In 2013, Maria Kang became an overnight sensation when a photograph that showed her posing underneath the caption “What’s your excuse?” clad in shorts and a sports bra, her chiseled abs bared and her three young children surrounding her, went viral. The reaction was mostly negative, critics accusing Maria, an attractive 32-year-old with a well-toned body, of fat shaming and placing unhealthy pressure on busy moms.
I got to know Maria three years later when she reached out to me for guidance while training for her first marathon. Despite her quasi-villainous reputation, I found her to be an intelligent and thoughtful person, so I wasn’t at all surprised when, in 2019, she apologized publicly for her “What’s your excuse?” poster, writing on Instagram, “I’m sorry for my presence—for unconsciously normalizing an unnatural body standard, not expressing my challenges with body image and not being strong enough to [fix] this years ago.”
I applaud Maria for her better-late-than-never show of contrition. At the same time, though, I think there’s a piece of her original message that’s worth preserving. I see nothing wrong with wanting to be an example to other people, as Maria did. Nor do I think there’s anything wrong with using shame to motivate others to follow your example. But you need to go about it the right way. If your desire to help others is genuine—if you want to actually succeed in motivating others to make positive changes—then you must not be overt or in your example-setting. In other words, don’t tell folks what to do; instead, just show them what they could also do if they so chose. In Maria’s specific case, I believe she could have avoided the backlash she provoked and succeeded in getting more of her fellow busy moms to improve their fitness if she had simply presented herself as an example of a fit mother of three and left it at that.
What I’m saying is, if you want to use shame to motivate others to make positive changes, refrain from saying, “What’s your excuse?” Instead, keep your mouth shut and let them ask themselves, “What’s my excuse?” Demonstrate what is possible for people like them so that they are no longer able to use “can’t” as a valid reason for not doing what you’ve done.
As an athlete, I have benefitted greatly from what I like to call benign shaming. When I encounter an example of an athlete who has demonstrated exceptional courage, grace, resilience, discipline, intelligence, or some other admirable quality in overcoming an extraordinary challenge, I ask myself, “What’s my excuse?” The way I see it, all it takes is one case in which an athlete holds himself or herself to the highest possible standard of character in a tough spot to deprive me of any excuse for not doing the same. Mind you, I’m not talking about qualities like physical strength that cannot be emulated but about character qualities like courage that can be.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Gabe Grunewald, an American professional runner who fought a long and ultimately losing battle against cancer, passing away in June 2019 just shy of her 33rd birthday. Gabe displayed tremendous generosity of spirit in her final years, striving to make her illness bigger than herself and to make something positive come out of it. She also showed awe-inspiring tenacity in the fight she put up against her disease, running her final race during a two-week break between chemotherapy treatments. Whenever I’m tempted to give in to the poor me’s in my struggle against a far less serious condition—post-acute COVID-19 syndrome—the thought of Gabe and others like her shames me into staying positive.
The underlying concept here is that of holding yourself to a high standard. There was a time when this concept had a high degree of cultural currency—when it was common for people to think and talk about the importance of setting an example with one’s conduct at work, in relationships, and as a member of the community. The Stoics of ancient Greece were big on this idea. As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “Imagine for yourself a character, a model personality, whose example you determine to follow, in private as well as in public.”
In American society today, unfortunately, the concept of holding oneself to a high standard is largely ignored, and inasmuch as it is not ignored, it is laughed at and ridiculed, dismissed as naïve, corny, and weak, a form of self-handicapping, something that only a sucker would do. Just look at the way boorish behavior is glorified in reality television. The subjects of these programs have no shame, and are adored for precisely this quality. Collectively, such pop culture inputs effectively train our young people to regard themselves as perfect just as they are, and to pursue happiness by imposing their will on the world rather than through any kind of introspection and self-betterment. Good luck exploiting people’s natural, healthy capacity for shame to motivate positive changes in a culture that has neutered this very capacity!
This is why it is all too easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater in a case like Maria Kang’s. As she herself recognizes, saying “What’s your excuse?” was not a skillful way to inspire positive self-change in others. But in all honestly, I don’t think her message was rejected entirely for good reasons. I think it was rejected partly because people do not want to be reminded that they should hold themselves to a high standard. Everyone wants to feel better nowadays, but very few of us genuinely want to be better.