Some segments of the mainstream media end 2022 by discovering physical fitness and the desire to be fit and healthy is rooted in white supremacy. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth, but why worry about the dangers of encouraging people to live unhealthy lives and die young when there’s a political point to be made?
It’s no secret that many Americans over indulge throughout the holiday season and enter the New Year with a bulge in their waistlines. As a result, gym memberships surge in the early part of the year as many resolve to get fit for spring and summer. Of course, most never actually do in a country where approximately 41.9% of people are classified as obese, but the desire to be a thinner, healthier version of ourselves has generally been perceived as a positive goal, something we should aspire to even if we fail to achieve it. This year, however, multiple outlets in the mainstream media have suddenly discovered that this drive has a much darker side: Somehow, white supremacy is responsible for the desire to be fit and continues to cast a shadow on the entire fitness industry, up to including our ideal image of the body itself. Thus, Time Magazine dutifully reported on “The White Supremacist Origins of Exercise,” questioning “How did U.S. exercise trends go from reinforcing white supremacy to celebrating Richard Simmons?” “It was super interesting reading the reflections of fitness enthusiasts in the early 20th century,” explained Mehlman Petrzela, a professor at the New School in New York City. “They said we should get rid of corsets, corsets are an assault on women’s form, and that women should be lifting weights and gaining strength. At first, you feel like this is so progressive. Then you keep reading, and they’re saying white women should start building up their strength because we need more white babies. They’re writing during an incredible amount of immigration, soon after enslaved people have been emancipated. This is totally part of a white supremacy project. So that was a real ‘holy crap’ moment as a historian, where deep archival research really reveals the contradictions of this moment.”
Sadly, deep archival research this most certainly was not. Ms. Petrzela begins with the false canard that prior to the 20th century, fat was considered fit and fat people were objectified as the ideal of beauty. “Until the 1920s or so, to be what would be considered today fat or bigger, was actually desirable and actually signified affluence—which is like the polar opposite of today, when so much of the obesity epidemic discourse is connected to socio-economic inequality and to be fat is often to be seen as to be poor.” While it is fair to say that the ideal weight has varied in recent decades and it was once fashionable to have a little more meat on your bones, the idea that fat people were lauded as desirable, as in the polar opposite of today, is laughable. One does not need to perform “deep, archival research” to determine that the glamorous women of the 19th century and earlier would largely be considered the same in the modern world. Grover Cleveland, for example, was one of our few morbidly obese presidents, weighing in at roughly 100 pounds over the ideal weight, somewhere north of three hundred. Assuredly, he was not considered a sex symbol in his day, but his wife, Frances, was and she certainly did not share her husband’s porky physique. On the contrary, she was trim, fit, and beautiful, so much so that groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union urged her to dress more modestly for fear she was setting a bad example, a request she rebuffed. The press continued reporting on her beauty and sense of fashion throughout her life, until she was over 70 years old. On the other side of the Atlantic, the wife of the last Emperor of the Austrian Empire, Franz Joseph was also a dark haired beauty. Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie of Bavaria was five feet, eight inches tall and weighed a slender 110 pounds throughout most of her life (she was shockingly assassinated by a radical at a train station in 1898). An icon of beauty and fashion throughout Europe and beyond, Sissy, as she was affectionately known, spearheaded the trend to abandon bulky hoop skirts for more tighter and leaner dresses, presenting what was known as a “wasp waist.”
Nor is the idea that exercise suddenly sprung into existence in the 20th century as an important part of a healthy lifestyle remotely true. Sissy herself was known to hit the gym on a regular basis, and in fact insisted that every castle she lived in was equipped with a proper gymnasium, which required converting the Knights Hall of the Hofburg Palace into an exercise room and even installing mats and balance beams in her bedchamber. She was a gymnast, a horseback rider, and an avid hiker. She took up fencing of all things in her 50’s. Back in the United States, future President Teddy Roosevelt’s father installed a gymnasium on the entire third floor of their mansion when he was a child. The future President himself was a legendary sportsman, enjoying rowing, swimming, horseback riding, hiking, mountain climbing, boxing, wrestling, tennis, and, of course, hunting. He courted his first wife, Alice Lee, a willowing Boston beauty frequently by playing tennis, dozens of matches before their engagement. Ms. Lee was no stranger to exercise and fitness herself, playing tennis, hiking, horseback riding, dancing, and partaking in other activities (she died tragically at 22 years old 2 days after giving birth to their first child). The word “gymnasium” itself goes all the way back to Ancient Greece, coming from the term for naked or nude, a training facility for (exclusively) male athletes at the time. Tennis dates back to 12th or 13th century France, the “game of the palm.” Mary Queen of Scots was an avid player in the mid 1500’s. It is true that the nature of exercise has changed in the 20th century, including the use of machines to aid our natural bodies, while becoming both more egalitarian and accessible to women, but the idea that prior to the year 1920 it was generally assumed people should be lazy, fat slobs living sedentary lifestyles is absurd. Throughout history, people who could afford it and had access pursued active lifestyles for the sake of physical exercise. Moreover, physical prowess and skill at the activities which dominated the day were all seen as desirable traits almost universally. No one to my knowledge ever wished George Washington was fatter and a worse horseman or dancer. Likewise, newspapers of the late 1800’s were not urging fashion icons like Mrs. Cleveland, Sissy, or Ms. Lee to pack on the pounds.
