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Fatphobia and the Lies We've Been Told About Physical Fitness

by Nicholas Homberg
August 2022

What do you think of when you hear the term “physical fitness”? Do you think of taking daily walks, and eating a variety of foods? Do you think of playing sports every weekend? Maybe, you think of growing gigantic muscles and being ridiculously toned. It wouldn’t shock me, if that last definition was most people’s understanding of physical fitness; and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

I think it’s a particularly poignant definition because that “work out everyday, no rest days, big muscles and low body fat” mentality is a lot more insidious than it initially appears. Today, we’re going to talk about what physical fitness is, what it means, how media (and social media) has lied to us about it, and how that all ties into our mental health.

Failure in Definitions

I used to think of definitions as something boring. Something that my high school English teacher used to force me to look up just to get a pointless letter grade so I could pass their class. But definitions are wildly more important than I had realized because definitions literally shape our reality.

For example, if someone defines their time as something finite, wasteable, or spendable (like a resource), then they’ll covet their time. They could find anger in the time “lost” from traffic, a deadend job, or school; they’ll always be rushing to the next event in fear of having their time “wasted.” It’s only when someone doesn’t view their time as a commodity that they can slow down, enjoy the moment, and smell the roses.

Much in the same vein, if someone defines physical fitness as always working out, constantly pumping iron, and having as little body fat as possible, then that will shape their response to exercise. So, for clarity’s sake, let’s find a working definition of “physical fitness”.

According to the Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine, “Physical fitness is one’s ability to execute daily activities with optimal performance, endurance, and strength with the management of disease, fatigue, and stress and reduced sedentary behavior.” So they’re saying that being able to do basic daily tasks while not getting sick, tired, stressed, or sitting/laying around for too long is all it takes? That sounds pretty simple and really easy. If your definition thus far has been the “work out everyday, no rest days, big muscles and low body fat” mentality, then these two definitions don’t really gel together. So where’s the disconnect?

Media Shaping Culture

Unsurprisingly, the media we consume and the culture we live in help to shape our beliefs, thoughts, definitions, and actions. Take, for example, the word “diet.” Colloquially, diet means: eating a specific way to try to lose weight (dieting, going on a diet), but scientifically and medically, diet means: what one eats (a bear’s diet consists of berries, grains, and fish).

The cultural meaning of diet is so pervasive that if you talk to a personal trainer about food, they’ll replace the scientific and medical term of “diet” with the term “nutrition” to mean the same thing. And just like diet, the colloquial definition of “physical fitness” got changed somewhere along the way and, to examine that, I want to draw your attention to the 1970s.

A lot happened in the ‘70s: President Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, the start of Black History Month, the end of the Vietnam War. But the ‘70s were also a huge point in popularity for bodybuilding. Bodybuilding has existed since the 1890s but thanks, in no small part, to Arnold Schwarzenegger it hit its stride in the 1970s.

Schwarzenegger had a six year streak of winning Mr. Olympia from ‘70 to ‘75 and appeared in movie after movie like his 1970 role of Hercules in New York, followed up by his roles in Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, and Predator in the ‘80s. There was also the docu-drama Pumping Iron that semi-fictitiously documented Schwarzenegger’s, and bodybuilding opponent Lou Ferrigno’s, training leading up to the ‘75 Mr. Olympia contest.

This popularity from Schwarzenegger, as well as his contemporaries, created the craze of bodybuilding in the ‘70s that was absolutely sweeping the nation; the time frame is even referred to as the Golden Age of bodybuilding.

So, why did the 1970s bodybuilding craze matter? Because it began to shape the future of our culture and media. The movies Schwarzenegger was in, mostly action movies, were at peak popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Those movies came with the tropes of: muscular “manly” men, explosions, and tons of guns. And at that time, the fighting movie genre was also bursting onto the scene, thanks in large part to Bruce Lee’s work, such as Fists of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973), as well as other action star actors like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mr. T, and Sylvester Stallone.

So, we have two action-based genres exploding in the ‘70s and ‘80s that are about buff (sometimes really buff) men punching, shooting, and exploding one another. What could follow up that level of testosterone, except the extreme popularity of the WWE (known then as the World Wrestling Federation) in the early ‘80s to ‘90s?

Its major success spawned the continued success of actors like John Cena and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Not to mention, the UFC also began to gain traction in the ‘90s and still stay strong to this day (remember the relatively recent hype around Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregory?).

All of that paved the way for superhero movies to hit the scene in the early 2000s and it hasn’t stopped since: big muscular men, violence, and larger than life names on the big screen? Avengers anybody? But, why is any of that important to our discussion? Well, outside of history just being important to how culture is shaped, it also leads to people wanting those physiques.

