Fair warning: this is going to be kind of a long-winded post. While it started out as my thoughts on an opinion piece that was posted on Time.com a few days ago, there’s also a bit of backstory involved, so I’ll go into that first.
A month or so back, there was a viral image making its way around Facebook and the mommy blogosphere. Maybe you’ve already seen it by now — I remember it showing up on our local news here in Chicago — but basically someone named Maria Kang posted a photo of herself posing with her three young children, the youngest 8 months old. She was dressed in fitness attire, showing off her flawlessly toned stomach, and she chose to caption the photo with a question: “What’s your excuse?”
Just to back up a bit further and explain where I’m coming from — I’ve written before on this blog about my pregnancy weight gain, which was nearly 70 pounds. (For anyone curious about why I gained that much weight, read this. (And for the record I have no regrets, it was delicious.))
My last update on the subject was this post, which revealed how the last 17 pounds of that baby weight was still there over a year later. And now, two years after giving birth, nothing has changed since that last update; I’m still not back down to my pre-pregnancy weight. Which isn’t necessarily the same as my “ideal” weight, but that’s another matter.
My weight may not have changed much over the past year, but my attitude has changed quite a bit. I’ve bought more size 16 clothing, for instance, accepting that this is my size right now. I’ve stopped weighing myself as often as I used to, since I’ve been at a pretty steady plateau for the last year or so. And if I’m being completely honest, compared to everything else going on in my life, the whole weight loss thing isn’t even a very high priority for me right now.
After all, I’m healthy enough, and I’m reasonably active, walking two miles five days a week and having an energetic toddler to chase around on top of it. I try not to over-indulge (too badly) in unhealthy foods, and even eat vegetables sometimes. Sure, I could be trying harder to eat better and lose weight and get in better shape — couldn’t we all? — but at this point I feel like the only payoff would be the vanity of a slightly smaller waistline and a slightly smaller clothing size.
The bottom line is that I work full time, I take care of my daughter, and in whatever precious little free time I have left, I’d much rather be reading a book or writing a blog post or watching a TV show than sweating through a workout. That’s not an excuse; that’s just my life and my personality. My interests and values and priorities in this world are not the same as Maria Kang’s.
I know I shouldn’t feel the need to justify myself with any of these explanations, but that’s really all this image has inspired me to do. If I ever do “get back on the wagon” to lose the rest of that baby weight, it will be because that goal fits in well with whatever else I have going on, not because some internet fitness guru shamed me into it. What’s more, I know already that I will never, ever in a million years have the interest or dedication to look like the woman in that photograph, or even anything close, and I’m okay with that.
Far from being uplifting or inspirational, I think Maria Kang’s photo a similar effect on a lot of women, especially us moms with less-than-perfect post-baby bodies. It’s hard to look at this image and not interpret something like, “What’s your excuse for not being as fit and healthy and amazing-looking as I am? Because you CAN and SHOULD be, you know. And giving birth and having children to care for is obviously not a legitimate reason, you fat lazy excuse-making failure.”
Lea from the blog Becoming Supermommy wrote a moving piece about how she felt looking at this image — because contrary to the implication, there are women who will never, ever look this way, no matter what they do or how hard they try or how few excuses they make. It’s just the reality of genetics and life circumstances and the varying ways pregnancy affects women’s bodies.
For whatever it’s worth, though, Maria Kang claims that she didn’t mean for this to have anything to do with appearance. As she writes on her blog:
Every woman is different and my intention was not to ask, “What’s your Excuse for not looking like me?” My intention was to imply, “What’s your Excuse for not exercising?
Personally, I’m not sure this is actually that much different or better. The definition of “excuse” according to my dictionary is: a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense. The very question implies that the recipient is guilty of some failure, some wrongdoing, and puts them on the defensive. It’s an obnoxious thing to ask no matter what you’re talking about, and coupled with this particular photograph, I really can’t see it as anything other than judgmental and condescending.
Maria Kang doesn’t seem to see it that way, and has even used words like “playful” to describe this image. And up until a few days ago, I could have believed that she was just kind of innocently, obliviously tone-deaf — maybe not the best at choosing her words, or thinking through the implications of them, or considering how they might impact other human beings emotionally, but not the fat-shaming bully everyone was making her out to be.
But that brings me back to Ms. Kang’s more recent opinion piece on Time.com, which I alluded to at the very beginning of this blog post, and which kind of changed my perception of where she was coming from with this. It centers around a bizarre sort of victimhood complex — fit, thin people seem to be some kind of beleaguered minority in Maria Kang’s mind:
Overweight women are now standing up (often half-naked) in defiance, exclaiming: “I have a beautiful ‘curvy’ body” and “This is what a real woman looks like.” These campaigns send a message that being overweight is normal. Well, plenty of things are normal that shouldn’t be. It is normal to eat fast food. It is normal to play video games all day. It is normal to not exercise. It is normal to have a family member with diabetes. It is normal to gain more than the recommended 35 lb. (16 kg) during pregnancy.
