If you picked up the New York Daily News yesterday and you have a body-mass index under 22, a lightning bolt of fear might have jolted through your treadmill-strengthened heart. “Gym bans skinny people,” read the man-bites-dog-style headline, followed by an opening sentence with additional coffee-spewing potential: “Sorry, skinny people—you can’t work out here.” Jezebel picked up the story this morning with a similar header: “Some Gyms Are Banning Skinny People.” “What a world!” you might have thought to yourself, if you are the type to talk back to news stories in a dramatic old-timey voice in your head. “Who do these fatties think they are, banning the rest of us from their gyms?”
If you had gone on to actually read either article in question, however, your righteous indignation probably evaporated. The Daily News article profiles one gym—one—that screens applicants over the phone and rejects people who aren’t plus-sized. (Said gym is in Canada, a fact that sadly nullifies any “This is America, and I’ll work out where I damn well choose!”-type arguments.) The article describes an additional two gyms and one yoga studio that aim to create a safe space for fat clients but don’t turn away anyone else who wants to work out there. The svelte, the sinewy, and the lithe may breathe a sigh of relief.
So why the inflammatory, misleading headlines, other than the obvious (inflammatory, misleading headlines get page views)? Maybe because the media narrative that casts obesity as a threat to be vanquished is so entrenched that journalists can’t even look at a plus-sized-friendly gym anymore without seeing a sleeper cell of voluptuous guerrillas on the wrong side of the so-called “war on obesity.”
That turn of phrase, often used to describe public efforts to get people to lose weight, is one of many rhetorical flourishes that plays off society’s anti-fat bias and insidiously encourages us to see fat people as a public enemy. There are the articles suggesting that fat is a “trap” waiting to gobble you up, interviews with health experts who imply that obese people are simply too stupid to realize that they’re racking up national healthcare costs, public health ads that mock up pictures of chubby kids to look like mug shots. Given the subtext of most obesity coverage, it’s no surprise that the headline of an article about gyms for fat people would try to turn it into a battle of fat versus thin.
And yet that framing is patently ridiculous: If there’s one thing everyone must agree on, it’s that fat people should be able to work out if they want to. It’s a no-brainer that ought to draw support from every contingent, from First Lady Michelle Obama (whose campaign against childhood obesity aims to shrink every fat kid in the nation so that the next generation will never have to see a round person again) to Health at Every Size proponents (who think fat people should eat healthy foods and exercise for their own well-being rather than with the goal of weight loss), to fat activists who think obese people have no social obligation to be healthy but who support their freedom to exercise if they choose. All of these voices can probably also agree that fat people often face stigma at health-oriented places like gyms and doctors’ offices, and so creating places where they can work out without judgment is probably a net good.
And yet instead of presenting the existence of fat-friendly gyms as a boon, the Daily News primes us to think it’s some kind of plot against skinny people, as though jealous fat people are scheming to deny thin people’s rights and privileges. In reality, society’s worship of the skinny can make life as a fat person hell.