As you may already have heard/seen, Nike have recently started using a new mannequin to display their women’s sportswear. As well as the standard very slender mannequin, they are also using one of a “plus-size” woman, who might be a size 16 or 18 perhaps (women’s sizing is so arbitrary I’m not sure, but that’s what it looked like to me). Who cares, you may ask. Well, lots of people.
Nike have been praised by many for breaking free of the standard, unattainable-to-90%-of-the-population, size 8 mannequin mould. They say you can’t be what you can’t see, and Nike are hoping to attract more women to wear their exercise gear and feel good about themselves while they do it. Personally I think the mannequins are a brilliant idea – we very rarely see women over a certain size in sportswear, and any examples of normal people exercising and enjoying themselves is surely a good thing.
Which is why I was particularly disappointed by an article from Tanya Gold in The Daily Telegraph shortly after the mannequins were unveiled. Her opinion was that these mannequins were glorifying obesity, encouraging women to – what? – get fat? Stay fat? I’m not sure. She said that a woman of the size of these mannequins would be surely diabetic, unable to run, unable to exercise. And that Nike should be ashamed of putting women’s health at risk by portraying being overweight as being okay.
For fuck’s sake.
On no level does this argument make any sense. It is sheer gibberish. For a kick off, the mannequins aren’t that big. They are a fairly normal size. Women of an equivalent size or much bigger can still exercise, can still move, can still enjoy sport and be athletes in a number of different disciplines, and they should be wearing exercise clothes they feel comfortable in while they’re doing it. Spreading lies and misinformation about what different body types can achieve is irresponsible and stupid, and suggesting that any woman over a certain size is by default very unhealthy is also completely wrong. There have been plenty of scientific studies now showing that being what the BMI would classify as ‘overweight’ is not unhealthy. In fact, it was more dangerous to be classed as ‘underweight’ than ‘overweight’ (lots of inverted commas because the BMI’s labelling is crap).
What’s even worse is that articles like hers, shaming people for even considering taking exercise when they look a certain way, is incredibly dangerous and downright sad and unfair. People who don’t fit into our society’s very narrow definitions of the ‘right’ size should be encouraged to exercise and participate in sports, and not because that might help them lose weight. There are a hundred reasons to exercise and move your body which are so much more important than your weight. Exercise makes you happier. You feel more contented and confident. You learn to see your body as an instrument, not an object. You move past your own limits and come further into your own power. You learn to breathe better and more efficiently. You give your thinking brain and your nervous system a break because you can concentrate on something outside your own thoughts and daily distractions. Everyone should feel empowered to exercise.
Essentially what this article is doing is tapping into a very common but very wrong belief: that fat people are fat through their own laziness, their own failure, and they don’t deserve to be treated the same way we treat other people. Fatphobia is absolutely endemic in our daily lives. It’s still seen as okay to shame people for their weight, to make jokes in TV and on film which we would never make now about someone of another race, and would hesitate to make about people of another gender. Fatphobia is completely culturally accepted, even though the beliefs that it is based on are total nonsense.
I follow several fat activists on social media, and one posted recently asking her fat followers why they were fat. Some people had had a bad attitude towards food instilled in them from a young age, forced to go on diets so their body’s natural weight was higher than it used to be (dieting makes your body think it is starving, so it retains more fat, and over time this means your “natural” weight – the weight that your body will keep coming back to, unless you put it under severe strain – gets higher. Read Body Positive Power for a better explanation of the science). Several cited sexual abuse at a young age as a contributing factor – food became a comfort and a way to hide their bodies so they wouldn’t be so sexualised by people. But far more common than these reasons, or any others, and often mentioned alongside other explanations, was the same thing: genetics. And it makes total sense. Why am I the shape I am, reasonably tall for a woman, legs long in relation to my torso, slim build? Genetics. Why is my boyfriend the shape he is? Genetics, with a side of long-term gym going meaning he’s quite muscular – but even that, if you look at his family, is easier for him because of genetics.
It is sheer madness that we continue to shame and belittle people for something so fundamentally normal and natural. There’s a book, Healthy at Every Size, which is exactly what it says – an explanation of how bodies can be healthy, no matter what size they are, and our whole modern belief that fat = unhealthy while slim = healthy is simply wrong. Some people are starting to open up to this idea, but we have a long way to go, and meanwhile people are continually abused and ridiculed for their natural shape. It is sickening and we have to start seeing more changes soon. We need more shops following Nike’s example, even if not with extra mannequins, then at least with a proper range of sizes to suit all body types. I went onto an online clothing shop the other day and the highest size was a 14-16. What a fucking joke. I left the site immediately in protest. I went into Topshop not long ago to look for jeans, and a size 12 was the largest size they had out on the shelves. Again, I left. Why are these shops all refusing to cater for the majority of the market?! Whichever way you swing it, it doesn’t make sense. People who can still shop at these stores need to be more vocal about more ranges being on offer for everyone, not just for the size 8-12s. And people in positions of power, like journalists at popular newspapers, need to stop spreading misinformation and shaming people. If there was a diet that worked, we’d all have done it. We need to change the story and recognise that people’s weight is a) nobody else’s business, and b) the least interesting thing about them.