The week before last, SELF Magazine released a “Future of Fitness” issue with a cover featuring Jessamyn Stanley, a fat yoga instructor and author. A certain category of people—you know the ones—lost their minds, in a way that can be summed up by this video from personal trainer James Smith, who is knocking at the door of a million Instagram followers. In the video, he claims Stanley should not be the future of fitness, due to her fatness, and that she has ’no merit’ as a cover model for fitness.
Allow me to feast, in an extremely precise way, on how wrong this dude and his cohort is.
First, let’s dispense with the merit thing. Personal trainer Miriam Fried very effectively explained how Smith’s weird fixation on the idea that Stanley ‘has no merit,' has no merit; Stanley is an accomplished and skillful yogi and yoga educator.
Second, this is all not as mindlessly "inclusive” as Smith projects it to be. In fact, it's far more ideologically consistent than he is aware, or pretends (hard to know what anyone knows and chooses not to believe).
To begin with, an actually meaningful drum James Smith has been beating for years is “'getting abs' is a schewpid goal” (British for “‘getting abs,’ as a goal, locates much of what is good about pursuing health and taking care of oneself in a relatively unsustainable aesthetic ideal”). Most of his “don’t pursue abs” rhetoric revolves around the idea that good habits, enjoyment of movement, and balance should be the goal, not a particular stringent body composition. But when a fat person arrives saying “yes! Love this, agree, thank you,” he is going, “well hold on—not like that. Good habits focus is fine for me, someone who already MOSTLY if not PERFECTLY conforms to the highest conventional beauty ideal. But is not fine for thee, someone who does not conform to conventional beauty ideals QUITE ENOUGH, according to the secret bar I’ve actually set inside my head.” He’s saying, in effect, that fat people shouldn’t be be represented in fitness media. But actually, they are the people who most need representing, and not just for a priori inclusivity reasons.
Smith does not get into this in the video, but this SELF cover is part of a fairly radical shift that’s been happening in the rhetoric around exercise and bodies. For the last several years, many media outlets, including Vox and the New York Times, have been very annoyingly beating the drum that “exercise doesn’t work for weight loss.” They might argue with this, but the very strong implication becomes that anyone who wishes to lose weight shouldn’t, and maybe even has no right to, work out before they reach a “presentable” body weight.
But the “exercise doesn’t work for weight loss” line of reasoning obscures two basic and very important concepts. One is that—again assuming that weight loss is even someone’s clear-eyed health goal—the practical realities of weight loss are so difficult and long-term as to be an extremely discouraging goal in the short term (as I’ll cover shortly below). It is basically not worth focusing on for anyone who wishes to lose a large amount of weight (and if they think they want to lose a small, non-BMI-significant amount of weight, what they actually probably want is a different body composition with more muscle and less fat, not a lower raw number of pounds on the scale1).
The second one is that exercise does a great many things other than make us lose weight that are nearly immediately valuable to health and quality of life for everyone, not just people who are already in a normal BMI range and already proximal to a high level of fitness (and, conversely, pursuing weight loss specifically can actively hurt us, too). The “exercise doesn’t work for weight loss” line has ended up being a stupid, distracting, basically useless, not to mention fatphobic dead-end fork in the road to coherence between our physical existence and physical activity. So thanks for that, whoever originated that catchy soundbite, I think we can throw it in the garbage now.
For argument’s sake, let’s even allow for a case that a fat person wants to live up to the bar the James Smiths of the world set for an acceptable existence, and wants to lose all of their body fat, say a hundred pounds, until they are in a "normal" BMI range. Let us also say it is possible to sustainably lose body fat2 and reach a “normal” BMI.
It’s widely agreed upon that sustainable body fat loss happens to the tune of 1-2 pounds per week. If this person wants to lose a hundred pounds, they’re not going to meet James Smith’s approval for public appearance for well over a year. What do you want them to do until then—hide? Scurry for the dark corners when you enter the room?
Let’s further say that that perfect weight loss result will be not that straightforward, or maybe even impossible to achieve to the intended “normal BMI” degree, for various reasons. What then? Hide forever?
Allow me to further submit that research increasingly shows that there is much more play in the relationship between a basically healthy existence and any given body weight, reaching further into the spectrum of higher body weights than we previously thought—what then, James Smith? What if, as that linked paper says, many heavier people even have slightly lower mortality than ’normal’ weight ones—what then, James Smith?
Allow me to even further submit that we have a deranged cultural fixation on the relationship between body weight and health compared to other health indicators, and that that fixation is far more about cultivating that little flame of moral-panic hate for fat people than it really is out of concern for health specifically. And further, that if it were about really health, we’d be at least as rabidly concerned about the equivalent health risks of people who are under, say, a debilitating amount of economic stress, or who are being ravaged from the inside by a severe eating disorder obscured by their ‘healthy’ weight—what then, James “Smith"?
