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The Backlash Over Nike’s Plus-Size Mannequin Proves Fat People Just Can’t Win

On Sunday, The Telegraph published an op-ed in which the author, Tanya Gold, claims that plus-size mannequins in Nike stores are selling “dangerous” lies to women. The mannequin, which as several people have pointed out on Twitter, is made of plastic and not an actual woman, can apparently be diagnosed as pre-diabetic and well on her way to a hip replacement. She is a UK size 18 (US 14) that could be, per Gold, healthy, but is instead “immense, gargantuan, vast.” And the dangerous lie she is selling: “Again, merely by being a mannequin wearing clothes in sizes that Nike sells? It is that women can be healthy at any size.”

It’s hard to know where to begin because Gold continues with more myopic musings free from facts and based purely on her own fatphobia. For too long, she acknowledges, women have had demands placed on them, like being runway thin or with the proportions of a Kardashian. The body acceptance movement, which frees women from such standards, is apparently just as harmful. The solution, instead, is to simply stop eating so much sugar. As it turns out, in Gold’s mind, there is a perfect “in between” size, not runway thin but also not fat, or at least not too fat. That revelation is supposed to be freeing, not just another impossible, vague, unachievable standard we place on the individual.

If that’s not enough, she adds a throwaway bit about how fat women who complain that their actual health problems are ignored by doctors are just being silly. Also, Gold doesn’t want women to hate themselves for what they see in the mirror. Presumably, that doesn’t include the group of women she’s so glibly labeled as “immense.”

There is so much wrong-headed, cruel, and baseless, I don’t even know where to start.

I am tempted, of course, to point out the hypocrisy of wanting fat people to lose weight and also upset when workout clothes are marketed to them. But I also immediately recognize that same twinge I feel when I find people’s very understandable responses to abortion bans that don’t include rape exceptions. Just like all abortions are valid, I also believe that a fat person doesn’t have to desire to lose weight to be worthy of, say, the ability to work out or have their own humanity recognized.

I am also tempted to say that I actually think I do look like the model pictured, and I am a size 14, which apparently is within her acceptable range of women (I also think her descriptors are meant to sound cruel, but I also don’t mind being called “vast.” To quote Walt Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”) And I do run! And work out! And not to lose weight, so neener neener neener. But, again, that implies somewhere there is an unacceptable size where women can’t run or exercise or be active. And, again, even fat people who don’t work out are undeserving of such public pillorying. (Not that, sadly, they aren’t used to it.)

I also want to rebuff her point that all fat women are addicts, eating as “a response to sadness.” Here, I want to parade out my fulfilled, happy life, relationships, and career, and dance it around to say, “See?! Here I am, an adult who has always been considered medically obese but who also is loved, is in love, is successful, is in charge of her own life!” Nevermind that public declarations of joy always ring hollow anyway, just like fat people don’t have to be pursuing weight loss or exercising, they don’t have to be happy either! No one needs to prove to people that fat women aren’t all dealing with unresolved trauma through food. (And, again, if they are, so what?)

It is also easy to say that this isn’t even worth arguing about. The appearance of the mannequin in Nike’s store has gotten almost universal praise, and the response to Gold’s article has been overwhelmingly negative. I even broke my cardinal rule to never read the comments to bask in many Telegraph readers responding with the same sputtering confusion that I felt. And doesn’t everything, even the innocuous, good things, have their naysayers in the internet age? (See: Aperol Spritzes, #TheStew.) But perhaps, underneath all the protestations come to mind, at the root of it is this: When it comes to writing about fat people, facts do not matter. What matters is a societal revulsion towards us and the persistent, dangerous myths about how our fatness can be fixed.

Similarly to millennials being told to just stop buying $5 lattes, fat people wouldn’t be so fat if we could move a little, and also probably eat more leafy greens and whole grains. Or so the refrain so often goes. This despite overwhelming evidence that diets just don’t work. As Bitch pointed out earlier this year, even the apparently anti-diet, “intuitive eating” movement designed to “fix” our broken relationship with food is helmed mostly by thin white men and bound up with class and race privilege. (Here, I see a similarity to Gold’s not-so-original invective that women need to be in some vague “healthy zone” that isn’t too thin or fat, and that we can all naturally land there if we just cared a little bit, but also stopped caring too much.)

Gold goes as far to simply wave away the claims of fat women saying that fatphobia is making them die earlier, insisting it is really our fat that is killing us. But her readiness to diagnose a mannequin based on looks alone might remind fat readers of their own doctors. Scientific evidence has found that they regularly ignore fat patients’ complaints about real ailments by saying the solution is simply to lose weight. (Spoiler alert: losing weight won’t cure cancer, or get rid of Celiac disease.)

Just looking at a person’s body, as it turns out, is an awful way to tell how healthy they are (or aren’t). In an excellent, exhaustively researched piece for Huffington Post, Michael Hobbes lists all kind of inconvenient facts, like that thin people are actually more likely to develop diabetes, and grip strength is a better health indicator than weight. When that story came out, I was elated. As a child and young adult, my family’s comments about my weight were always couched in health. I wanted to send them the article, then I went to Twitter and read the responses from people who read the exact same article I did and were denouncing it as propaganda and fantasy. I simply posted the article on Facebook with no additional text, too scared to have to learn over again what I already feared lurked behind every entreaty to lose weight that was ostensibly about my health: fat is disgusting, fearful, and undesirable. (And so am I.)

It’s depressing to ponder these two truths: Science shows fat is not nearly as harmful as we are lead to believe, and that the facts can be so easily ignored. Gold’s editors certainly weren’t bothered by the lack of facts in her piece: The only one cited in the piece is a tiny infographic telling readers obesity rates in the UK are up 92%. The rest, apparently, we are free to fill in ourselves.

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