In Which Your Humble Blogger Admits That He Is Wrong

Last night our housemate, M, turned me on to a blog called Dances With Fat, written by the amazing, talented Ragen Chastain.

Go there right now, scroll down a little (past the picture of Ms. Chastain executing the challenging standing-split pose whose name I forget; past her Top 50 Self-Acceptance Blogger Award) to the video in which she and a former dance partner perform a beautiful two-step routine.

Seriously, go watch the video.  I’ll wait.

In fact, here’s a direct link.

Did you see it?

Yes?

Good, because it’s important to a whole bunch of stuff I’m about to say.

So here’s the deal: I’m a cyclist (as you probably know, if you’re reading this blog in the first place).  Cycling is a sport in which weight sometimes seems like everything.  If you go to a bike race, you’ll notice that — for the most part — the racers get skinnier as the categories get higher.

If you go out on a fast club ride, most of the guys who drop you like you’re hot will be skinny.

In fact, being skinny is so much a part of bike-racing culture that a veteran of the venerable Bike Forums website once quipped, “Cycling isn’t a sport. It’s more like a very, very expensive eating disorder,” and is now quoted all over the innertubes (even here).

Being skinny is so much a part of bike-racing culture that a lot of people think that if you’re not skinny, you shouldn’t even try.

The thing is, they say the same thing about dance.

In America, we conceive of fat people as clumsy, graceless oxen who probably ought to just sit down when the dance music starts.

The truth is, some of them are: but so are some skinny people (including, no doubt, some very good bike racers) — and nobody has the gall to suggest that they’re clumsy because they’re skinny.

When we imagine dancers, we imagine graceful little light-footed gazelles. We imagine that their grace and lightness of foot derive from their slender bodies.

We are wrong.

Watch Ms. Chastain dancing. Watch how she carries herself. Watch as she skims across the dance floor with that apparently-effortless grace, as she and her partner whirl like leaves in the wind, as they glide through moves that, frankly, most of us only wish we could do.

Then tell me fat people are clumsy.

Watch them execute a routine that would get most hearts a-hammering without even breaking a sweat.

Then tell me fat people aren’t fit.

— —

I’ll admit it. I ought to know better — I’ve grown up with a sister who is both big and beautiful, who is above average both in girth and in grace.

I also studied ballet and gymnastics, and I ought to know that grace and lightness of foot don’t come from being small; they come from something else entirely (for some of us, by nature; for others, as learned skills mastered through hard work).

I ought to know that people can be healthy at many different sizes — that weight alone isn’t the problem. I have been desperately unhealthy with a Body Mass Index of 14.4, rock-solid with a BMI of 20.5, desperately unhealthy with a BMI of 19.9, desperately unhealthy with a BMI of 32.5, jubilantly healthy with a BMI of 26.6, and I have been all over the map with a BMI between 15 and 22. Now I am sometimes healthy and sometimes unhealthy with a BMI of 24.8.

Through all of these variations, however, my blood pressure and heart rate — popular indicators of fitness — have always been low to normal.

Yet, even with the weight (no pun intended) of experience on my side, I continue to be wrong.

I continue to assume that lean equals healthy — or, rather, that only lean people who look unhealthy are unhealthy, whereas bigger people are always unhealthy.

I should be ashamed.

In her blog (and in her dancing), Ms. Chastain gives the lie to that notion.

I am wrong. Ms. Chastain is right.

A couple months ago, on the night before my wedding, my Mom and I stood in her kitchen, having the kind of heart-to-heart talk I’ve always wanted to be able to have. At one point, I said, “I still really struggle with my body image.”

Mom answered, quietly, “So do I.”

Somehow, until then, I’d never put two and two together. Looking back, it’s crystal clear that Mom struggled through much of my childhood with body image issues — and that a lot of my sister’s struggles, especially, arose directly from those issues.

We wound up talking about my sister, as well — about our mutual worries about her health. She’s been struggling with some serious health problems of late.

The thing is, at the time, my response was not to think, “My sister is struggling with her health right now. How can I help her be healthier?”

Rather, it was to think, “My sister is struggling with her health right now. She needs to lose weight so she can be healthier.

That’s the wrong way to think. Period.

— — —

I will state for the record that I’m one of Ms. Chastain’s cited 5% who manages to lose weight and keep it off. I will also state that it is probably a question of my particular genetic endowment (just like my freakishly enormous calf muscles): I have, for the vast majority of my life, been not only lean, but very lean. I’m not back there yet, but my body is trending that way — and, to be honest, it’s pretty much doing so of its own accord, with very little help from me, sometimes more in spite of than because of my efforts.

Chances are very good that I will wind up looking very much like most other competitive cyclists — not, mind you, because I train hard and somehow ‘deserve’ to be that mystical thing we imagine as ‘lean and fit,’ but because that’s pretty much how G-d put me together. Wiry is my native tendency.