Being overweight is now normal; being at a healthy weight is not.
And she laments how we’re becoming such an overweight society, a society where obesity is “normalized,” that many women don’t even realize how fat they are:
A study published recently in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that 1 in 4 overweight women thinks she’s thin, an understandable misperception given that being overweight has become so common. We’ve encouraged acceptance of this new normal by literally making room for our heavier culture.
That study is available here if you want to read it — interestingly, Ms. Kang fails to mention the part where almost as many of the “normal weight” women (1 in 6) perceived themselves to be overweight, and that these turned out to be more likely to engage in unhealthy weight-reduction behaviors. Inaccurate body image cuts both ways, but to Maria Kang, it seems like the only important thing is for the fat ones to understand that they’re fat.
One other thing she talks about in the article is an incident where her Facebook account got temporarily banned due to something she posted:
My voice as an apparently nonreal woman counts so little, in fact, that Facebook recently banned me temporarily from the site — shutting down my account for almost three days for supposedly violating the site’s terms of service — after a number of users flagged a post of mine venting about the damaging culture of fat acceptance.
After my post had garnered thousands of likes, comments and shares, these users apparently reported what I wrote as “hate speech.”
At this point I got curious about what she might’ve said in the Facebook rant to cause so much controversy, and went to read the post for myself (she re-posted the whole thing on her blog here). It started with this:
WARNING VENTING AHEAD:
I woke up this morning to news stories about how overweight nearly obese women should be proud of their bodies (as they posed in lingerie).
From what I can gather, she was referring to this marketing campaign from a company called Curvy Girls, which specializes in plus-size lingerie. They invited their customers (size 14 and up) to send in authentic, non-Photoshopped photos of themselves in lingerie — no models, just regular women, stretch marks and cellulite and scars and all. And I have to say, in a society that idolizes flawlessly airbrushed size-zero women on every magazine cover, I think it’s actually pretty courageous and inspiring to be willing to show the world one’s “imperfect” body.
But Maria Kang responded to it with a disjointed rant about obesity rates and the healthcare crisis, and bitter-sounding reflections on how hard she’s worked to be fit — I won’t re-post the entire thing here, but you can read it at the link to her blog post above. Overall I think it’s stretching it to call any part of this “hate speech,” and that Facebook was probably wrong to remove it, though I don’t exactly find it admirable that she would feel the need to respond to overweight women in lingerie with any kind of venting at all. The Facebook post ended with this:
We need to change this strange mentality we are breeding in the U.S. and start celebrating people who are a result of hard work, dedication and discipline. I’m not bashing those who are proud and overweight, I am empowering those who are proud and healthy to come out and be the real role models in our society.
Reading this, I can only wonder — what planet is she living on? For every obese woman anyone considers a role model, I can probably find you a hundred more popular role models whose bodies look just like Maria Kang’s. The “fat acceptance” movement that upsets her so much is nothing more than well-deserved backlash against a society that insists through every magazine, TV show, movie, and advertismement that women should look a certain way, and judges any who are overweight as automatically unhealthy, disgusting, and lazy.
Obesity may be accepted and celebrated in Maria Kang’s fantasy world, but the reality is that we live in a society where overweight women (far more so than men) are less likely to be hired, less likely to advance in their careers, less likely to earn as much money as their thinner counterparts. We live in a society where little girls in elementary school are already agonizing about their bodies and worrying about getting fat, and where disordered eating in pursuit of magazine-perfect bodies is frighteningly common among young people.
But apparently all of that isn’t enough. We need even MORE fit role models. We need obesity to be even MORE unacceptable. We need overweight women to cover up and feel horrible about themselves until they stop with the excuses and make themselves look more like Maria Kang, because the idea that some fraction of them might be starting to feel comfortable in their own bodies — enough so to (gasp!) wear lingerie — enough so to (gasp!) assert that their curvy bodies are beautiful too — is apparently some kind of threat to the health of our society.
To my mind it’s nonsense, and shameful nonsense at that.
My take-away message to Maria Kang is this: People didn’t lash out at you because you’re a fit, healthy person living in a society where obesity is normalized and celebrated. They lashed out at you because the caption on your image was obnoxious, whether you intended it to be or not, and (more recently) because you talk as though there’s something self-evidently, outrageously unacceptable about an overweight woman with the audacity to feel okay about her body. And all I can say is that if you’re really interested in being that fit role model, and inspiring others to better health, you may want to take a long, hard look at the messages you’re sending.