Are Plus-Sized Athletes Promoting Obesity?

Yes, I’m going to go there.

I have been of the opinion for some time now that the Body Positive movement in Australia is still very much in its infancy, particularly when it came to the arena of sport and fitness. There was no greater evidence of this then when my recent piece ‘I’m Plus Size and I’m an Athlete’ went live on Sportette.’s site. The positive feedback received and the lightening-fast manner in which it circulated through social media indicated that this is clearly a conversation that many Australians are wanting to have – our need for a diversity of physical representations of what an ‘athlete’ looks like – especially when it came to the fragility of body satisfaction within our younger generations.

This piece seemed, for many, to be the catalyst in many women taking a completely different view of their bodies. They commented on how it caused them to consider and then respect their bodies from a functional perspective rather than aesthetic, and the positive, empowered manner in which they began to view their training. Perhaps the most humbling comments of all were the ones coming from mothers of adolescent daughters, thanking me for considering that larger young females need more relatable role models in fitness and sport; ones who stand tall and say ‘this is who I am. I am fit, I am strong. I train hard, I nurture my body, and in return it performs for me.’

Celebrating athleticism at any size or promoting obesity?
Celebrating athleticism at any size or promoting obesity?

As expected, the feedback wasn’t all positive. There was the anticipated argument that in being satisfied with how my body functioned for me at my racing weight of 90kg I was actively promoting obesity. In discussing the history of the Clydesdale and Athena weight divisions in both running and triathlon, I was glorifying a group of people who were too ‘lazy’ to work hard to achieve normal weight and wanted it ‘easy’ when it came to competition.

One of the wisest pieces of advice I have ever received was that in promoting a message, never justify your position, just stay true to the message.

For this reason I won’t delve into the science that analysed over 10,000 race times across different weight groups and saw the creation of the Clydesdale and Athena movement.

As for the argument that I am promoting obesity, I will say this. When a younger boy presents a larger form, there tends to be (albeit stereotypical) conversations around what a great Prop or Front Rower he would make. Big, strong, powerful players such as Paul Gallen and ‘Big Georgie Rose’ become their role models. A number of T20 Big Bash stars such as Craig Simmons also present a larger form and are respected for their strength and power, not to mention our top Rugby Union players such as Benn Robinson. Funnily enough, I don’t think I have heard many of these players questioned over their roles in the promotion of obesity.

When a younger female presents a larger form, who does she look to? The reality is that across a wide range of sports there are a vast number of big, strong and powerful women for them to have as role models – they are just not actively promoted, nor are their strengths celebrated. There are no conversations about what a great power lifter these young girls could become, or how their strength could benefit them in many track and field activities. There are, however, subtle conversations about what sports her body may not be suited to. If in promoting myself as a Plus Size Endurance Athlete I happen to encourage even one of these young girls to pursue her chosen sport with confidence in her body, and this classes me as promoting obesity, then consider me guilty as charged.

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19 thoughts on “Are Plus-Sized Athletes Promoting Obesity?

  1. Thanks for writing this piece! As a 16 year old I was told I was ‘solid’, although this was in comparison to the lofty, slender girls I happened to play sport with, I never realised the rediculous comparison I was faced with… This article gives me hope that all those girls who aren’t ‘built like a stereotypical triathlete’ will find confidence in their gifts and talent!

    Cheers!

  2. This is fantastic what you are doing! So glad to hear about it! You might be interested in the Brave Body Love Summit that starts Saturday on Valentine’s Day. The 35 speakers are definitely in line with your message. It’s online and free. Here’s the link to check it out. http://bit.ly/BBL2k15 We would love your support in spreading the news about this body positive event!

  3. YES!!! I love this line that you wrote: “…in promoting a message, never justify your position, just stay true to the message.” I appreciate the freedom to stay true to the message and not the needless argument behind it.

    1. Thanks so much Cara, its something my partner reminds me of all the time. Staying true to a message without justifying it can be a bit like learning to say ‘no’ without feeling obliged to explain yourself 🙂

  4. “When a younger female presents a larger form, who does she look to? … There are no conversations about what a great power lifter these young girls could become, or how their strength could benefit them in many track and field activities. There are, however, subtle conversations about what sports her body may not be suited to.”

