available vaccines. Miller even cites research to suggest obesity and health may co-exist. Logemann warned, however, such studies often fail to withstand the test of time.
“If you follow those people over time, it doesn’t persist,” Logemann said. “Obesity is still a risk factor for a lot of other health factors down the line that we don’t want others to have.”
Beyond exponentially increased risk from severe complications from COVID-19, those with obesity are still more susceptible to degenerative joint diseases, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, and multiple cancers, said Logemann.
Icons in the pro-fat movement, however, such as the singer Lizzo, who celebrated weight gain to ring in the new year, have normalized obesity while deriding opponents as “fat-phobic” to detrimental consequences.
Obesity is a disease. Food can be an addiction. Forfeiting the addiction as problematic, despite its presence at the heart of Covid’s severity, is not only dangerous and irresponsible, it’s reckless. It would be odd to do the same with opioids or cigarettes.
If a crusade against obesity is recognized as “fat-phobic,” then maybe a nation where only a minority of the population is at a healthy weight could use a little more fat-phobia. If the “Future of Fitness” is the fetishization of fatness, however, the next pandemic will be far worse.
[Listen to How Elites Normalized Obesity Even During COVID here.]