Fat Is Not the Opposite of Athletic

I have been talking about bodies and body image.

I have been shopping online for clothes.

I have noticed a troubling trend.

Folks have been wanting to treat “fat” and other terms often used as euphemisms for fat — plus size, full figured, fluffy, well padded, curvy — as if they are the opposite of “athletic” when it comes to describing bodies.

On a company’s online bra size calculator, different starting size recommendations were offered for the “full figure” versus the “athletic figure.” (To be fair, when I griped about this — not even directly to them — they were immediately responsive. This is awesome.)

With a different online clothing store, I’m between sizes on their chart, so I contacted them to ask whether they recommended sizing up or down in a particular item. They recommended that folks with “fit” or “athletic” bodies size up while customers with “curvy” or “well padded” bodies size down — as softer tissue compresses more easily whereas firmer tissue is more likely to resist compression. Which, I’m not disputing the sizing mechanics; it’s the language of the categorization that irks me.

With a friend, the topic of BMI came up. Friend lamented that hers puts her in the “overweight” category. In trying to point out some of the problems with BMI as it’s applied to individuals, I shared my own BMI with her. Her response? “But you can’t be fat. You look so athletic.”

It’s true that “fat” and “athletic” are two separate descriptive categories, the same way height and hair color are two different categories. But just like “tall” is not the opposite of “blond,” “fat” is not the opposite of “athletic.”

When I say they are separate categories, what I really mean is that they are two independent characteristics. One describes body size. The other is a rather general term to describe the habits of one who participates in any one of a range of different physical activities. There are people who are fat and unathletic. There are people who are thin and athletic. But there are people who are fat and athletic as well as folks who are thin and unathletic.

We certainly have a cultural expectation of what a typical “athletic” female body looks like — thin, lightly but visibly muscled, often slim-hipped and small breasted. Too far off from that, and the word “athletic” no longer comes to our collective minds. Never mind that there are so many different types of athletic activities that lend themselves toward a variety of different body types. Never mind that it’s entirely possible to engage in pretty much any one of those athletic activities — and to become skilled at it — even if you don’t have the imagined “ideal” body type for it. We have this societal idea that “athletic” requires a certain look — and that idea is actively harmful.

There are already so many body image barriers when it comes to being physically active and/or engaging in athletic pursuits. I’ve known men and women* who’ve hesitated to engage in any kind of strength training out of fear of looking “bulky.” Similarly, I’ve known about as many who’ve been frustrated by a lack of increase in visible muscle mass, concerned that their endeavors weren’t “doing anything.” I’ve known way too many people who fear they will be ridiculed, harassed, or outright assaulted due to their body size — sometimes backed up with ample personal experience. And a lot of these barriers are tied up in feeling like certain bodies are inherently not “athletic” — and that folks with these bodies won’t be “real” athletes until they look a certain way.

Language matters, and we can do better. We can stop tacitly reinforcing the idea that fat bodies — or full-figured bodies or plus-size bodies or any bodies — are automatically unathletic. We can stop perpetuating the idea that “real” athletes look one certain way. And in doing so, we can start breaking down some of those body image barriers.

* Not that folks who don’t fit these gender categories can’t have these reservations too. It’s just that in these cases, these are self-identifying terms from people I’ve actually spoken to about this topic.

While my words, ideas, and experiences are my own here, I do want to acknowledge that they’re relatively similar to a couple of Ragen Chastain’s entries at Dances With Fat — Fat is Not the Opposite of Fit and Obesity is Not the Opposite of CrossFit.


I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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3 comments on “Fat Is Not the Opposite of Athletic
  1. We are totally on the same page: I am not very athletic at all and many power yoga teachers feel uncomfortable if they have to teach me (certain more power styles of yoga), whatever my body size at the time. At first impression, I look like I really could fit in, in a way, until some of them try to teach me. Contrary to popularized developments with yoga, yeah, it’s not a question of always lapsing into child’s pose (though I am far from a Type-A personality), it’s that I don’t don the fake-smile and/or the body language that sends a message that I like “killing myself” in class. Because I don’t.

    And they take it personally.

    Thus, Yoga Journal and their brethren took that collective finding from teachers, and turned it into “editorial and marketing magic” …

  2. Merkohl says:

    Thanks for writing this! Thanks also for providing some links; I’m going to check them out, too.

    [CN: my own body image yucks]
    This phenomenon kept me out of the weights for a long time; I thought “curvy” and “strong” were mutually exclusive, and since I was curvy to start with, I didn’t deserve to be strong. Or, at the very least, I didn’t deserve to take up room and time when all those strong people clearly deserved the weights more than I did. :(

    Now I don’t have that hangup, but I still feel uncomfortable if the other folks in the area are being loud and boisterous between sets, it makes me feel like I stick out, and that they’re going to start laughing at me /any second now/. Why do I care what they think? [Semi-rhetorical question; I kind of know already.] I’m just trying to PR!

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