I used to really like Jillian Michaels.
Part of the reason I signed up to cover Sweat AC, a fitness festival that features some of the world's biggest celebrity trainers, was the chance to work out with Michaels, who has built an exercise empire on the back of her stints as a trainer on multiple seasons of "The Biggest Loser."
People warned me about her class -- one of last year's attendees told me she'd keep me in my prayers. But having done her 30-day shred DVDs, which are a godsend to a housebound new mom, I didn't really understand the hype. For all her cursing and barking, I never really thought Jillian Michaels was "mean" -- on "The Biggest Loser," which I'd watched for several seasons, she displayed empathy and a keen psychological insight seemingly borne from her childhood as a bullied fat kid. And it was just an exercise class, after all -- how bad could it be?
Like Jillian, I'd lost a lot of weight after being tormented for my size as a child and adolescent, something she congratulated me on when we got a chance to chat during a round table interview preceding her 30-minute group fitness class on Saturday. Of her own experiences, she told me:
"That period in my life where I was the overweight kid, the bullied kid -- I wouldn't trade it, because it's made me who I am today. It's given me my drive, it's given me my empathy, it's given me my passion for what I do. If I was this perfect kid, I wonder if I would ever know what it feels like to be bullied or cast out or alone, and it's the way that I relate to people. So for that I look at it with gratitude."
So what if the group who'd taken the earlier class told us that she'd threatened to come out into the audience and "beat the shit" out of someone who wasn't lifting their elbows high enough? She gets it, right?
In person, Michaels is charming and charismatic, not surprising traits from a famous health guru and television personality. She answered questions about how to force yourself to work out when you hate it, making time for your health as a mom, and she made us all laugh by poking fun at her hairstyle in 2008's "30 Day Shred" video. I liked her, and I was excited to head straight from the interview to her class.
With our readers in mind, I decided to ask one more question, one that I'd scribbled on the hotel notepad that morning. I'm including my question and Jillian's full answer to the question below.
Me: A lot of our readers are really into size acceptance and Health at Every Size. Your brand is so aligned with weight loss, I just wonder how you feel about exercise for fitness vs. exercise for weight loss.
JilIian: I don't even really know what that means. I'll define health for you. If your cholesterol is good, your blood sugar's good, your blood pressure is good, that to me is healthy. I believe that you should accept yourself as every size. But I'm not gonna sit here and pretend that you're physically healthy at every size because you're not.
And I also don't believe that even though you might be 100 pounds overweight, you're going, "Oh I'm good the way that I am." BULLSHIT. I don't believe that you don't wake up in the morning and feel uncomfortable in your skin. I don't believe that you don't feel insecure when you pick your kid up from school. I don't believe that you don't feel uncomfortable when you're naked in front of your husband or your wife for that matter. I don't believe you.
So while it is critical that you love yourself right now to begin any transformation, you're really loving yourself enough to invest the time in yourself to become physically healthier. My definition of healthy as I said is not a size 2 or a size 4. It's the numbers that your internist is gonna give you. But I've yet to meet a person who is 100 pounds overweight and is a specimen of health and wellness."
It starts out good, right? She defines health by actual medical standards, and seems to imply that those factors are more important health indicators than weight. Which I, and most of the staunch size activists I know, would agree with.
But then she goes off on that "All fat people hate themselves" tangent that I find legitimately mystifying. It's maybe true that Jillian felt that way about her own body when she was overweight, but why is it necessary to make these universalizing pronouncements about EVERYONE? Granted, It's not hard to find self-hating fat people, but it is beyond dismissive to assert so strongly that ALL fat people secretly feel this way. (Not to mention that plenty of thin people feel these same insecurities.)
I couldn't help but think in that moment of Lesley, who has written of her decades-long journey to accept her fat body, and heard Michaels discount her experience entirely, heard her calling it "BULLSHIT." I felt stunned, and then angry.
Because a lot of (but not all) fat people hate themselves, it's true. And that's why the size acceptance movement exists -- because it's not right or okay to live in a world where the options are weight loss or misery. Size acceptance offers a third option to the vast majority of fat people who will never lose a significant amount of weight -- an option that Michaels completely dismisses. The only way to love yourself, she insists, is to lose weight.
I've included the audio recording here, because a lot of my discomfort was caused by Michaels' tone. Her attitude toward fat people seems to go way beyond "tough love" -- it feels personal, and unneccessarily harsh. Before I even got out the words, "size acceptance," Michaels was already rolling her eyes. When she imitated a fat person claiming to be happy with themselves, she affected a high, mocking voice. To speculate about how fat people feel being naked in front of a sexual partner seemed like a nasty low blow.
