Being fat is the worst thing anyone can be, according to the pages of most tabloid magazines and the walls of almost any doctor’s office. While the science disproving that being fat is inherently unhealthy exists in abundance, our fatphobic worldview remains propped up by a multi-billion-dollar weight-loss industry. But there are two podcasters who are, with humour and a shit-ton of research, challenging our collective lack of wellness-fad literacy—reporter Michael Hobbes and writer Aubrey Gordon.
Xtra sat down with Hobbes and Gordon virtually to talk about their wellness fad debunking podcast Maintenance Phase, their own experiences confronting weight stigma and what people are getting wrong about fatness.
For those who haven’t listened to the podcast yet, what are your personal experiences confronting weight stigma?
Hobbes: My experience with weight bias mostly comes through the experience of my mother. Growing up, my mom was always on a diet. Always. She would make dinner for the entire family, then eat a bowl of raw carrots at the head of the table. I saw how hard she was working to lose weight, and I also saw that it was never enough. It seemed unfair to me in a way that I’ve never been able to see any other way.
Gordon: My experiences of anti-fatness are firsthand and pretty much lifelong. I was a fat kid growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, a peak time for dieting and for our cultural panic about fatness and fat people. For me, anti-fat bias has shown up in doctor’s offices [through denial of proper care], in grocery stores, in the workplace—everywhere. It wasn’t until I was in college that I was introduced to fat activism, which was the first time I really heard anyone talk about fat people deserving better than weight stigma.
What prompted the creation of Maintenance Phase?
Hobbes: The way all good podcasts start: Mutual obsession! I had been interested in obesity for my entire career but never found an entry point to write about it. In 2016, I finally convinced my editor at HuffPost’s Highline to let me write a piece debunking obesity myths. I worked on it for nearly 18 months and interviewed more than 60 people, about evenly divided between researchers and fat people. Working on the story changed my own thinking about fatness and made me much more radical on how to address it through policy (i.e. don’t). It also brought me to Aubrey’s work. Once the article came out, we started chatting online, met up in person once and eventually decided to start a show about all the myths we had both come across in our work.
Gordon: I’d been writing personal essays and research-driven stuff on fatness, fat people and anti-fat bias for about four years when we met up, and talking to Mike about this stuff was so easy and fun and natural. Getting to spend more time thinking and talking with him is one of the easiest, best decisions I’ve made in the last year.
Hobbes: My primary problem with focusing policy solutions on fatness rather than health is that we know most attempts to lose weight fail. This is true for individual dieters as well as political jurisdictions. No state, city or country has meaningfully lowered its obesity rate over time. We’ve been trying to convince people to lose weight for 40 years and it’s never worked. Policies aimed at improving people’s diets and increasing exercise, on the other hand, have been shown to work.
When it comes to weight stigma and fad diets, what do you think people get the most wrong?
Hobbes: The most persistent myth of fad diets is the idea of—wait for it—the “maintenance phase,” a point in a diet where weight is maintained, rather than lost or gained. Almost every fad diet has the same structure: A period of extreme restriction to “kick off” the weight loss, then a slow reintroduction of more sustainable eating habits “once your body adjusts.” Both concepts are myths. There’s no such thing as “kicking off” weight loss—you can lose weight on any restrictive diet, whether it’s cabbage soup or Slim Fast shakes or intermittent fasting. But the minute your habits change, your weight will adjust to them. The “maintenance phase” of the diet is the diet.
Gordon: Right. This is echoed even in the most recent news about a new prescription weight-loss treatment, Semaglutide [sold under brand names Rybelsus and Ozempic]. There’s been some big media coverage about the promise of this new injection, but much of that coverage glosses over the fact that when study participants stopped getting their injection, the weight came right back. As Mike said, the “maintenance phase” is the diet.
A lot of your findings have blown my mind. Was there anything that you were super shocked to discover during your research?
Hobbes: The biggest revelation so far has been the ways weight-loss schemes are judged by dieters and doctors alike on their potential benefits rather than their actual harms. The Presidential Physical Fitness Test, for example, is still defended by researchers and public health institutions because it might raise awareness of the obesity epidemic and it could encourage kids to do more sports in their free time. The problem is, all the evidence suggests that it does exactly the opposite. It shames fat kids and makes teenagers associate sports with ostracism and unhealthy competition. And yet we’re still doing it in American schools! Why wouldn’t we weigh its actual benefits (none) against its actual harms (many)?
Gordon: It continues to blow my mind how much we hang on to the magical thinking of weight loss. Most of our data around weight loss and wellness is pretty thin. We know that exercise is good for your overall health, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to major weight loss. And even our best-tested diets only lead to small amounts of weight loss in the short term. As far as science is concerned, we don’t really know how to make fat people thin in the long term. But acknowledging that would mean letting go of a fantasy of weight loss that’s really important to a lot of us. We keep believing, in spite of our own experiences and in spite of the research, that we’ll find some skeleton key to thinness and to health.
Why do you think people feel justified to concern or health troll?
Hobbes: The decades-old moral panic over obesity has given a lot of ammunition to the health trolls. We’ve spent our entire lives hearing that thinness is not only inherently healthy but utterly obligatory. That message is like a licence for people to tell the fat people in their lives, strangers and friends alike, that they have to lose weight.
Gordon: Absolutely. That moral panic is also strengthened by our belief that someone’s weight is a direct reflection of their health, and that weight is controllable in all cases. But we know that’s not true. Lipedema, for example, is a condition that affects up to 10 percent of people assigned female at birth. It causes significant fat deposits, often in the legs, and those fat deposits can’t be eliminated through diet and exercise. Polycystic ovary syndrome is also very common and is linked to both being fat and diabetes—and we don’t know what causes it. Highly prevalent conditions like those should complicate our understanding of weight and health, but they generally don’t.
