It wasn’t a full on social justice freak out. Nobody got cancelled. It generated a few headlines, and some people on Twitter were a little miffed. Most moved on in a few days.
So you might have missed when former “Biggest Loser” star Jillian Michaels took a shot straight at the heart of a debate that most in the media have lost the will to discuss: fat versus fit.
She did it Jan. 8 during a digital broadcast at Buzzfeed of all places, an outlet that actually has a “body positivity” tag. Body positivity is the euphemism woke digital netizens have adopted in recent years in order to make obesity — the leading cause of death in America — seem less pernicious, indeed even a source of pride.
Ironically enough, if you peruse this Buzzfeed tag, a frequent featurette is Lizzo, who just so happened to be the topic of conversation during Michael’s Buzzfeed interview. Buzzfeed’s Alex Berg walked her right into it too, asking Michaels what she thought of Hollywood celebrating people with “different bodies.”
“But, why are we celebrating her body?” Michaels responded. “Why does it matter? That’s what I’m saying. Like, why aren’t we celebrating her music? ‘Cause, it isn’t going to be awesome if she gets diabetes. I’m just being honest. There’s never a moment where I’m like ‘I’m so glad she’s overweight!'”
It was the perfect confluence of reality: Michaels is a fan of Lizzo, but pulled up short of calling her healthy. That kind of nuance is not appreciated in the woker recesses of the Internet. The backlash was swift. But Michaels — a professional fitness instructor — was unwilling to budge.
“There’s nothing beautiful about clogged arteries,” she said to People magazine soon after. “I’m not saying you are not a beautiful person, I’m not saying you’re not physically beautiful, but I’m saying being obese is not a beautiful thing, it’s actually a sad thing.”
While most people took offense to the way Michaels talked about Lizzo’s seemingly morbid obesity, everyone predictably went on ignoring a bigger conversation. Unless Michelle Obama is pitching healthy meals for school kids, the media has no interest in aggressively covering obesity.
Obesity is associated with an increased risk of some of the leading causes of death including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, according to the CDC. A Columbia University study published in 2013 found that obesity is the cause of one in five deaths of American adults aged 40-85.
Michaels chose to focus on Lizzo’s talents instead of her body, and somehow was crucified by the media for it.
Her comments struck a chord with people who preach self-acceptance, but shouldn’t fitness be a part of accepting your body? Shouldn’t we be concerned about the health of other people?
“We should be looking at fitness, and fitness encompasses the whole individual and somebody can be overfat and still fit,” Dixie Stanforth told the Daily Caller.
It turns out having strength and stamina doesn’t mean much if you’re obese by body mass index (BMI) standards. In the United States, a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese. Someone who is overfat but fit, an NFL lineman for example, still is at a high risk to develop heart disease.
Your average offensive lineman in the NFL is obese, but there’s no question about their strength and stamina. They are pro athletes overall. Still, they suffer similar risks that average Americans do when it comes to obesity, experts tell us.
Players who played tackle, guard, center, or defensive end positions in the NFL, have a higher risk of dying of cardiovascular disease compared with the general population, according to a study published by the American Journal of Cardiology.
The CDC has also studied the phenomenon and came to the conclusion that players who had a BMI of 30 or higher while playing in the NFL were twice as likely to die from heart disease later in life. In fact, defensive linemen had a 42% higher risk of dying from heart disease than the general population.
The idea that someone can be fit even while overweight has been discussed heavily in the media. Some researchers argue that how much weight that you carry on your body does not affect your health. While some say it’s true, most studies show that it’s very unlikely.
“The measures of fitness and fatness are both influenced by how much you weigh,” Tammy Chang, M.D. and Caroline R. Richardson, M.D. wrote together in an article published by University of Michigan Health Lab. “Because of the way fitness is calculated, for two people with the same oxygen-transferring power, weighing more typically means lower fitness.”
A higher BMI has been directly connected to a higher risk for stroke, heart attacks and high blood pressure, according to a study published by European Heart Journal in March of 2018. The study watched 300,000 people who did not have heart disease that were normal weight, overweight, or obese by BMI standards.
“In fact, they discovered that the risk increases the more fat a person carries around his or her waist,” an article published by the Harvard Health Publishing journal wrote.
“For instance, among the men who started with a 32-inch waist and a BMI between 22 and 23 (which is considered healthy), those who added five inches to their waist size raised their heart disease risk by 16%,” the article continued.
Michaels’ comments should have started a wider conversation about obesity, but instead the media memory-holed the idea that you can discuss health concerns in a positive way.
“Expressing concerns about fatness is a kind of bias, not some brave truth-telling,” Vox writer Katelyn Esmonde wrote as a subheadline in an article titled “What Celeb Trainer Jillian Michaels Got Wrong About Lizzo And Body Positivity.”
While weight bias does exist, we can’t shy away from a conversation about health. Having concern for someone’s health isn’t a bad thing, and there’s ways to keep the dialogue positive.
“Because we don’t want to be accused of being biased, we respond, you know, we over-protect and we over-guard anything that we might say,” Stanforth said. “It’s tough. They are tough questions because our physical being is so closely tied with our identity that it’s really a challenging conversation to have.”
“The conversation we need to be having is about who people are,” she added. “The value they have is not their size or their shape because what happens when you get cancer, and you get really sick and that goes away?”
Body positivity includes health. It starts with self-acceptance and then it should move towards health, according to physiologist and accountability coach Omari Bernard.
“Once we accept and embrace our body, we’re able to move forward and say ‘Alright, now what changes do I wanna make on my body?'” Bernard told the Daily Caller.
The media doesn’t seem to take issue with talking about childhood obesity. We have conversations about kids who are overweight, but we aren’t allowed to have conversations about adults who are overweight. Nobody wants to be offensive.
Yet, obesity costs Americans roughly $190 billion in health-care costs per year, according to a study published by Cornell University.
“Obese children become obese adults,” Stanforth said.
“I think that, I would think we would benefit from a shift away from the focus on the external and to continue to talk about obesity as a health concern, not an aesthetic concern,” she added.
“I don’t care what somebody looks like if they’re healthy and fit and so if we could just make that shift I think we could talk about it through the lifespan and we wouldn’t have to walk on eggshells when you’re talking about adult obesity,” Stanforth explained. “I think some of the bias issues would definitely be mitigated. We could quit being focused on that external aesthetic approach.”
Bernard said Michaels’ comments were “misread.”
“What she was saying was just like ‘Let’s celebrate her music because she’s a talented human being spreading love and acceptance and strength to women that may feel ashamed,'” Bernard said. “I think it was misread. I think she was just saying that it’s two different things and I agree with Jillian is that health is important and it needs to be addressed and we cannot sit here and like lie to ourselves that health is not an issue because if you look around, obesity and the epidemic causes a myriad of things.”