cw: fat shaming, fatphobia, disorder eating, diet talk, poverty (mention of)
A couple of days after I posted about our amazing Machines for Freedom (MfF) kit, a post turned up on my feed which has made me seethingly angry, and I’ve sat with that anger and tried to find a way to explain why this post in particular had me raging. It’s taken some time to write, because its a topic with a big emotional fallout and I had to keep stepping away from it in order to look after myself.
One of the things I spoke about when reviewing the MfF kit was the positive experience of being seen by a cycling brand. By catering for larger sizes, MfF are saying that when they imagine a cyclist, they are imagining me and my fat body. This is something that is rare amongst cycling (or any) clothing brands. Having clothes that fit me reinforces my belief that I don’t need to lose weight to be a cyclist but that I already fit into that culture. Their online presence reinforces this too – lots of images of different people, different bodies, riding and wearing their kit. All in all, loads of positive vibes.
There are very few companies which offer larger, inclusive size ranges, and even fewer that offer a range which accommodates my hips and bust. In the UK the brand Fat Lad at the Back is the one that stands out. It comes up over and over again within conversations about where to get plus size clothing. It’s a cycling brand which literally has ‘fat’ in the name, and which sells kit in my size. I was overjoyed when I first found it- here was clothing made for me. I’d hoped to buy new kit from them once I had my monies together, but then…
But then, they posted this:
Now some of you might be thinking it isn’t bad to celebrate somebody’s weight loss. He’s very happy with his ‘journey’ after all. And in the end, if he’s happier with his body then it’s a good thing right?
Except, this story isn’t a personal post to friends and family. His story has been used by a supposedly inclusive brand and framed in a really specific way. As opposed to being fat positive, or inclusive, they’ve bought into the same old rhetoric of inspiring weight loss journeys, and reinforced the idea that losing weight or fat makes you a better cyclist and that cycling can and should serve as a weight loss tool for fat people.
I’m gonna break down how and why this is a shitty thing using Fat Lad at the Back’s own hashtags.
Weight loss journeys are important to plenty of people. We live in a culture which loves stories of change and transformation. We also live in a culture which loves thin people and hates fat people. I hear so many thin people express a fear of getting fat, and so many fat people who are desperate to lose weight. What this adds up to is a lot of fucking miserable people. Weight loss transformation stories buy into our deepest desires as dictated by a fucked up culture. They tell us we can do it too, if we have the right motivation, or find the right diet or buy the right kit. What they never say is how damaging that ‘journey’ often is. How extreme dieting puts you at risk of cardiac arrest. How nearly everyone who loses weight quickly regains it. They definitely never mention that most people who lose weight are no happier once the initial novelty has worn off.
What I’m suggesting here is that sharing these journeys is dangerous, especially uncritically, without balance, in a space that is meant to be fat positive. It makes people feel inadequate. It makes people feel like they too must change to be happier. It makes me feel like my body isn’t acceptable as it is now – that it is the ‘before’ picture in a future inspirational post. I don’t think anybody should be telling people their body isn’t good as it is right now.
#determination #cycling determination
Oh my god. Where to even start. So you’re suggesting weight loss is a consequence of determination? And that fatness is… an absence of determination? Equating weight loss with determination buys into a story we tell about fatness which suggests that only weak people are fat. That your fatness means you are unmotivated or lazy. It buys into the overwhelming societal message that people are fat because they lack something. It puts the emphasis on individual willpower, and ignores the structural, systematic reasons for fatness. It is always worrying when rhetoric places blame on the individual and not the system. Consider when people in poverty are told it is their fault they’re not rich – that they should ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’ and that the determination and hard work of ‘self-made millionaires’ is what they lack… Lots of different structures of oppression use the same technique – blame the individual. Never mind the underpinning way that individual blame does a good job of stopping us questioning the underlying assumption, the thing that holds this together – that fatness is bad, or wrong. Which it is not.
When fatness = lazy, it leads to things like workplace discrimination against fat people on the assumption that fat people are inherently unmotivated or not determined, or to the way that medical fatphobia makes doctors assume that better diet and exercise (and a little bit of self-restraint, determination) will cure our ills. Its a dangerous fucking concept.
