Wednesday, January 29, 2014

No Excuses, No Masks

While we're looking back at 2013, let's talk about Maria Kang. You remember the fitness trainer and mother who ruffled our feathers with that photo of herself wearing skimpy workout attire and posing with her three young sons beneath the caption "What's your excuse?" While some applauded Kang for telling it straight, others accused her of fat shaming.

This is not Maria Kang.
A number of bloggers responded to Kang's challenge head on, enumerating their excuses for not looking like her. The Militant Baker fired back: "My excuse is that I am one of the 95% of women who were not born into the body represented in American media." The Tatted Mom wrote: "I used the time after my kids were born to enjoy my children." And from the Body Pacifist: "What's my excuse for not looking like Maria Kang? I look like me." (Note to readers: Hit me with suggestions for a vaguely superheroic blogger name.)

This is not Lucille Ball.
Some excuses were sobering (cancer, fibromyalgia), some humorous ("I love eating cookies…in bed"). Some used logical appeals ("I've had the perfect body and it's not all it's cracked up to be"), some poetic ("I don't work out. I lift my kids. | So I have biceps, but not a flat tummy.") But my question is this: Why do we think we need excuses? Other bloggers have raised this question—and then, in many cases, proceeded to offer Ms. Kang their excuses. Kang's photo struck a nerve because so many of us feel that, like Lucy, we've got some 'splainin' to do. Fat shaming is oppressive because, collectively, we've agreed to be ashamed.

Fat shaming is a new name for the old practice of condemning people whose bodies we deem overweight. Turning body size into a moral issue helps us justify prejudice and discrimination. It shifts our focus from public health (e.g., making whole foods as accessible as processed) to individual culpability (e.g., gaining weight when we buy what the food industry feeds us). It conflates thinness with health. And it's more likely to promote weight gain than weight loss. A study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that ads with captions like "Fat Kids Become Fat Adults" actually deterred engagement in healthy behaviors by eroding self-confidence. Another study found that instead of motivating us to lose weight, weight discrimination increases our risk for obesity.

Here's the thing, though. Shamers gonna shame. Yes, we should stand against bullying and unfair treatment. But if we wait for Maria Kang and her ilk to let us off the hook, we'll be making excuses until we die. Freedom from shame begins with admitting we're human, broken but beautiful. I love how Leonard Cohen expresses this in the song "Anthem":

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

(If you like Cohen's song, take a listen to the cover by Canadian folk trio The Once, on their self-titled debut album.)

I was astonished by the light that got in when I stopped masking my brokenness.* When I dropped my pretensions of perfection and sought treatment for bulimia—accepting both my own responsibility and the help of others—food and body woes no longer dominated my thoughts. If you'd told my younger self that I could live an entire day without a single negative body thought—let alone days on end—I'd never have believed you.

Now, when I find myself exercising less than I'd like, I can evaluate the reasons and make adjustments without shame. In my humanity, I occasionally use food to fill emotional needs. I'm not excusing or endorsing this behavior. But I'm not ashamed. Emotional eating signals a deeper issue I need to address, and I respect myself enough to excavate the real issue. In the meantime, living without shame means resuming healthier eating without recrimination.

If I were to offer a Kang-like challenge, it would be this: "What's your mask?" Take it off! Stop accepting shame as a way of life. And then, having safely removed your own mask, help your kids shed theirs too. To get started, read my interview with author Dara Chadwick on helping our daughters overcome body shame. And arm yourself with this article by Dawn Friedman for more evidence that a blame-and-shame response to obesity does more harm than good.

UPDATE: It turns out there's a Facebook group called Don't Need an Excuse, founded by blogger Darlena Cunha, that responds to the Kang brouhaha with images celebrating a diversity of body types and aspirations. My post today echoes a Huffington Post article by Elizabeth Hawksworth, where I learned about the Don't Need an Excuse project.

*I wouldn't be telling the whole story if I didn't acknowledge the role of my faith in overcoming shame. My belief in a Creator who gives me grace empowers me to extend grace to myself and others. Here are some more lyrics I love, from the 34th Psalm:

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me.
He freed me from all my fears.
Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy;
No shadow of shame will darken their faces.


  1. Hi there! I'm so happy you linked to my Huffington Post article, and I love this post that you've made. I just want to correct one thing - the founder of the group "Don't Need An Excuse" is actually Darlena Cunha. You can find her blog at Thanks again for this awesome post and the shout-out! :)

    Elizabeth Hawksworth

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Elizabeth, and for the correction. I've updated the post to give proper credit. Thank you for reading, and for your thoughtful HuffPo article.