Fat Shaming, Bikinis and Mommy Wars

Body image is a touchy subject among women. While we rightfully put fat-shamers in their place, proudly fit moms increasingly face judgment from other moms, with comments ranging from backhanded compliments to blatantly mean comments, or worse. CF contributing editor and triathlete-in-training Yuki Hayashi explores the rise of fit-shaming among moms


Photography by Mike Byerly, Courtesy Maria Kang


Just when you thought (hoped?) the Mommy Wars had ended in an armistice, it’s simply moved on to a new front: mommy’s backside. For fit mothers who exercise and eat healthfully, posting photos on social media can be a fraught decision: Will other moms hate me because I’m proud of how I look? The trepidation isn’t paranoia: 2014 is turning into the year of fit-shaming.

I first became aware of a simmering hostility when I was at a dinner party and was treated to anecdotes about mama runners, in particular, the mental pathology of marathoners (apparently we’re overcompensating for something and have something to prove), and how you shouldn’t run because it gives you “runner’s face,” premature haggardness caused by all that bouncing. Um, okay. I can’t imagine telling fellow diners they’re eating too much, or their complexions would look better if they broke a sweat more often. But that’s the point: When it comes to mothers who work out, it’s open season, online and
in person.

For Toronto-based journalist, blogger and author Rebecca Eckler, getting back into shape after each of her two preg­nancies seemed to mark her as a bad mom, judging by certain comments directed against her on social media and on her blog. “I got slammed. I’m not sure if it’s about time away from my children or the fact I had a personal trainer,” says Eckler, author of The Mommy Mob (Barlow), which examines the world of mommy blogging. Suffice it to say, many moms on social media do not take kindly to a proudly toned mom who flaunts her, er… assets.

“I’ve been called everything from a selfish mom to a fake mom, to someone telling me I shouldn’t even be ‘allowed’ to raise a rock, to another telling me my children are going to grow up with anti-social disorders,” says Eckler, who has long chronicled her adventures in parenting Rowan, 10, and Holt, 2. (Eckler’s blended family also includes her fiancé’s two girls, ages 15 and 12.)

But what Eckler has heard pales in comparison to what Sacramento, California-based mom and fitness enthusiast Maria Kang has been facing. In the fall of 2012, Kang posted a picture of herself on Facebook in which she wore revealing workout clothes next to her three young sons (then ages three, two and eight months) and with the question, “What’s Your Excuse?” About a year later, in the fall of 2013, the image went viral.

Hundreds of irate moms posted that they didn’t need to justify how they spend their time, certainly not to Kang. Others blasted her for spending time working out rather that, say, raising her kids (as if one precludes the other). She was attacked by bloggers and mainstream media across North America (as well as in Australia, Colombia and the U.K.), many of whom accused her of fat-shaming. And in December, after Kang posted a note about America’s obesity epidemic, Facebook temporarily closed down her page, calling it hate speech—ironic given the abhorrent comments being posted to Kang’s social media pages, including:

“You’re a classic version of ‘ugly on the inside’ and at the very best, you’re average on the outside.”

“She is our modern day Hitler and KKK. I’m sure if she were given a chance, she would eliminate anyone bigger than a size 6.”

“I hope this bitch pulls a Jim Fixx soon…you self-righteous f*ck.” (Jim Fixx was a running guru who died of a heart attack after running. Hilarious, right?)Far from subsiding after a few weeks, the media frenzy continued into this spring, and a Canadian parenting magazine even launched its own anti-Kang social media initiative.

Kang says she wanted her “What’s your excuse?” campaign to be inspiring—after all, the “No more excuses” and “What’s your excuse?” slogans have long been popular in the fitness world. But she also knew it would likely touch a nerve: “Seventy percent of Americans are overweight or obese, so when I asked that question, I knew 70 percent of people think they have an excuse,” she says.

“The biggest takeaway I want women to have is there’s no excuse not to make yourself a priority, your health a priority; it’s the only thing in this world you really own. In the process of raising kids, we can get lost from what’s also important.” But her women’s health message was lost amid the indignation over her perceived fat-shaming. Clearly, some moms took the question to mean “What’s your excuse for not looking as hot as me?” And yes, Kang rocks a smokin’ bod—which rubs some moms in a way fat-acceptance-movement bikini pics do not.

