Cycling’s Big Fat Problem

CW: Fatphobia, Obesity rhetoric, Medical and Systemic Violence (against non-conforming bodies).

Today is ‘World Obesity Day’, a day that is designed to raise awareness and tackle the ‘root causes’ of obesity to ‘halt the epidemic’ (that’s the ‘epidemic of obesity’ not the very real pandemic we’re living through btw). As a fat person, it’s hardly reassuring to learn there’s a whole day, with millions of pounds behind it, dedicated to changing people like me, especially a day which uses language that suggests my body is ill, unhealthy, bad and dangerous.

As someone who is also part of the cycling community, I dread these days even more than usual. I’m waiting for the first national cycling charity to post some sort of poorly designed infographic about the ways cycling can save us all from obesity. I’m waiting for the torrent of ‘inspirational’ weight loss stories to flood my feed. I’m waiting for these because I know that cycling has a big problem with fat people like me.

I’ve been meaning to write this blog forever, and I’m grateful to Scottee and Friends #WorldObesityDayHack for giving me the push.

I’m pretty new to the fat liberation movement, but I came to it through cycle touring, so cycling and fat lib are very linked for me. On my first cycle tour I was desperate to lose weight. Society is not easy on fat people, and I saw a three month cycle trip as a surefire way to get a ‘normal’ body. What surprised me was how little my body changed. I got toned, I got fit, but I didn’t get much thinner. I realised that my fat body was pretty amazing and that I didn’t need to change it. I certainly didn’t need to change it to be a ‘proper cyclist’. This doesn’t tend to be a view shared by many in the cycling community. There is very little fat representation in cycling marketing or media, it can be really difficult to find kit which fits or bikes which hold my weight and the language used by the community is often fatphobic.

Let’s start with the word ‘obesity’. The term ‘obesity’ is shorthand for a medical discourse (a way of speaking about something) that pathologises fatness and acts as though it is something medical to treat and cure. Not only am I tired of being seen as something to ‘cure’ but there is very little evidence to suggest that fatness and bad health are linked. (1)

There is correlation between being fat and having certain health problems, but correlation doesn’t equal causation. If fatness alone caused diabetes, heart disease etc then thin people wouldn’t get these diseases, and they do. However, diet and sedentary lifestyles have been linked to a lot of these illnesses. So, why then do we assume that all fat people have poor diets and do no exercise? And why then is the focus on fat people and not every person who eats a ‘bad’ diet and sits at a computer all day?

I want to make it clear at this point that I don’t believe that the moral weight we place on food and health is good for anyone. There’s no such thing as good or bad food and health should not determine the worth of a person. But people often excuse fatphobia and the assault on fat bodies with concerns about our health. . Hidden behind concern about health is a desire to police bodies, is disgust, is violence. I don’t think you actually give a fuck about my health.

When medicine talks about fatness as obesity like it’s the worst thing in the world, it filters through into everything. It is at the roots of the discrimination and violence fat people experience at work and in health settings. It is the moral high ground people take from which to harass and bully us. It intersects with white supremacy, patriarchy, classism and ableism.

In health settings, discrimination can be life threatening. Stories like these, about doctors ignoring symptoms, about weight loss as a prescription, about the way medical fatphobia can wreck our lives, our health, our bodies, are terrifyingly common. There is also a proven reluctance amongst healthcare professionals to prescribe pain relief to patients whose pain is a direct result of their weight. We are being punished.

Even if, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you still believe fatness and bad health are linked, is the ‘obesity’ rhetoric helpful? Let’s play devil’s advocate for the moment, and presume the world would be a better place if no one was fat. Does the obesity rhetoric work to achieve the change you are apparently deeply invested in? Well, no. You see, fat people still exist and actually more people are getting fat, so this sort of language is obviously failing to make fat people thin. If calling people obese, in a medical setting or otherwise, made people less fat, there would be no fat people left in the UK (we’ve all been called it). It doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work (in part) because all of this rhetoric around fat people being unhealthy, lazy, bad, unmotivated, part of an epidemic which is killing people, forms a tidal wave of shame that drowns us.

So what about in cycling? You only have to go to one of the biggest cycling organisations in the UK to see what they think of fat people. James Scott, Cycling UK’s Director of behaviour change and development has this to say: ‘We are in the midst of a global pandemic at the moment, and that’s terrible, but actually we’ve been in the midst of a global pandemic for the last 20 years; it’s called obesity and inactivity. It’s the biggest killer worldwide.’ (2)

Fat people are not equivalent to a deadly virus which has forced countries to a halt, killed millions and completely changed our way of life. We’re not contagious or dangerous. This idea is completely dehumanising, it reduces fat people to their bodies, as if fat is some evil thing that has smothered the potential human underneath it.

