Fitness Professionals: Why you should care about anti-fat bias

There’s a type of trainer out there who walks around assuming that folks who are fatter and less fit than themselves simply aren’t motivated enough. I’ve heard many podcasts with the type, and their interviews always amount to a tough love kind of style–no one but me is going to tell you the hard truth that you’re fat and you’re killing yourself. It’s like they think the reason people smoke today is because they don’t believe it causes lung cancer rather than because it’s an addiction born out of cultural messages probably absorbed in childhood about what it means to be cool or adult or rebellious. (1) And it ignores the obvious truth that most folks who identify as fat deal with huge levels of shame and anti-fat bias on a daily basis which amply reinforces many of the negative aspects of living in bigger body. If shame and motivation were all that was needed, most fat people wouldn’t still be fat.

I want a fitness world that is more inclusive. I want trainers to think about who is NOT coming to see them and why might that be? For some of them, maybe they have a troubled history with diet and weight loss or they’re simply not motivated by fat loss goals. Or maybe it’s because they correctly identify that the trainer will not accept them for who they are and what they want and will assume that they are just fat(2) and “lazy sitting on the couch eating chips.”(3) Statements like this, and the anti-fat bias behind them, have the impact of diminishing the real barriers folks can face that lead to larger bodies. (If you haven’t seen it, here is the SHIFT diagram illustrating the numerous factors that influence body size.)

The degree to which we can control our body size is estimated to be about 50%–half of the variables are in our control and half are genetic and other influences out of our control. And just because something is technically in our control doesn’t mean that it is easy to do so or that we all have equal access to making those changes.

I want to emphasize that most conversations about fat loss put the onus on the individual rather than on systemic and societal structures which favor some groups of people more than others. And this is why a deeper understanding of privilege is essential to creating a more inclusive fitness world–if we are blind to the barriers which make fitness less accessible for some people and in some times in their lives, then we cannot find meaningful solutions. Going to a trainer and learning to work out is only the solution if the problem is lack of knowledge, lack of access to equipment, or lack of accountability.

And that’s been the conversation we’ve been having about health and fitness for hundreds of years. What that conversation misses, though, are the innumerable barriers which can make fitness less accessible. Facing anti-fat bias is a meaningful barrier. I did not workout at a gym when I was a size 22, because I knew that I would be judged by people. I also knew that the equipment was not designed for me, that few trainers would have the training and expertise necessary to modify the exercises for my physical limitations (another area of privilege–physical ability or relative lack of disability), and that comfortable, functional fitness clothing was not readily available in my size. (That, at least, seems to be maybe slowly getting better? Or is that just wishful thinking on my part?)

I want to clearly state that I used to see myself in the dominant narrative, too–I saw myself as someone who overcame my personal obstacles and figured out how to be healthier and fitter. That identity is really powerful and can feel very empowering. But I’ve learned to really own that just because I could do it, it doesn’t mean we all can. And even for me, “success” has had to be defined by my own abilities and limitations, and it’s a moving target depending on what else is going on in my life. My ability to progress and to maintain is restrained by my own health experiences, too.

There are very real barriers to accessing and sticking with regular exercise and healthier eating, including the damage that can be done by having a long dieting history, disordered eating, and trauma, all of which are more likely for someone experiencing obesity. Hearing about fat loss and assuming that fat loss is the goal can be especially harmful for someone who is impacted by anti-fat bias. I really appreciate trainers who can shift how they speak about progress and goals to the needs of their clients. It can begin as simple as asking them what they need on an intake questionnaire and regularly checking in with them rather than assuming everyone’s goals and needs are the same. And I would encourage all trainers to continue to work on hearing other points of view and perspectives, including from folks who see a fat loss focus and anti-fat bias as barriers to working with them.

Photo description: A white-painted brick wall with black painted graffiti of a palm tree and sign that reads, “strength is for everyone.” Photo credit: George Pagan III, via Unsplash.

(1) It’s not a perfect analogy, as I think quitting smoking can be physically challenging, but I suspect is not as complicated as changing all the physical, psychological, and environmental factors necessary to achieve lifelong body composition changes, but hopefully you get my point that some folks think it’s just a matter of knowing more of the downsides and suddenly, fat folks would be lining up to workout with them.

(2) In my experience, anyone who carries more body fat than is considered ideal by the current cultural standards experiences some degree of anti-fat bias, whether or not their bodyfat is at a level to actually contribute to clinical disease states. So, for this article, fat is a descriptor, intended in a neutral way for anyone who identifies with the term.

(3) This is a quote. I’m not going to cite the source, as I’ve decided to not lift up that voice on this platform.

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