Modern medicine and advances in our understanding of the human body have necessarily altered our perspective on the optimal exercise techniques and the overall impact of fitness on our health, but it doesn’t take a team of medical professionals to make the connection between maintaining a reasonable weight and being generally healthier. As Benjamin Franklin put it in his pithy manner, “I don’t so much mind being old, as I mind being fat and old.” Today, the Centers for Disease Control identifies a host of adverse medical conditions including increased risk for early death, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and breathing problems, many types of cancer, low quality of life, mental illness such as clinical depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders, and body pain and difficulty with physical functioning. These are the facts facing almost 42% of the country. They should be all to awfully apparent in the aftermath of pandemic that ravaged people with pre-existing conditions, but rather than promoting healthier lifestyles rooted in reality and history, Scientific American joined Time Magazine to take aim at the “The Racist Roots of Fighting Obesity,” bizarrely claiming that “Prescribing weight loss to Black women ignores barriers to their health.” A tweet promoting the article declared, without evidence of any kind and without care for the actual health outcomes of disadvantaged women, “The heightened concern about black women’s weight reflects the racist stigmatization of their bodies. It also ignores how interrelated social factors impact black women’s health.” Somehow, the authors manage to ignore the most salient health risk facing black women: Four out of five are classified as overweight or obese. Instead, they seem surprised to report that “Black women in particular, face considerable health challenges. Compared with their rates in other racial groups, chronic cardiovascular, inflammatory and metabolic risk factors have been found to be elevated in Black women,” bemoaning that “Black women have been specifically targeted” in campaigns urging “fat people to eat right, eat less and lose weight” and that doctors believe “excess weight” is mainly responsible for poor health outcomes in this demographic without “without fully testing or diagnosing them.”
Scientific American identifies the same white supremacist, historical component. “This heightened concern about their weight is not new; it reflects the racist stigmatization of Black women’s bodies. Nearly three centuries ago scientists studying race argued that African women were especially likely to reach dimensions that the typical European might scorn. The men of Africa were said to like their women robust, and the European press featured tales of cultural events loosely described as festivals intended to fatten African women to the desired, ‘unwieldy’ size.” Of course, “These presumptions were not backed by scientific data but instead embodied the prevailing racial scientific logic at the time,” but somehow they still live on. “Today the idea that weight is the main problem dogging Black women builds on these historically racist ideas and ignores how interrelated social factors impact Black women’s health.” Ignorance, as they say is bliss: Rather than confront the leading health threat facing Black women in particular and all Americans more generally, meaning we truly are in this together for once, Scientific American chooses to ignore science entirely, pretending that lower weight and more positive health outcomes have nothing to do with one another. They concluded, “It also perpetuates a misinformed and damaging message about weight and health. Indeed, social determinants have been shown to be more consequential to health than BMI or health behaviors.” This is complete nonsense: Self esteem does not reduce your risk of heart disease or diabetes. Exercise and eating right do, but clearly some segments of the mainstream media would rather see people, especially black people it seems, die young than speak the truth. Perhaps they should speak to former First Lady Michelle Obama, who put fighting childhood obesity at the center of her mission while her husband was in office. “The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake. This isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved overnight, but with everyone working together, it can be solved. So, let’s move,” she declared while launching her initiative, apparently blithely unaware that she was supporting white supremacy. Consider this yet another in a near endless number of examples of why people do not trust the mainstream media any longer. Wanting to be fit and healthy does not make you a white supremacist, but it will likely help you live longer.