The science disproving the weight equals health myth is there, but people seem to choose to ignore it in favour of the status quo.
Hobbes: It’s a difficult thing to talk about because we’ve all heard the simplistic myth so many times. In reality, the relationship between weight and health is just a correlation. One of the first things they teach you in any research methodology class is that correlation is not causation. A significant percentage of fat people are perfectly healthy and a significant percentage of thin people aren’t. The reasons for that are much more complex than any single-factor explanation.
Gordon: The way we learn what we think we know about health and weight loss is largely through marketing. We think we have this concrete scientific knowledge—things like “just burn more calories than you eat” and that kind of thing—but a lot of that comes to us through advertising for diets and diet food products. Studies themselves paint a much more complex picture. A better sense of that complex picture can help us change how we relate to our own bodies, and how we treat people in bodies that don’t “look healthy” to us.
Our belief that someone’s weight is a direct reflection of their health underscores our ableism and biases against fat people. It makes thin people believe that they have earned and worked for their bodies, and that fat people must just be lazy, or that disabled people need their help to find a diet or wellness practice that will “cure” them.
How can thin people be allies to their larger-bodied friends?
Hobbes: We could offer a lot of tips here about vocabulary to use or questions not to ask, but it all comes down to listening. When a fat person says they’ve tried to lose weight—or that they don’t want to—don’t use that as an excuse to lecture them. When a fat person speaks about their experience with weight bias, believe them.
Gordon: A really tricky thing about being a fat person is that most people around me assume they know how I feel about my body, because it’s how they feel about my body. They can’t imagine liking a body like mine, and they imagine that if they were my size, they’d be desperate to get thin. So, their interactions with me are shaped by this idea that I must be repulsed by my own body and I must be trying to change at every moment. It’s such a breath of fresh air when someone asks how I feel about my body and then really listens. We do a lot of talking about fat people without talking to fat people. Listening is huge.
You both identify as queer. How have you found your queerness intersects with weight stigma?
Gordon: There’s certainly plenty of anti-fatness in queer communities. I spent about 10 years as a queer community organizer, and it was so strange to move through queer spaces and just feel kind of invisible. But homophobia, transphobia and anti-fatness often echo one another. Queer people and fat people both know what it’s like to face this endless wave of attempts to “correct” how many of us have always been. Queer people, fat people and parents of fat kids frequently have our fitness to parent publicly debated. Fat people struggle to access unbiased health care, and that struggle only intensifies for fat trans people, many of whom are required to reach a certain BMI before being given access to transition-related care. There are lots and lots of intersections here.
What are some of the main changes that need to occur in order for society to better accommodate fat folks?
Hobbes: Where do we even start? The most obvious place is the law: Only Michigan prohibits size discrimination. Fat people have limited access to housing, jobs and income and health care, often under the rubric of health, in ways that are both prevalent and severe. Most public spaces, from airplanes to concert venues, aren’t built for large bodies.
One of the themes we keep returning to on the show is public health. For decades, we’ve had a public health establishment that puts weight at the center of its messaging about diet-related disease and chronic illness. The last thing fat people—and especially fat kids—need from the government is yet another instruction to lose weight. We think weight should be removed from public health considerations in favour of, well, health.
It would look like public health policies aimed at what we actually want: Less diet-related disease. We know that at the population level, better diets and more exercise will improve heart disease, stroke and diabetes rates. They probably won’t affect Americans’ weights in any meaningful way. And that’s fine! A lot of fat people have perfectly normal health markers and a lot of skinny people don’t. We need to give up on trying to get people to look a certain way or achieve a particular weight and focus exclusively on health—which is what we say we’re already doing.
Gordon: We’ve also got some right-sizing to do in terms of how we think about health. Health has grown from a worthy pursuit into a kind of moral imperative. We think of healthier people as having a stronger work ethic, as being more tenacious and driven, as being more productive and effective. We don’t necessarily think of healthier people as having the benefit of well-paying jobs that allow them to take time off, as living in neighbourhoods where they can safely spend time outside, as getting paid well enough to afford and cook food at home. So, we’ve got to remove weight from the center of our paradigm of health, and we’ve got to remove health from the center of our paradigm of virtue.
What’s been your favourite episode to record so far and why?
Hobbes: For me, it’s our episode on Halo Top ice cream, in which we debunk biohacking and the “Halo Top Diet.” I think the best podcast episodes blend information and entertainment, and Aubrey’s great at blending a very serious investigation of diet culture with a very funny story of low-carb tech bros.
Gordon: I think about our episode on the Presidential Physical Fitness Test [a series of exercises completed by students to determine their fitness level] constantly—at least every few days, even months later. I had just kind of uncritically accepted school fitness testing and assumed it was solid public policy that was grounded in data, and that it was generating data that was aggregated and analyzed somewhere. Turns out, it sure wasn’t! I love this episode because it absolutely blew my mind, and it showcases Mike’s fantastic research and analysis work, paired with a truly wild ride of a story.
At the end of the day, what do you hope listeners take away from the podcast?
Gordon: If people take away some new knowledge and frameworks for understanding the wellness and diet industries, that’s great! But if you want to have a good time and take a critical look at those industries, you’re our people.
Hobbes: We could say something high-minded here about educating the masses or whatever, but honestly we just hope they like giggling at wellness bullshit as much as we do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.