Chances are good that people around me will assume that it’s all a question of hard work; that I put in the time and effort to whittle my body down to what, to them, will look pretty lean and mean.

It is a nigh certainty that I will still struggle with my body image. In some ways (beyond the obsession with getting and staying lean), anorexia is a lot like cycling: “you stop when the gorilla gets tired.”

Only the gorilla — that is, the little voice in your head that says you’re fat even when you’re walking around with a BMI of 14, or the hill you’re climbing on the bike — never gets tired.

Ragen Chastain has done me a profound and invaluable service. She’s awakened me to my own hypocrisy; revealed to me the preconceptions I failed to see before.

So to return to a previous point: I mentioned in the beginning that if you go out on a fast club ride, most of the guys who drop you will be skinny.

I didn’t say not all. In fact, though, that’s the truth. I know guys who are heavier than I am and who are better cyclists by leagues: faster on the flats, faster on the climbs, and a whole heck of a lot faster on the descents (I am often a painfully slow descender on the road, though pretty confident in the grass).

These guys work every bit as hard as I do. In fact, the fact that they outperform me tells me they’re working harder: training more, riding more, tweaking their technique more.

They’re not bigger because they’re not trying. They’re just bigger because they’re bigger: for the same reason that some people are taller and some are shorter.

They’re also more fit than I am.

The fact is, weight is a huge deal in cycling because human power tends to have limits, and when we’ve trained our bodies to reach their maximum potential (or, at lower levels, when we’re riding at our current limits), the only handy solution is to reduce the load.

You can only take so much weight off the bike before you start to compromise its integrity, so instead the answer is to trim weight off the rider (maybe we should start handicapping skinny riders, instead — if everyone had to race at a standardized weight of 220 pounds, I’d be toast).

It appears that, for the most part, I lose weight pretty easily. This means I can increase my weight-to-power ratio without greatly increasing my fitness. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m small and fine-boned and that a really ridiculous percentage of my muscle mass is concentrated in my legs. There simply isn’t as much upper body for my legs to carry around as there might be for other guys.

In short, I should, really, climb like a goat and generally ride like a bat out of hell. The fact that I don’t says I’m not actually all that fit (caveat: I should probably point out that I am still a respectable climber and decently fast all around, but nowhere near where I “should” be, given my genetic endowment).

Bigger riders, meanwhile, have to be a hell of a lot more fit than smaller riders to dial up the speed — especially on the climbs. The thing is, getting fit doesn’t necessarily equate to getting lean.

The human body likes to maintain its current specification (we call this tendency homeostasis). Therefore, it makes sense that someone who is “built for comfort,” when working to achieve speed, might gain immensely in fitness without necessarily becoming much, if any, slimmer.

Moreover, I harbor a pet theory that every human body has a sort of ‘sweet spot’ — a place, in terms of anatomy and physiology, where it wants to be, where it’s happiest. A spot where it functions optimally. For some of us, it’s probably that the ‘sweet spot’ is rounder than for others. Given the amazing range of human diversity, that only makes sense.

I have blown skinnier people than myself out of the water on club rides. In turn, I have been smoked by people fatter than I am. I have been dropped on the climbs by guys one and a half times my current size; guys twice my historical average.

All this points to the fact that, when she talks about Health At Any Size, Ragen Chastain is really on to something.

I’ve often given lip service to the idea of the potential to be both big and healthy, but I haven’t really believed it, as my words and actions have shown.

So, in the long and short of things, what I’m trying to say is this:

I’m wrong.

I’m part of the problem.

But I don’t have to be. I can choose to see things from a different angle. I can choose to see Ragen Chastain as the real Normal, instead of as an outlier who happens to be healthy, fit, and graceful in spite of her weight.

I can choose to understand that as someone who was always lean, then gained a bunch of weight, then lost it again, I am the outlier, and that I have no business trying to make myself out as anything else.

I can, as Ms. Chastain suggests, be the boss of my own underpants. I can occupy my own underpants and stay the heck out of other peoples’.

And I can say that I do want to help my sister be healthier, but that weight isn’t the problem.

A world that makes weight the problem, however, is — or is, at least, a big part of the problem.

And I’m not going to be part of that problem anymore.

Here, I’m done with this soap box now.

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About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2012/07/18, in health, weight. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. If you’ll also notice, pro women cyclists aren’t as skinny (as in extreme skinny) as their male counterparts. I’m guessing it’s because pro women’s races aren’t as long (and maybe arduous?) as the men’s, which I think don’t really capitalize on their strengths. It might also have a lot to do with the differences between male and female bodies and how fat’s burned, but I’m no expert on physiology, and that’s just a wild stab in the dark. There’s also the issue of pro women cyclists not getting much financial support the way pro male cyclists do (and pro men’s teams are struggling for sponsors already). They can only make do with whatever resources are available to them.