One of the reasons many personal trainers and fitness influencers and the diet industry are so reluctant to give up thinness as goal is that without it, many of their most effective tools lose their power: the simple guarantee of “lose x pounds in y days.” The transformation photos. The never-ending guilt cycle over "bodies that jiggle" vs "bodies that don’t."
So that’s what the SELF cover means, to me: Fitness can and should be claimed by everyone, especially the people who have been marginalized from it for so long. Especially because we need to separate it from weight, not just in the name of inclusivity, but in the name of our actual overall public health. Especially because it takes power from the criminally irresponsible diet industry in that specific way. Once decoupled from "weight loss," working out is an overwhelming net good, we all need it and benefit from it and deserve to feel a right to it. And we deserve role models who can and do represent that.
What subscribers will be getting this week: A lot of anxiety out there about squat depth and hip hinge mobility lately, particularly for some of you new students of LIFTOFF! so we are going to dig into that and what, if anything, to do about it. With Great Power Comes Great... Mobility?
Wow, I missed that LIFTOFF got a brief mention in this GQ article at the very end of December! But yes, abs are a junk fitness goal. You know what's a good fitness goal? Being able to spin a barbell over your head like a dance partner.
I'm also in this lovely Christie Aschwanden piece about staying motivated to exercise. Of course, devoted readers of these pages already know my thoughts on this (there's even a collected tag about it in the Ask A Swole Woman archive!).
Will Tennyson tried out Zyzz's old exercise and food regimen, and specifically called out how he admired Zyzz's appreciation for the gym. What's funny is that, upon review, I'm pretty sure the alleged Zyzz diet was supposed to be a parody bro diet; RIP Willy Tennyson’s digestive system.
~Discord Pick of the Week: I’m about to get big into Lu raises.~
I’ve yet to catch up on the episode of Queer Eye featuring powerlifter Angel Flores that many of you have flagged to me, but here’s an interview with her by Burn It All Down.
A nice essay and a couple interviews from some women on their mixed experience with losing weight.
And if you're trying to lose body fat (not weight!): just eating high protein isn't enough. In a study from June 2021, the weight that college students under calorie restriction lost was still half muscle, even if they kept their protein high. You need those heavy weights, my friend.
Science says active people (skiers, specifically) are less likely to develop anxiety, with the exception of the best female racers, who were MORE likely to develop it. Pressure like a drip drip drip that'll never, stop—whoa-oh!
The new food dream is having a second "experiments" fridge like Guy Fieri.
What on god's green earth is this contraption? I guess it's like kind of a hack squat machine, but you're... sitting down? Each day I think we've reached the useful end of stuff that influencers will try to fool us with, and each day, once again, no one is the fool but me.
A Stronger By Science study review that found diet tracking specifically did not trigger disordered eating behaviors in women. I actually think this has the potential to be true long term; I found food tracking to be the opposite of a risk, because it helped pave a path to calming many of my disordered eating concerns. But the study only ran for a month; probably not long enough to yet be conclusive about this.
An influencer tried to come get a bro about his curls, and then she herself got got by another bro coming to his bro's rescue. Never, ever,
e v e r
try to come between bros and their curls.
As someone (I guess secretly a painfully earnest person??) hit unexpectedly hard by Meat Loaf’s death, of all people’s deaths, this Rax King piece is perfect.
I really enjoyed this Bobby Finger piece on the mystery of Joanna Gaines' peanut butter brownies, and now I want to make peanut butter brownies.
A long-lost 1975 Joan Didion commencement speech was finally published online a few weeks ago. I can't believe the world cherry-picked the most libertarian-conservative sentence out of this speech and just latched onto it. Fortunately now we have the rest of the speech, which reads in part:
It takes an act of will to live in the world, which is what I’m talking about today… You have to keep stripping yourself down, examining everything you see, getting rid of whatever is blinding you. And sometimes when you get rid of what’s blinding you, you get your eyes opened, you don’t like what you see at all. And that’s the risk. It’s much easier to live in a world you imagined… A world in which the questions fit the answers and the answers fit the questions; the connections are already made. A world in which everything fits neatly into some idea or ideology.
But that kind of world is only easier for a little while… It’s dangerous to the society, it’s dangerous to your own soul and sometimes it’s even physically dangerous. When you walk around blind long enough, someday you’re going to fall off that precipice that I mentioned you were on the brink of.
And then she eviscerates a hippie who is in the process of sanctimoniously putting blinders on and planting a tree or something. It's wild the ways in which we are still having these same problems today.
That’s, once again, all. I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—
It is! Though most of the world is going about it wrong and (understandably) doing it out of reactive diet-culture-fueled shame, not knowing to give a care to their muscle mass when they do it. This sucks and I hope it will change, though cynically anticipate this too will get co-opted; I saw Tanya Zuckerbrot posting along these lines this week, which worries me greatly.