The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Fitness, obesity, and body image

Fitness blogger and mother of three Maria Kang stirred up a bit of controversy in October when she posted a picture on Facebook of herself in a bra and underwear flanked by her three sons, posing the question: “What’s your excuse?” As you might expect, the backlash was loud and instantaneous. She was accused of bullying and fat-shaming; women were outraged at her hubris. “Who does she think she is?” and “We can’t all afford personal trainers!” were among the criticisms of her post.

Well, she’s back, this time letting the world know that she doesn’t have a personal chef, is not a trainer or an athlete, she works eight-hour days and gets little sleep, she has stretch marks — perhaps an attempt to combat the idea that she sees herself as a perfect Madonna figure (the Holy Mother, not the pop star) — and that we, the slovenly overweight public, are still making excuses for the state of our bodies. This time around there is a new aspect to the conversation, with Kang claiming that her campaign is not about “bashing those who are proud and overweight” but is instead about “empowering those who are proud and healthy to come out and be the real role models in our society.”

As a part of the demographic Kang was targeting — the less-than-ripped American women with a mile-long list of reasons not to go to the gym — I hear a thin, conventionally beautiful woman invalidating every self-acceptance campaign of the last 10 or so years. I didn’t just see her scoffing at the efforts of women like Mindy Kaling — for whom, when you type “Mindy Ka-” in Google “Mindy Kaling weight” is the second suggestion after her full name — and Jennifer Lawrence, who has frequently told stories of her awkward journey to self-acceptance, to help give girls idols to look up to. I also heard Kang laughing in the face of campaigns that try to teach girls that there is more than one way to be beautiful. I can’t help but wonder what she has to say about campaigns that tell girls that beautiful includes thick girls, skinny girls, buxom or flat-chested girls, dark-skinned girls with frizzy hair, too; are they beautiful? I was offended. Who is this woman to judge my priorities? Just because I consider my intellectual pursuits more important than fitting a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all concept of beauty, am I automatically wrong?

I nearly flew into a rage, then I read the articles again: I had started filling in the blanks with my own experiences and biases. Whatever I may have read in her tone, Kang repeatedly emphasizes how hard she has worked to be healthy, not beautiful; that was my hang-up. Still, I angrily dismissed this woman as shallow, self-centered and judgmental. Post-baby selfies have become popular in the days of Instagram and I instantly grouped her with women like Kim Kardashian, women who seemingly do nothing to help lift their fellow women to a level of self-actualization, but instead use their platform to stroke their egos and inadvertently (in the absolute best cases) deliver concentrated blows to the self-worth of women and girls everywhere.

Who does this woman think she is? After all, just because I know better than to snack on cookies and popcorn, she clearly wasn’t thinking about the millions of American women who are faced with the choice between warm clothes to last their children a season or fresh produce that might last a week. I have been fortunate enough to exist in an environment where I have access to a variety of foods, a good gym, and an ever-expanding source of information and ideas to keep me active, but what about the women who live in “food deserts” with access only to whatever happens to be in walking or bussing distance? Shame on her for trying to shame millions of women without understanding the context of their lives.

I thought about it again. We live in an incredibly prosperous time in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, yet we are bombarded with messages about the “obesity epidemic.” It should be impossible for a 300-lb. child to be malnourished, and yet this paradox not only exists but is widespread in our society. The term “obesity epidemic” makes obesity sound like some kind of rampant plague, affecting people at random, but that’s not what’s happening. Maybe this is the point that Kang is trying to make: we need to stop being passive participants in our health and recognize that poor health is not something that happens to us. We need to take responsibility for our health and recognize that we are actually experiencing a crisis of bad choices and ignorance. Maybe her good and timely message got caught up in a poorly executed delivery that thinly veiled her vanity.

A report Feb. 26 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that obesity among children aged two to five dropped to 8.4 percent, from 14 percent a decade ago. The data suggests that first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign is beginning to have the desired impact. The first lady asserts that this suggests that small changes in diets and activity levels can have a huge impact, especially early on in life. So I have to admit, all of my “reasons” are nothing more than the excuses of a slightly-out-of-shape sugar addict who never follows through on her new plan to go to the gym four days a week.

Kang’s message definitely rubbed some people the wrong way and not without reason. To be told by a thin, half-naked woman with washboard abs that you’re not trying hard enough is motivating when it comes from the trainer who is actively trying to help you do better, but coming from a smiling picture of a stranger? That’s just insulting. There are groups popping up all over the world using her tagline of “No Excuses!” so it’s not like she isn’t doing what she claims she set out to do, but does it count as motivation when a lot of people are insulted or does that just make it a hard truth? The hard truth is that I can find a million reasons to eat another chip or to skip my third day at the gym, but all the data speaks volumes: when we are ready to make the necessary changes, big or small, we are capable of making huge changes. The data says Americans are making great strides to better health, but we still have a long way to go, so no more excuses.

Brie Powell is a sophomore political science major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at op-ed@thetriangle.org.