Fighting Fat Phobia in the Cycling Community

Readers of this blog know that I use the word fathlete frequently. I didn’t invent it, but it’s one small way I resist the outdated, discriminatory, and just plain wrong notion that one cannot be overweight and still exercise. I’m not promoting anyone should try to be overweight. But I am saying that there is plenty of weight stigma in the world, and that includes people who ride bicycles, and I’m also saying it should stop. While that’s unlikely anytime soon, I believe it is worth saying again. Because there are already plenty of obstacles to bicycling (horrible car drivers, unsafe or missing bike lanes, new bikes that are unaffordably priced for many). We don’t need any less reasons for people to bike, we need more. Let’s explore this problem and what can be done about it.

[My previous posts Some Surprising Ways Weight Supports Sports and Un-Fat Is Not All That: Being Overweight May Have Some Health Benefits contain some of my thoughts on this subject.]

What is fat phobia or weight stigma?

A Dude with professional racer Lawson Craddock

Fatphobia is the fear and hatred of fat bodies. “That encompasses a whole bunch of things, namely weight bias and weight stigma, such as the idea we see people of higher body weight as lazy, and unintelligent, or disgusting,” says Mary Himmelstein, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Kent State University who studies how weight stigma affects people’s health. Fatphobia “perpetuates those negative stereotypes, and that can lead to discrimination against people with higher body weight,” she says.

“The Harmful and Insidious Effects of Fatphobia,” Good Housekeeping

If you’re a fellow cyclist of size, you certainly know of what I speak. It could be a microaggression, like thinner riders giving you dirty looks if you order two bagels after a long shop ride. Or something more overt, like people laughing when you show up. It might even be openly hostile, right in your face comments about how your tight your Lycra kit fits. It could be dropping you on purpose on a no-drop ride.

I’m not making any of those things up; they’ve all happened to me. I generally shake it off and lately with coronavirus I don’t go on social rides anyway. For some people, such discrimination could even lead them to give up biking altogether. That’s not to say most cyclists are fat phobic; many cyclists are fat because the majority of Americans are above the recommended weight (a very disputed and political area of public health, by the way).

Here’s an interesting quote from some more science nerds:

When the culture and the medical world are constantly pushing the idea that “obesity” needs to be eliminated, it’s not the fat cells that are feeling that stigma—it’s the fat people. This hierarchy of bodies is nothing new, with roots in racism, slavery and every other attempt to rank bodiesWe can no longer pretend that being less likely to be hired or get promotionsbeing paid lessreceiving biased medical treatmentbeing socially excluded and bullied are attempts to help people “be healthier.” These are the direct consequences of living in a culture that vilifies and fears fat bodies and that treats the people living in them as morally lesser beings.

“Fat Is Not the Problem—Fat Stigma Is,” Scientific American

The fact is, being a fat cyclist has a lot of challenges that come with it. I write about them from time to time. In many ways, they are the same challenges as everyone else. But with the additional weight to lug around, climbing hills, finding suitable clothes, and dealing chafing take on extra importance. This video by Leonard Lee of the UK sums things up nicely.

What can be done about fat stigma in the cycling community?

Well, if you’re a person with a lighter body, you can start by closing your mouth, aka STFU. Beyond that, maybe don’t be an arsehole by saying stupid or ignorant things that a heavy person has already heard. Dietary advice in particular is particularly insipid. Everybody — and every body — is different, and you’re not my doctor, so maybe you do you and I’ll do me. Consider my failed 2018 experiment with becoming vegan (again) — I got anemia. Equating thinness with fitness is pretty obviously not always the case. Sure, a thinner cyclist is going to have it easier going uphill, but many times a fatter one is going to smoke you on the downhill. If you don’t like fat people, maybe consider that you’re the problem, not them.

How does fatphobia show up for you internally?

— Explore your own internalized fatphobia. What biases do you have towards your family, friends, colleagues or students who have larger bodies?

— What types of conversations do you have with your family, friends and colleagues about body size, dieting, or what being healthy looks or acts like? Do they prioritize thinness?

— When you speak about your experience with the BMI or your body, are you looking for reassurance that you’re not fat?

— If you live in a thin body, consider the privileges this brings. Keep in mind intersectionality, and how other identities such as race and ability may play a role in the oppression of bodies. How can you be a better advocate for people in oppressed bodies?

“Addressing weight stigma and fatphobia in public health,” University of Illinois Chicago

Take Personal Action Against Fatphobia With These 74 Ideas From Parade Magazine

A Dude after a 50-mile ride. I then did another 57 to get my second century.

In the end, the conversation about what weight is acceptable will hopefully go the way of people of color, women, LGBTQIA, and other oppressed or marginalized constituencies. If you are a fat cyclist, good on you! Keep going and don’t let the trolls and haters keep you from enjoying the sport. If you’re a thin cyclist, maybe taking your own inventory instead of mine, and look at how you are perpetrating discrimination which can be very harmful. Sure, you may be a “better” cyclist, but you may be a horrible person.

Sure, I post my statistics and am proud of them, because they’re hard-earned. Biking 45,000 miles in 17 years has not been easy — in no small part (pun!) because I am overweight. If you do feel the need to boast about how many more thousands of miles you’ve ridden, with more feet of elevation, in far less time, than I, go for it. Congratulations.

But maybe the fatphobic practicing weight stigma should consider that old golden nugget of wisdom from an old book: “Judge not, lest you be judged.” The world is, ahem, large enough for cyclists of all sizes, types, creeds, and colors. We should be working together to put more butts on bikes, to get better infrastructure, and make life easier and safer for everyone on a bike. But if you disagree with that, maybe you’re not welcome in MY cycling community.


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6 thoughts on “Fighting Fat Phobia in the Cycling Community

  1. Thanks for the useful sharing. I could understand what you say. I sympathize with fat people. I always respect them and have fun with them. I’m sure that’s not what anyone wants and they’ve been having a hard time with their situation. For me, cycling is for everyone and we can all improve our health better from it. I hope they will no longer be afraid, society will no longer be stigmatized so that everyone can participate in this healthy sport.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. The genetic lottery could happen to anyone. Maybe someday it’ll be acceptable and not illegal to have this illness. Consider how it was fashionable sign of success to have extra pounds (Rubenesque). Big bottoms are back, baby! Or some cultures like Native Alaskan, Polynesian, Sumo wrestlers. And maybe we can all start to think of all people as people first, not judge them by their adjectives.

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  2. Totally agree, I have noticed that it’s not as prevalent riding recumbent trikes as my wife and I do but it’s still there. A typical description of a Recumbent rider is: FAT, OLD, Must have a full beard and were old T shirts and bramuda shorts!! Oh and if you ride a trike, well you must be “handicapped” or have bad health issues! Alas there’s a LOT of talking behind the backs going on in cycling! I’m lighter now than I was in High School but I will never be THIN, LOL, we were lycra shorts because we don’t like BEES flying up the legs and there comfortable to us but we don’t do the KIT thing. Still think the worse thing you can be is “SLOW”, that will keep you totally OUT of group rides, NO drop what a joke, if you too slow you get badgered about it constantly in ANY group, that’s our experiance so we gave up group rides altogether! We seem to do our best to “keep new riders away”, jmho.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said and sorry for your experiences of discrimination. Says more about the other person than you. Sad, but it doesn’t stop us from enjoying bikes. If we’re lucky we can find others to form our own peloton.

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