When news broke recently about the fat shaming and related psychological abuse that was suffered by members of the Nike Oregon Project and by members of past British Olympic track and field teams at the hands of their coaches, I, like so many others, found the alleged behavior unconscionable. But I also found it absurd.
Let’s be clear: Fat shaming any athlete (or nonathlete, for that matter) is unconscionable. But fat shaming an elite athlete whose body is finely tuned to perform at the very highest level is both unconscionable and kind of ridiculous.
I’ve always had an absurdist sense of humor. So, it wasn’t long after I read these disturbing reports that I found myself imagining the absurd scenario of a thickheaded coach trying to distance himself from the likes of Alberto Salazar and Charles van Commenee by announcing that he only fat-shamed athletes who actually were fat. It amused me to picture a coach so utterly clueless about what is actually wrong about fat shaming that he believed his behavior (fat shaming only truly fat athletes) was materially different from the behavior described in the reports (fat shaming finely tuned elite athletes).
Now, it so happens that I myself am an endurance coach and writer who has written extensively on the topic of performance weight management. In consideration of this fact, I got it into my head to post a tweet in the character of a thickheaded coach who thought the crime that the accused coaches committed was not fat shaming per se but fat-shaming athletes who weren’t fat. So I did, and let’s just say that the joke was not well received.
As the pile-on continued, I thought about what went wrong, and I came to the conclusion that my chief mistake was to assume that my Twitter followers had sufficient context to appreciate the joke as it was intended. On further reflection, I decided the same joke probably would have gotten a few more laughs and a little less criticism if it were delivered as a set piece in a television show or film, where a good comedic actor delivered the very same words I used in my tweet in a manner that invited viewers to laugh at his thick-headedness. But that’s neither here nor there, because I am not a screenwriter, I’m an endurance coach with a Twitter account.
I don’t think the context issue was the only factor involved in the joke’s flat landing, however. Rather, I think the negativity directed at me has been fueled in part by an ongoing backlash against our focus on body weight in endurance sports. As the author of the book Racing Weight, I am keenly aware that a growing contingent within the endurance community believes that, misfired jokes notwithstanding, the topic of performance weight management ought to be more or less taboo. Long before I posted my tweet, it was suggested to me, more than once, that I did something wrong in writing Racing Weight.
The specific accusation is that in discussing weight management as a tool for performance, folks like me contribute to an unhealthy fixation on weight in endurance sports that motivates some coaches to fat-shame and psychologically abuse athletes and causes some athletes to develop issues such as eating disorders and body dysmorphia even without a coach’s overt influence. The solution, therefore, is to avoid discussing performance weight management except for the sake of actively discourage athletes from focusing on it.
The intent here is unimpeachable. Eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and over-fixation on body weight are huge problems in endurance sports, and anyone in a position to do something to fix them has an obligation to chip in. As one who is very much in such a position, I try hard to do my part. I think the Twitter critics who read my tweet literally—who actually think I fat-shame some athletes—would be surprised to see how I counsel the athletes I coach on these matters. I never encourage athletes to lose weight, I preach caution to all of those who set their own goal to lose weight, and I talk to them a lot more about the importance of having a healthy relationship with food than I do about the mechanics of shedding body fat. I’m proud to say I’ve brought a few athletes back from very dark places through these means.
Having said all of this, I must also say that I disagree with those who believe that the topic of performance weight management ought to be taboo, for two reasons. The first is that, in my experience, forbidding an open, rational discussion of the topic only drives athletes’ efforts to manage their weight underground, which greatly increases the likelihood that they’ll go about it the wrong way. It’s sort of like the argument that is often made for teaching sexual education in school. Folks are going to do it regardless of whether you tell them not to, so why not talk openly about how to do it and how not to do it?
The second reason I deem the racing weight backlash misguided is that, as a general principle, I believe that truth is the only road to effective solutions for all problems. I think we do athletes a disservice when we assume they can’t handle the truth. A small minority of athletes, those who have a history of disordered eating or who are at high risk for developing an eating disorder, do need to be steered away from giving any mind space to their weight and body shape. I half-jokingly tell the athletes I coach who belong to this minority, “My one and only prescription for you is to spend 80 percent less time thinking about food.” But I think it’s a mistake to establish general rules for the discussion of performance weight management based on the vulnerabilities of this small group. Instead, in my view, the “standard” approach to dealing with performance weight management should be based on facts and truth. And here are the most relevant truths, as I see them:
1. Body weight and body composition can affect endurance performance both positively and negatively.
2. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or dangerous about actively managing one’s weight and body composition in the pursuit of better performance.
3. There are safe, healthy, and effective ways to pursue one’s optimal racing weight and there are unsafe, unhealthy, and ineffective ways.
4. The desire to actively pursue optimal racing weight should come from the individual athlete and should never come from a coach or anyone else.
5. Athletes who express such a desire should receive (ideally professional) guidance that is evidence-based and that is informed every bit as much by psychological concerns as by physical ones. For example, it should be drilled into athletes’ heads that optimal racing weight is determined functionally (i.e., by how the athlete feels and performs), not by the scale, and least of all by arbitrary numerical goals.
6. Athletes who have expressed a goal to actively pursue their racing weight and who start heading in a bad direction, either physically or psychologically, despite qualified guidance, should be supported in letting go of weight management as a performance tool and encouraged to focus instead on some of the many other available tools. . .
. . . like performance-enhancing drugs!
Ah, Lord help me.