The Fat-Positive Potential of Sports
Why this matters
Athletes with bigger bodies are often stigmatized as less athletic or unworthy of opportunity, but advocates are becoming more purposeful in creating spaces for “fat” athletes to thrive.
A running back can’t score a touchdown without her offensive line getting blocks. A rugby team contains “props,” who are a vital position and are colloquially referred to as “fatties” on the field as a term of endearment, not an insult. Larger bodies make great blockers in roller derby. And in throwing sports, like shot put, or strength sports, like powerlifting, “the bigger you are, the stronger you can be,” says JayCee Cooper, a powerlifter and self-identified fat athlete.
These sports place value on size: Large bodies are an asset in specific athletic circumstances. As a result, larger athletes don’t receive the same kind of negative scrutiny that they tend to receive in other sports. This can allow people – especially women – whose bodies are hypervisible and policed in other aspects of their lives, to find pride in what their bodies can do and the assets they are to a team or a sport. And yet cultural ideas about whom sports are for (thin people) and which kinds of bodies can be good at sports (thin ones) continue to exclude fat people – despite the fact that fat people are participating (and often excelling) at all levels of sport.
Traditionally, sports media has used the Olympics as an occasion to highlight the body diversity of athletes, showcasing gymnasts next to basketball players next to weight lifters and framing the fact that some of the people pictured are Olympians as shocking. The most prolific example was ESPN The Magazine’s annual The Body Issue, where the diversity of athletic bodies was on full display. But the typical tone of these pieces – of surprise – and the fact that these stories are recycled for every Olympic Games, highlight the societal message about how bodies function within sport: Thin bodies are good at sports; fat bodies are unathletic.
This anti-fatness extends into all major sports. Post players in basketball are ridiculed if they’re seen as fat. Baseball player Prince Fielder was included in ESPN’s Body Issue as a subject of fascination, and golf legends Jack Nicklaus and John Daly had nicknames mocking their fatness.
This, of course, is related to the idea that equates thinness with health. Every time someone expresses surprise that someone like shot putter Raven Saunders or hammer thrower DeAnna Price is an Olympic athlete, they are reinforcing fatphobic ideas about whom sports are for. “I do think it’s rooted in this idea that fat people are fat because they don’t move their bodies,” says Layla Cameron, the director of the documentary Fat Hiking Club. “Therefore, you know, it’s sort of a straight line from A to B: Okay, well, you’re not going to be able to participate.”
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These attitudes can be incredibly harmful. Not only do the beliefs discourage fat people from getting involved in sports from the outset, but also the belief that thin bodies will be better at sports does a ton of harm, even to non-fat athletes. The pressure to maintain certain body fat percentages or to drop weight to “improve” at their sport takes an incredible toll on athletes, and eating disorders are rampant in sports of all levels. This pressure is especially strong in sports like figure skating, gymnastics, cycling, swimming, track events, and speed events, where questions of physics imply that being lighter will make an athlete “more aerodynamic” or able to jump higher.
As more athletes talk about the pressures and damage that has come with having their weight and body fat monitored, like the former track athletes at the University of Oregon, sport’s long-standing body-shaming culture has shifted. The Oregon athletic program is no longer permitted to monitor athletes’ body fat percentages or weight and Bristol University in the U.K. has banned “fatphobic” language. Coaches likely can’t get away with calling their athletes “fat cows” anymore, the way a coach like USA Gymnastics’ Bela Karolyi once could. These are steps in the right direction, but they don’t address the larger problem of fatphobia and the impact it has on sports. In other words, the attitudes haven’t gone away; they’ve just changed shape. They have become coded in language around “fitness” and “getting in shape.”
And none of these conversations center on fat athletes who already exist in sport, nor do they examine the environments that allow for bodies of all sizes to succeed. Of course, even in sports that can provide fat people with advantages, sizeism and discrimination still exist. Saunders has equated losing weight with helping her perform better, and Price said she was inspired to lose weight to improve her performance by the Scottish hammer coach Stewart Togher, who teased her with taunts of “you’re too fat” (which Price has characterized as friendly and good-natured).
In sports like powerlifting, fat athletes may excel, but they are still overlooked when it comes to getting sponsorships, Cooper says. Similarly, even in sports where fat athletes may contribute to a team’s success – like a touchdown made possible by the blocking of a lineman – it is never those players who are allowed to be the face of a team. The glory and renown goes to quarterbacks or running backs. Linemen can be part of the team and even help them win, but they will never be the stars.
In wrestling, men are allowed to be fat, but women aren’t. There is a discrepancy when it comes to heavyweight divisions for men and women: An American woman competing in elite wrestling’s largest weight class (167 pounds) would be close to the 55th percentile in terms of body weight. By contrast, a man competing in wrestling’s largest men’s weight class (275 pounds) would be between the 90th and 95th percentiles.