Physique Chasing

Article after article, interview after interview with contemporary big name celebrities in the superhero movie genre all center around the same questions, “What was your workout routine? What did you eat to be in good shape?” And basically the same answers come from these men: workout every day, sometimes twice a day, and eat chicken, fish, rice, and vegetables.

Look at the interviews with Hugh Jackman, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth or articles about “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s training routine” (all linked in the sources below). They all say the same thing and all of that comes with one major caveat: eating only chicken, rice, and vegetables and working out for 2+ hours, multiple times a day. But, that doesn’t actually work. Weird, right? Let’s break it down.

Firstly, rest is required for muscles to grow. To paraphrase How Do Muscles Grow? By Kown, M.S. and Kravitz Ph.D., when muscles perform intense exercise, micro tears form in the muscles, and those micro tears are repaired (this is when the muscle grows) when “the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown” which requires rest.

Now, each person is different and different people may require more (or less) exercise to grow muscle, but if your body can’t keep up with muscle protein breakdown then that leads to what is known in the fitness community as “overtraining”, which is actually detrimental to muscle growth.

MedicalNewsToday agrees with this, stating, “Rest plays an integral part in building muscle. By not letting each of the muscle groups rest, a person will reduce their ability to repair. Insufficient rest also slows fitness progression and increases the risk of injury.”

Injury is also a huge set back for anyone looking to gain muscle. Pulling or tearing a muscle - if severe enough - can lead to several months worth of set back while it slowly heals; and potentially several more months of physical therapy.

Secondly, protein is greatly important for muscle growth. But eating only chicken, rice, and vegetables is neither sustainable nor nutritious. “Healthy eating” to this extreme can become an eating disorder called orthorexia, where you begin to consider other foods “unpure” or “bad for you”, simply because they aren’t the ones you deem to be “healthy.”

Nutrition is incredibly complex and this specific diet leaves out a ton of different types of protein (yes, there are multiple), minerals like iron, and also vitamins from fruits; all of which are needed for your body and brain to function properly. If you eat this diet for too long you have the potential to catch scurvy, y’know like a pirate from the 1700s, because you wouldn’t be ingesting enough vitamin C.

Thirdly, if you’re doing intense workouts multiple times a day, everyday, you’re not even in the bounds of our definition of physical fitness anymore. “...one’s ability to execute daily activities with optimal performance, endurance, and strength with the management of disease, fatigue, and stress...” Working out that much is both fatiguing and stressful.

But all of this is crafted, by design, to misinform and exhaust anyone interacting with it. Why? To market you a solution.

Marketable Muscles

Firstly, since this multiple workouts a day, everyday program and chicken, rice, vegetables diet doesn’t actually work, people and companies began to manipulate the ignorance of the general public. Making products to sell with the promise to get you where you want to be as fast - and as easily - as possible. Protein powder, Pre Workout, Creatine, energy drinks like Bang, anabolic steroids, personal trainers, purchasable workout routines, P90X, workout apps, calorie counting apps, weight watchers, fitness influencers, artificial sweeteners, low/no fat products, high protein foods, protein bars, fast foods with “healthy” alternatives, subway, chipotle, panera, and the list goes on.

None of these things are inherently bad on their own. Protein powder, especially soy based, can be particularly useful to vegetarians and vegans who aren’t getting their protein intake from their diets. Personal trainers, and purchasable workout routines, can be an asset to those looking to learn the basics of working out or who don’t have time to make their own routine. Restaurants and companies trying to provide healthy alternatives is great and can be especially useful to people who are diabetic or have other food related restrictions.

But the problem comes from products, people, and companies that are purposefully deceitful and that prey upon the ignorance of the public. “Body transformations” are particularly insidious in this way because muscle takes a long time to grow. Sometimes it can take a year or multiple to see results, but “body transformations” from celebrities claiming to put on 20 lbs of muscle in only a few weeks or months is a gigantic red flag, because it will be presented as natural when, in reality, it wasn’t, and then subsequently glorified for that persons perceived “dedication”.

This also confuses the general public about how working out actually works, and that misinformation and confusion is often in service of buying a product. “I got ripped in 90 days and so can you! (if you buy my product),” or “I lost 300 lbs just sitting because I used this product!” (YouTuber Josh Brett, who routinely makes videos outing the bad practices of the fitness industry, made a great video on the subject of celebrity body transformations; link in the sources).

It’s no surprise that money fuels and changes our culture; that’s partly how capitalism works. Endorsement deals from celebrities, brand repping from influencers, and “get fit quick” products are abundant when - particularly in the U.S. - obesity is a huge problem and people are culturally conditioned to hate body fat. So, how do these practices affect the mental health of the average person?