    That pretty much sums up my childhood/adolescent experience with sports of any kind. Sports were never for enjoyment or the sake of being active. They were for the elite, “normal”-sized girls who were encouraged to pursue them. I was encouraged to walk on a treadmill and go on a diet so I could lose weight and look like them. Maybe “some day” I could play sports, too—i.e. when I’m thin enough to have earned the right.

    “Some day” arrived not when I became a thin person, but when I decided to try a triathlon because I wanted a goal for my 30th birthday. Triathlons evolved into marathon swimming. Along the way there has also been rowing, roller derby, and boxing.

    Am I thin? Nope. Do I call myself an athlete? After years of pretending otherwise, I can finally say: You’re damn right.

    1. Oh my gosh you just gave me goosebumps civnhasy! Thank you so much for sharing this with me, I couldn’t have summed up the issue any better than your own experience – it was mine too. Thank you again.

  5. This! So much more of this is needed in our community!

    I am also a “plus size” athlete – I race mountain bikes and despite the preconception that all cyclists are skinny not all of us have a body shape and build for that – but I have ridden bikes all my life and am a very healthy and active size 14-16 cyclist who can climb like anyone else!

    It is very frustrating that society views people like us as unfit or not athletic because we are not all size 8 marathon runner builds….

    This isn’t about promoting obesity – healthy lifestyle is heathy regardless of body shape!

    I also have two daughters and I never ever want them to experience the taunting I heard growing up as being the ‘fat kid’ despite always being on the water polo team or the hockey team…

    Your blog is a breath of fresh air and I am glad I was linked to it!

    1. Thank you so much for your feedback Andrea, I really appreciate it and you are so right on all points. I have a lot of admiration for you MTB ladies, I can’t wait to put some more time in on the dirt when I get back into training.

      Did you happen to read on Born to Reign Athletics about Peggy, the MTB rider who is sponsored by LivGiant? A breath of fresh air when something like that happens!!

  6. Thank you for this article. Am ashamed to admit (as a woman) who has struggled with weight & size since childhood that I have never considered the difference in public perception of the men & women in sport of larger size.

    I play roller derby, primarily a female sport, which has full body contact, which has subconsciously changed my opinion on what athleticism (especially for women) looks like. You look strong, powerful & I bet you’d be a force on the derby track should you ever consider strapping on some skates!

    You are amazing, definitely sharing this. Thank you ♥️♥️♥️

    1. Thank you so much for your honest and kind comments Lauren. I think it is something that none of us have really thought about until we look back on our own childhood conversations about sports – I know that was the case for me!
      I think a few of our Body Positive Athletes in our Facebook group (which you are welcome to join) are derby girls – I love the sport, would just have to seriously focus on some skating co ordination I imagine! haha!

  7. Hi Leagh!
    This was my first visit to your blog & I loved this post!
    I was lucky enough after a life of gymnastics & cheer (which I LOVED, but where body positivity was seen as a weakness & every body was expected to fight to be the most lean, the smallest, the slimmest) to find roller derby eight years ago.
    Derby has exceeded my desires for a competitive & mentally healthy sports environment and I can happily say that I sweat, and learn, and grow alongside a wide variety of body types, all who are expected & suited to exceed at our sport with the right mentality, not simply the right physique.
    Derby opened me up to the world of Crossfit & olympic lifting, and I do ALL of my cross training, whether it be swimming, gymnastics basics, or lifting, with my derby goals in mind.
    I DO sometimes train for leanness, if it’s related to a derby goal- for example, right now, I’m working on my stride and reducing my weight to improve my weight to power ratio on timed sprint laps. I lift & do a variety of mobility exercises & yoga to prevent injury as well.
    With all that ranting aside, my point is that it IS possible to create enriching and positive environments where women can grow with their focus on performance, sport, and health… Distancing ourselves from the negativity of societal expectations of how we ‘should’ look.
    I hope every person/woman can find their home in a sport they love & feel welcomed and valued for the great things our bodies can do!! :).

    -Sarah Jean
    Mother State Roller Derby
    Richmond, VA
    USA

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