“[It’s] kind of devastating for our sport because there are a lot of women that can compete at these higher weight classes, and I find it kind of chauvinist that we haven’t expanded the weight class yet,” Adeline Gray, an Olympic wrestler who had to cut 20 to 30 pounds to be able to qualify to wrestle in the Games, told NBC Sports. “Hopefully, one day, we [will] have some true heavyweights. I would love to see some women who are bigger than me in the room.”
It is true that fatphobia in sports comes from our fatphobic society, and that fatphobia often intersects (and is rooted in) anti-Blackness and transphobia. The beauty standards that center on and idealize thinness are based in White supremacy; in this way, athletes who sit at the intersection of other identities often have their bodies scrutinized even more than their cisgender, White counterparts.
Cooper, who is a non-binary trans woman, says they are constantly navigating “conflicting criticisms” in powerlifting because of the ways their trans and fat identities intersect (Cooper uses both “they” and “she” pronouns). “If I have a good meet, I’m automatically seen as having an unfair advantage,” she says. “If it’s not a comment about me being a trans person, it’s a comment about my physical appearance based on weight stigma. I even experience fat stigma within the trans community and how I can show up in advocacy spaces.”
But fat athletes should be celebrated not just because they can add value to a team or happen to perform well in certain sports. “I do think that when we talk about fatness and physical activity, we really tread the line on ‘good fatty’ archetypes,” says Cameron. In 2014, Stacy Bias, an animator and fat activist, identified 12 “Good Fatty Archetypes,” including “The (f)Athlete.”
“This fatty can deadlift a bison, power through a triathlon, [or] rock some mind blowing choreography … [and] is framed in the language of power, of physical ability and extraordinary capability,” Bias writes. “The fat of (f)Athletes may be seen as a benefit to their sport or their fat might simply be excused because it doesn’t stop them from excelling. There is moral value applied to the (f)Athlete because they have managed to maintain a useful body.”
It’s something that Cameron had to navigate thoughtfully when forming their all-fat softball team, the Heavy Hitters, and when making the documentary about their Fat Hiking Club.
“I think in strength sport, especially, there’s an opportunity to showcase that the bigger you are, the stronger you can be,” Cooper says. “But also, it’s not necessary to perform at a high level in order for you to be treated with respect and dignity. People’s contributions to athletics and sport are just as important if they’re lifting one pound versus 500 pounds.”
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And still, the idea that fat people cannot possibly be good at or have anything to contribute to sport and athletic endeavors harms the fat athletes who are participating. Not every fat person is going to want to participate in athletics, the same way not every thin person will. And yet, for fat folks who do want to play sports, there are these barriers, both in access and resources, as well as in oppressive and damaging societal beliefs that they are up against before they even step onto a field.
It’s what led Marley Blonsky to start All Bodies on Bikes, an organization that does size inclusion work in the cycling world through community and brand partnerships. “I didn’t have proper equipment,” she says. “I was so frustrated that I didn’t have cycling shorts that fit, I didn’t have a rain jacket, and I was going out and doing these four-day-long bike trips or riding in big events and just feeling like I didn’t belong.”
The goal of sport spaces should not just be body positivity or size acceptance. It should be fat-positivity. And creating a fat-positive space means centering on fat bodies and the needs of fat people. “I can feel as good as I want in my body and think it’s beautiful and kick-ass and super strong, but if I can’t find a bicycle that supports my weight, me feeling good about my body doesn’t do s***,” says Blonsky. “Body positivity is awesome. But that doesn’t help with the structural barriers that are there.”
Combating those structural barriers can’t just be up to the fat athletes who are playing sports. It has to be up to the sporting community as a whole. “It’s not just enough to welcome fat people into your space. You have to actively address all of the intersecting factors, anticipate things that wouldn’t have come up in your mind, and be prepared to handle them with a lot of care,” says Cameron.
Some of the introductory steps that sporting environments can take to become more fat positive would be finding size-inclusive uniforms and gear and having policies in place where everyone is prepared to shut down things like anti-fat talk or diet talk. Cameron’s Heavy Hitter softball team included “no diet or weight loss talk and no body shaming of ourselves or others” as part of their community guidelines, which everyone had to abide by in order to be part of the team.
“Fat folks are already taking on a lot of psychological and emotional labor just by showing up,” Cameron says. “So if it’s up to them to find things like clothing or gear or to call ahead and check and see what the weight limit is on certain machines, that’s just another piece of labor that they have to undertake to participate.” So if coaches and organizations desire to make their space more fat positive, they “have to put in the work,” says Cameron.
“Fat athletes are deserving of space and deserving of opportunity and are often overlooked,” says Cooper. “That extends into most areas of life – at health clinics, at movie theaters, at airports – everywhere it seems people want to strip fat people of their dignity and rights. And yet we’re still showing up and exhibiting greatness.”
Sport & the Body
The body is the most fundamental component of sport, capable of unthinkable feats and requiring considerable care. Athletes continually push their bodies to the brink in order to excel at their craft, and the 21st century has brought about a reimagining of the limits of physical ability.
Yet as the world of sport intensifies its focus on the body, athletes are demanding better care, more freedom, and increased flexibility around how they maintain and shape theirs.