    Anyway, you’re absolutely right – there are so many people out there who’re bigger but kick major ass in ways that surprise us (though they shouldn’t), but they also labor under so much prejudice that keep others from taking them seriously.

    And you know what’s ironic? A lot of those who mock overweight people aren’t even healthy. I’ve seen some consume so much junk that I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re in for future heart attacks or are now pre-diabetic.

    • It would be really interesting to see a study about whether, in pro cycling, the women or the men are actually healthier in the short and the long term.

      My money’s on the women (though women are a statistically-better bet in the long-term health category anyway) — in part *because* they tend to look like very lean, fit women, instead of emaciated bicycle jockeys or end-stage junkies even at the height of racing season.

      It would be interesting to see how track cyclists stack up in that area as well, since many of them seem to be overall bigger than their road-cycling counterparts (OUT magazine actually gave a bit of a shout-out to a German track cyclist this month, and his legs are actually even more disproportionately huge than mine, but he also looks like he’s got some serious upper body strength happening, and doesn’t look emaciated).

      You’re so right about people who mock big people and aren’t even healthy themselves. It blows my mind how many “skinny” people around here couldn’t run half a mile if an entire marathon’s worth of big people were chasing them, but they don’t hesitate to bask in the glow of the health-halo that we’ve granted to simply not being big and to cast aspersions on big people for not being small.

      BTW, I also agree that shorter women’s races really don’t capitalize on women’s strengths. In terms of real endurance, if I’m not mistaken, fit women have an advantage over fit men. I would posit that this is probably especially true in terms of actual survival, since normal female physiology results in a higher fat-to-muscle ratio. In a survival situation, muscle is useful for some things, but fat is essential to overcome starvation.

      Also, I’ve run across an interesting theory that human female breasts evolved not to be visual cues for males, but to store fat in order to optimally enrich breast milk so we could grow big brains.

      So, in short, we owe our brains to fat.

      …Which is only marginally relevant to this post.

  2. neverdietagainuk

    A beautiful blog post. Thank you for changing your mind based on the evidence, with such intelligence and good grace, and having the courage to stand up and say so..

    • Thanks very much! I have to admit, it was easier than I expected to be willing to admit that I was wrong in this case, since the evidence is so very compelling and the choice seems to be between socially-prescribed drudgery and a full, vibrant kind of life that takes all comers.

  3. Wow, I am so impressed. This gives me hope. And by the way, your pet theory actually has a name: setpoint theory!

  4. Great post! I say this ALL THE TIME when I speak at schools. You cannot judge how fit someone is strictly by how they look. I’ve been 30lbs lighter, as lean and toned as my body could get and I looked incredibly “Fit”, but I was anything but ( plus, I was starving and bitchy). I am heavier now..and stronger and happier. I always wonder if athletes make the best role models. Maybe we can admire their dedication and hard work..but should question the damage they are willing to do to their bodies in order to be successful.

    Someone from my Fit vs Fiction FB page shared this with me and I’ll be sharing it again. Thanks for writing it!

    • Wow, thank you!

      I think that our culture values dedication more than welness in general, which is pretty scary, now that I’m thinking about it.

      • You’re right. Which is why so many athetes will risk their health and lives in order to WIN. Check out the first paragraph of this article..scary.

        http://www.dmos.com/articles/Honkamp_Youth_Athletes_Feb_08.pdf

        Looking fit has become more important than actually BEING fit. Iyt’s as if we start out with good intentions, but then something cchanges and it becomes all about being the fastest,strongest,etc..

        I just wrote a book for parents about kids and body image and I include a chapter about sports. It’s so important to remember that health comes above everything else…the shiniest medals in the world, won’t look so bright hanging from a corpse.
        (wow, that was morbid. sorry)
        :o)

      • No need to apologize — I think big, culture-wide problems like this one demand powerful images, and that absolutely is one.

        The opening paragraph of the study you linked cites the same Sports Illustrated article that Joe Friel mentions in -The Cyclist’s Training Bible-. It’s such a scary statistic, and one I wish more coaches and athletes knew about. It demonstrates exactly how far out of whack our sense of perspective can get.

        I’ve experienced, by the way, a similar problem to all-consuming drive to be stronger/faster/better than the other guy — for me, the point of reference was always myself. I always want to best myself; but I have often granted my loss of balance a sort of “health halo” because it wasn’t about being better than someone else.

        I only recently figured out — thanks in part to the words of people like Ragen Chastain and Joe Friel — that killing yourself is killing yourself, whether you’re doing it to be better than the guy next to you or just to be better than yourself.

        I’m really glad you’ve written a book for kids and parents about body image. It’s such a subtle issue and something I suspect a lot of people don’t know how to talk about. You’re right: health should be priority number one (well, health and happiness).

  1. Pingback: Wrestling the Gorilla (Again) « my beautiful machine

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