Fat lad at the back literally makes clothing to clothe the ‘jiggle’. They earn money from your jiggle. If they don’t want to support us jigglers anymore, they can be like 90% of the other cycle brands and not make clothes which fit us. On top of this not just fat people jiggle. The perfect ideal of having a rock hard bod buys into a hierarchy of bodies which places cis men at the top. It’s also impossible without some serious fucked up exercise and eating behaviour. Body fat is normal and important and we need to stop acting like its the enemy.
It’s also impossible not to jiggle when you have rapidly lost weight. This no jiggling idea suggests that not only should we transform our bodies, but that they should not bear the marks of this transformation. No excess skin, no stretch marks, no jiggle. They reality of bodies is they jiggle, legs jiggle, tummies jiggle, arms jiggle, muscles jiggle, flesh is wibbly wobbly stuff. We are not made of stone. We should love and embrace the jiggle.
Nothing wrong with this one out of context. But in context, it’s just another way of endorsing that cyclists should be trying to influence fat people not to be fat. I already feel this way when I turn up to bike groups, or see other riders out and about. I feel like I’m going to be congratulated for trying to lose the weight, or ridiculed for riding whilst fat. I’ve been asked a fair bit recently to talk about what will get and keep folks cycling, and I think first off, we need to stop thinking that other people’s bodies are in anyway our business.
So what should Fat Lad at the Back have done?
Well firstly, not promote a weight loss story. I would happily read about this person’s love of cycling. They could talk about how they became faster, or stronger, or fitter. I don’t want to hear about his (frankly terrible) doctor who put him on a milk diet for 10 weeks. Or the large amount of weight he lost in an alarmingly short space of time.
The fact is, the person was cycling at his heaviest, and continues to cycle now. And surely the story would have been a better one if we’d said – ‘Hey, isn’t a great how this amazing cyclist cycled even though he didn’t have the perfect cyclist bod. Isn’t it great how he perservered with cycling. Isn’t it great how our cycling company made clothes which made him feel a part of the community?’
The way the post plays out suggests he was right to change his body to fit in. That by doing so he was finally able to avoid rude comments or slowing cycling groups down. It doesn’t question the culture of making comments about people’s bodies or discuss how to make cycling groups more inclusive.
(It obviously doesn’t believe commenting on peoples bodies is out of order being a whole bloody article doing just this!)
This is true of so many weight loss narratives. It’s the individuals duty to get thin so they fit, rather than the more simpler (but far less palatable) message that we could all do better to include different people and bodies in cycling.
If Fat Lad at the Back want to do right by their fat customers, they should do better. They should think more carefully about what messages and stories they parrot and the platform they have. Cycling should be for everyone and promoting stories like this stops people from getting on their bikes. This is true on a small scale but also by feeding the monster: the fatphobic narratives that permeate our society. I have stopped myself from doing so many forms of exercise because I didn’t feel like my body was the right size or shape for it.
I stopped cycling at about 14 when a teenage boy caught sight of my padded bike seat and shouted ‘Guess you need that for your fat arse!’ Sounds out of order right? But my teenage harasser was given permission by the culture we live in, the culture Fat Lad at the Back is perpetuating in this post, a culture of weight loss, fatphobia, a culture of commenting on other people’s bodies, a culture of shame, a culture of diet talk. Getting back on my bike in my twenties, much fatter, was a transformative experience, and I want to try and break down the barriers that other people, especially other fat people, experience to getting on their bikes. Posts like this from Fat Lad at the Back do not help.
What we should be telling people (fat or thin or in between) is that happiness isn’t related to a number on a scale. That fatness can be healthy (although the cult of health is a dangerous idea too, and something we all shouldn’t lean too heavily on in our activism) and that fatness isn’t ugly or a failure. By posting this story fat lad at the back are telling their fat customers to change. I’m responding, on behalf of fat cyclists everywhere, to say that Fat Lad at the Back should change.
#fuckdiets #fatandproud #fatcyclists #showoffyourjiggle #fatpostive #ridebikeseatdonuts #fuckweightloss #allbodiesaregoodbodies #antidiet #riotsnotdiets
If this article has made you interested in the things we can do to fight fatphobia in cycling, keep an eye out for my fat cyclist manifesto zine. I’ll be posting it shortly and it’ll be free to print out and distribute!