Let’s assume we have the same agenda. Let’s assume that all we want is to get people riding their bikes. Are fat people more likely to get on a bike because of shame about their bodies? Or is the opposite true?

When you’re fat, you know you’re fat. You are reminded every day, whether it’s by infrastructure which doesn’t fit around you, comments from people about your body or by the media. I don’t know about you, but I have never made any postitive, meaningful change to my life because I’ve felt bad about my body. Feeling bad about my body has only ever made me more insular, more isolated, more likely to stay at home, less likely to move my body in any way that makes me feel good. And this is true of most people. Shame is a poor motivator for anyone. It will never make fat people get on their bikes because nobody wants to exercise in an environment which is so hostile to them simply being.

It’s bigger than a language shift, and it’s why I started this blog talking about the medicalisation and pathologisation of fatness. Why do we want to get people on bikes? If the answer is ‘so they lose weight’ then you’re part of the problem.

If we want to get fat people cycling, then stop acting like we are a problem that needs fixing. Talk to us about the ways we could get strong, or see the world, or save the planet. Invite us to group rides and don’t patronise us (or be astonished if we beat anyone in a race). Show our bodies in the media and cater to our bodies with the kit you design. Cycling is amazing – it has the potential to be accessible to all bodies and all people. Allowing and perpetuating the fixed narrative of who can be a cyclist makes it inaccessible.

When the cycling community repeats ‘inspirational’ stories of weight loss, when cycling organisations say that weight loss is a reason to get on your bike, when photos show thin body after thin body, when you miss ‘fatness’ out of conversations about diversity in cycling, when you don’t challenge the ways you think about fat people on and off bikes – all of this makes cycling an impossible space to exist in, joyfully and radically, as a fat person.

We live in a society which puts the emphasis on each individual fat person to change rather than the system. If we want to tackle that system we have to tackle the dominance of the white supremist, patriarchal, ableist western medical system as speaking some kind of absolute, objective truth about our bodies, about all bodies. We need to extend our awareness and look critically at how framing fat bodies as ‘obese’ can hurt, or even kill, us – and misses the complexities, nuances and intersections of fatness. Repeating these medical terms simply strengthens the idea that fat people should be cycling to cure themselves and society of their fatness.

Thin people don’t have to consider the ways society speaks about fatness, their beliefs are never challenged, never treated as anything other than pure scientific truth because there is no reason for them to question it, whereas fat people have to do this to survive, to continue living in our bodies, to thrive in a world that doesn’t want us to, that hates us for even existing. What we need is for you to start questioning the long held beliefs you have about fatness and fat people. We’re not going anywhere and we’re not getting any smaller, so it’s time you made space for us.

Further Reading

Check out Scottee and Friends World Obesity Day of Disruption
https://www.scottee.co.uk/

General articles about fatness and stigma:
https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/everything-you-know-about-obesity-is-wrong/

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/fat-is-not-the-problem-fat-stigma-is/

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/26/health/obese-patients-health-care.html?ref=oembed

https://happiful.com/psychologists-confirm-shaming-people-does-not-encourage-weight-loss/

Why you shouldn’t use the word ‘obese’:
https://fitisafeministissue.com/2015/11/01/obese-is-a-bad-word-its-got-to-go/

Marley Blonksky and Kailey Kornhauser’s work on making cycling fat inclusive:

http://lifeontwowheels.space/blog-native/2019/8/27/the-unapologetic-fat-persons-guide-to-riding-a-bike

Jessamyn Stanley discussing body positivity and yoga:
https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/jessamyn-stanleys-uncensored-take-fat-yoga-and-body-positive-movement

Discussing fatphobia and race:
https://www.intheknow.com/post/unpacking-the-racist-roots-of-fat-phobia-and-diet-culture/

https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/fat-phobia

Scottee talking fatness and class:
https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/people-think-when-i-talk-about-fatness-that-i-m-trying-to-get-everyone-fat-1.3785539

Why fatness is a feminist queer issue:
https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/sized-up-fat-feminist-queer-disability

Footnotes

(1) https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/everything-you-know-about-obesity-is-wrong/

(2) https://www.bikeradar.com/features/long-reads/diversity-in-cycling/