Across the board, plus size representation is growing, bit by bit. It might be slow but it’s happening. So even though the exercise space is historically one of the most explicitly fatphobic industries, it wasn’t super surprising when Nike launched a plus size mannequin to be used in their flagship London store.
Do I feel more empowered by this decision? Not particularly. But do I understand it’s an overall positive thing that might make people feel more comfortable in this particular environment? Yes. One of the key issues around exercise for so many plus size women is the understanding that this space is absolutely not for them. Exercise can be scary and intimidating for plus size women, but it can also be a fun, endorphin-releasing, mental-fortitude-testing part of life. I love spinning, I love swimming, I tolerate running because it’s free. But anything that makes me and women like me more likely to exercise if we want to is only a good thing.
Not so, says journalist Tanya Gold, who is herself fat yet somehow decided to flex her fingers and write for the Telegraph that ‘Obese mannequins are selling women a dangerous lie’. The fact that she wrote this within a fortnight of another article called ‘It’s not just zealous men who want to control women’s bodies – we’re doing it to each other’ is almost too good to be true, but equally could show the limits of what ‘control’ is acceptable. Fatness is the one area where it’s perfectly fine to be a hateful fascist about someone’s body, because, really, you’re doing it for their own good, aren’t you? Even Tanya herself (again, a fat lady) thinks that fat people are too lazy and stupid to know how to look after themselves and need to have every moment of their existence micro-managed by someone wiser.
As a long-time fat who’s spent many hours thinking about the nature of fatphobia, whose beloved body and joyful life is a provocation, I have at least one theory about why this reaction was so extreme. The further a fat body (or in this case, a hard plastic representation of a fat body) challenges our understanding of what a fat body is or does, the more extreme a reaction it will get. If this mannequin was in a plus size shop, draped in oversized frumpy clothes, then there would be no such uproar. It’s because this mannequin is representing a vision of a fat body that deviates from what we expect.
Anecdotally, I know that a fat girl, nicely-groomed in evening wear is more likely to get negative reactions (because we’re not meant to care about our appearance), as is a group of fat women than one alone (because fat women are inherently loners). It’s as if to say ‘what right do you have to think you can make an effort? What right do you have to think you can look good?’ And here it’s the same: ‘What right do you have to think exercise is open to you?’ Fat bodies are allowed as long as they conform to what we understand a fat person to be: embarrassed, joyless, aware of their failings.
So a mannequin that says ‘Hey, fat ladies! Of course you’re in this store! Why wouldn’t you be? Here, let me signpost the clothes that you can buy!’ encourages fat women to think differently about the life and the choices that are open to them. It reminds them they have options – not as many as thin women, but options. That maybe it would be fun to go to that spin class or jog around that forest, however slowly. I know a lot of people have taken the line of ‘this backlash is silly because how will fat people get thin if they can’t exercise!’ but, hey, I’m such a wild dreamer that I can actually imagine a world where people exercise for reasons other than weight loss!
But really, what we can learn from this whole story is that no matter what kind of progress is made in the plus size space – however mild and unrevolutionary it is – there will always be a voice invested in tearing us down. Whether that’s motivated by money, self-loathing or plain, uncomplicated fatphobia. And sometimes that voice is one of our own.