(You'll probably need to put on headphones or turn your volume way up to hear it.)
"Maybe," I would have said to Michaels, had she not being rapidly whisked away after answering our questions, "that fat woman's husband is also fat. Maybe he prefers fat women and she knows it. Maybe she's comfortable enough with her sexuality to know that her husband enjoys her body the way it is. Maybe, during sex, she's thinking more about the pleasurable way her body feels than how it looks."
Although I am not 100 pounds overweight, I might be 50 pounds overweight. I have gained 40 pounds in the 2-and-a-half years that I've worked at xoJane alone. Although I am no longer obese, as I was throughout high-school and the beginning of college, maintaining my weight loss and learning to love and accept my less-than-perfect body has been an ongoing, and painful, struggle. When Michaels looked right at me, and in answering my question, completely denied the possibility of self-love and acceptance in an overweight body, it hit me personally.
I didn't really feel like working out anymore.
On the bus ride back to the hotel where Jillian would be leading an exercise class, I texted Lesley, paraphrasing her answer to my question. Lesley wrote back, "She is sort of infamously mean about fat acceptance. I've always wondered if there's reason she hates fat people so much. Because it's not just "tough love" from a trainer -- she's been really cruel. Maybe a fat person tried to eat her once?"
I guess I had been naive in my assumption that a fitness professional like Michaels would value exercise for its own sake. I guess, like the diet industry, the fitness industry is less about actual health than it is about playing on people's insecurities to sell things. Michaels' entire livelihood is based on body transformation. If everyone felt good about their bodies, she woudn't have a job. (Although, Richard Simmons has somehow managed to build a fitness empire without making anybody feel bad about themselves.) I knew all this on some level I suppose, but I somehow still expected more from someone like MIchaels, who inspires so many people.
Maybe that's crazy -- the other journalists on this trip certainly seemed to think I was nuts for finding anything offensive about what Michaels said.
"I guess I agree with what she said, because I do feel that way," said one very slightly overweight fitness blogger.
"Sure, that may be true for you," I responded, "but that doesn't mean it's true for everyone. And to totally dismiss other people's experiences and just say all fat people hate themselves, period, no exceptions..."
"Yeah..." she looked dubious.
Then we headed into the exercise class itself, which was great. I was proud of myself that despite a way pared-down gym schedule since becoming a mom, I kept up easily. I felt fit and healthy, despite also being overweight.
But seeing the hordes of fans swarming the stage for photos and autographs post-class just made me sad all over again.
Because people look up to Michaels. And a lot of those people are fat.
Like it or not, a lot of people in the world are fat. And the majority of fat people are going to stay that way, for a variety of reasons -- maybe they have health issues that make it difficult to lose weight, maybe they are grieving or struggling with issues in life that make a concentrated weight loss effort too difficult, maybe they are working full-time and raising 3 kids and the gym isn't a priority, or maybe they just don't give a shit about losing weight.
In Jillian Michaels' world, those people's only choice is self-hatred, every second of every day. It's OK to be fat and love yourself, Michaels seems to be saying, as long as you're losing weight. Otherwise, it's self-hatred when you wake up in the morning, self-hatred when you take your kids to school, self-hatred when you are intimate with your husband or wife. I'd hate to think it's as clear-cut as that -- that fat people must either lose weight or go through life apologizing for their very existence.
And it's true that a lot of people live that way -- I hate my body sometimes, and feel uncomfortable in my own skin sometimes. But sometimes, due to a lot of hard psychological and emotional work, I don't. Sometimes I stand naked in front of my partner and love myself. Sometimes I wake up and admire the way my curves look in a T-shirt and panties. And most of the time, when I pick my child up from daycare, I feel the supreme confidence of being loved body and soul by a little person who doesn't care one bit what my body looks like.
And that part of me -- the young, tentative part that's learning how to feel good about myself in a healthy (yes, healthy!) plus-size body -- felt supremely smacked down by what Michaels had to say about size acceptance.
I don't know how much of a threat size acceptance is to the fitness business. Movements like Health at Every Size, which support people in adopting healthy nutritional and fitness habits for the sake of overall health rather than weight control, still promote physical activity. Fat women who are happy with themselves can buy Michaels' books and DVDs just as well as the self-loathing variety.
But even if they didn't: As long as we live in a fat-hating society, which I imagine we will for a long long time, there will be plenty of women who are unhappy with their bodies. Why go after the ones who have, by some miracle, learned to love theirs?
@msemilymccombs is on Twitter.