Turns out, It’s Not Great

To pull from first hand experience, I started working out in high school around the age of 16 because I was insecure and wanted to look muscular so people wouldn’t bully me and so I could defend myself, if need be. Ironically, being muscular doesn’t actually make you better at self defense; who knew?

I started following fitness influencers like Jeff Nippard, Jeremy Ethier, and Athlean-X for workout routines and while I did grow a decent amount of muscle, I still couldn’t quite find myself on their level, strength wise, and to this day, 11 years later, by Nippard’s standards, I’m still at the intermediate level.

Now, with these three, it’s not their intention to break down my mental health, but it’s hard to fight the decline when the standards set by fitness influencers is so high: I see influencers that are both incredibly muscular and skinny. Most even claimed it was natural and would peddle phrases like, “you aren’t trying hard enough,” “no rest days!” or, a particularly heinous quote, “if you wanted it, you’d already have it,” which all plays to a deceptively gradual decline of the mental health of those watching.

Josh Brett, as mentioned above, made a great video on his experience and mental health decline while navigating the fitness industry and how his inexperience and low self-esteem caused him to inadvertently develop orthorexia.

This isn’t just a weight lifting issue either. Whether we want to admit it or not, our culture is fatphobic. The fitness industry only amplifies this by showing impossibly skinny people and claiming that this is how people should look. Influencers add to this by either creating or perpetuating impossible beauty standards and teach that having a lot of body fat is bad, and even lash out at anyone daring to be fat under the guise of “concern for their health.”

As a side note: that is what fat shaming is and there’s a great example of this phenomenon when it comes to people saying Lizzo is unhealthy just because she’s fat; even though she does 90 minute dance routines - which requires a very strong cardiovascular system - all while singing.

To the topic at hand: how do all of these aspects affect our mental health? I’m sure you can surmise, poorly. Misinformation about the time it takes for muscles to grow and how to do it can lead to people giving up in weeks for lack of results that actually take years, feeling defeated for their perceived inability to grow muscles or lose weight.

Misinformation about health and fitness coupled with our culture's beauty standards can make people, with a healthy amount of body fat, hate their body - and themselves - and the natural amount of fat that comes along with being human. It’s worth noting that bodybuilders go through phases of “bulking” (eating a lot of calories to help gain muscles) and “cutting” (dropping down their calories to lower their body fat) to appear as lean as possible for contests; they cannot naturally be thin year round.

This misinformation can also lead to people developing eating disorders, it can cause people to spend their money on products that don’t help them, or worse, endangers their lives, and it can lead to unhealthy levels of exercise and an unbalanced, nutritionally lacking diet, all in the service of being physically fit or “healthy.”

At the end of the day, being physically fit is what we defined it to be above and getting strong, eating right, and staying active are admirable goals, but not at the cost of one’s mental health.

The Takeaway

We’ve talked about what physical fitness really is: being able to do basic daily tasks while not getting sick, tired, stressed, or sitting/laying around for too long. How being active day-to-day is more important than the “work out everyday, no rest days, big muscles and low body fat” mentality.

We’ve talked about how the rise of bodybuilding in the ‘70s has added to the fitness and beauty standards we have, how it changed the media we consume today, and how it shapes our perceptions about health and fitness. And we’ve discussed insidious marketing by people and companies about fitness and health and how negatively one’s mental health can be affected by this rampant misinformation.

If you take anything away from this article, let it be this: being physically active is great, but not at the cost of your mental health. Do things you enjoy to stay active, if it’s weight lifting then that’s great! If it’s dancing in a club, if it’s basketball in the park with your friends, if it’s walking around a Target, then do that.

Physical fitness isn’t about being the biggest, most muscular person in the room. It’s about being capable of doing the things you need to do in your day-to-day, and about being able to enjoy life.

Supporting Documents

Campbell, N., De Jesus, S., Prapavessis, H. (2013). Physical Fitness. In: Gellman, M.D., Turner, J.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. Springer, New York, NY.

60 Minutes (2013). Hugh Jackman’s Changing Physique.

Extra (2011). Chris Evans Workout For Captain America.

E! News (2022). Chris Hemsworth Shares Thor DIET PLAN | Daily Pop | E! News

Wuebben, J. The Ultimate Arnold Schwarzenegger Training Guide.

Osborn, J. (2020). Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Diet and Workout Plan.

Shaw, S. (2020). Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Volume Workout Routines.

Kown, Y. Kravitz, L. How Do Muscles Grow?

Leonard, J. Medically reviewed by Bubnis, D. (2020). How to build muscle with exercise.

Brett, J. (2021). The Dark Side of Hollywood Body Transformations.

Brett, J. (2021). When ‘Clean Eating’ Becomes Unhealthy.