It’s obvious that moms are not as supportive of one another’s choices as we claim. Once we get candid—particularly online, where we can feel anonymous or emboldened by the fact that we’re not face-to-face with the person we’re trashing—the reality is, mom-on-mom judginess is rampant as ever. And the reason why hasn’t changed, even if the conflict in question has.

The Problem Behind the Hate
The underlying problem is moms are held (and hold each other) to an impossible standard. “Our society expects women to be superwomen: perfect wife, mother, career woman, well-educated and well-rounded, and, oh, skinny. There’s even more pressure now in that you are expected to be ‘fit,’ healthy and beautiful,” says Esther Kane, a Courtenay, B.C.-based therapist who specializes in women’s body image issues.

When women fall short of all these ideals—as we must because, seriously, who is all these things?—we tend to lash out at one another rather than question the social norm that sets up this destructive dynamic. An astute friend of mine pointed out that if “No Excuses Mom” were “No Excuses Dad,” there’d be no controversy at all; moms would think he was proactive about being a healthy dad, and dads would be like, “Way to go, bro.” Kane says this is because women are judged by a less forgiving parenting standard: “There isn’t the same amount of pressure put on men to be ‘superman.’”

In my own life, I’ve certainly noticed a need to justify the time I devote to exercising. I know that I’m being judged for my seemingly misplaced priorities from the comments I’ve heard from a couple of moms at my daughter’s school—“Oh, have you thought about spending some of your time volunteering at the school?” and “Have fun at the gym! I wish I had time to go, too.” What kind of mom uses her spare time to work out 12 hours per week?!

For the record, the average Canadian age 18 and up watches 29.4 hours of TV per week. I watch maybe five at most, which allows me to comfortably balance work, workouts, family time and volunteering with two groups each week. It works for me, but if it doesn’t work for you, I don’t judge.

So why do so many fit moms find their lifestyle and parenting choices questioned, if not outright criticized? Is it mean-spirited jealousy? Not according to Kane. “It may appear to others as envy, but my experience is that it is more about feeling like a failure and being frustrated with the expectations put upon us. I think the whole social construct has everything to do with the phenomenon of women competing with one another and being threatened by other women’s choices,” rather than putting on a united front against sexist social pressures, says Kane. Which is so sad.

In Canada, 27 percent of adult women are overweight and another 18 percent are obese. The significance of this has little to do with how we look in bikinis, and everything to do with health and quality of life. According to Health Canada, obese people face a higher lifetime risk for many types of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and mental health issues, including low self-esteem and depression.

So why does a health-conscious mother who leaves her kids for an hour or two, a few times a week, to hit the gym/go for a run/play tennis have to deal with condescending “Wish I had spare time, too” comments from other moms? Why is it okay to splurge family resources on satellite TV and MommyJuice wine (socially sanctioned ways for moms to unwind), but not a personal trainer?

What is it about a fit mom taking ownership of her achievement (in Kang’s case, overcoming an eating disorder, and rebounding physically from having three babies in five years through a regimen of diet and exercise) that rubs other moms the wrong way? Few people seem to have an issue with the following fit-pride examples that appear in online photos riffing on the popular “What’s your excuse?” meme: a little boy racing on artificial limbs, a super-cut 70-something dude and triathlete Sarah Reinertsen, who competes on a prosthetic leg.

Can you imagine the kind of rude, scathing and even threatening comments that proudly fit moms face online being lobbed at these inspirational people? So why would we ever think it’s okay to fit-shame fellow moms?

Freelance writer Yuki Hayashi is training for her first Ironman 70.3 triathlon. Best side effect? The whole family has become more active.

One response to “Fat Shaming, Bikinis and Mommy Wars”

  1. Lisa Wright says:

    I am surprised at the mean and judgemental comments made towards the moms who are looking after themselves by exercising and eating healthy. Maybe they get up early or go to the gym while their husband looks after the kids. By being healthy, they are being good role models for their children. Isn’t that part of being a good parent? I know that from personal experience, being healthy is a lifestyle and I have raised a beautiful daughter who knows about it from my example.
    Maybe some of those mean mommies should take a look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves what are they really afraid of?