If you’re familiar with triathlons, you may know that, in addition to age-groups and relay teams, it’s not unusual for there to be a race division referred to as Clydesdale (for men) and Athena (for women). In order to participate in this division, competitors must meet bodyweight requirements, generally 2o0lbs for men and 150lbs for women. This enables heavier athletes to compete and medal in a sport that’s often populated by smaller and lighter racers who have a distinct advantage at speed. In doing so, many individuals who might otherwise not consider such a race can not only get inspired to train, but also benefit from increased fitness levels as a result.

Personally, I think that’s great. But I witnessed something last weekend at a local triathlon that really drove home the concept of  “all athletes not being equal” in the eyes of society.

First, a little background about me, in case you’re new to this blog. It took me until my 40s to figure out that, for many people, the key to losing weight was more than simply the “eat less/move more” strategy that is often espoused by the already-lean. I never had a weight problem, so, obviously, I was an expert on how people should lose weight, right?

Obviously not.

It wasn’t until I was introduced to the concept of weight bias/stigma on both a personal level via friends, and an academic level through research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (Yale University) that I realized not only how widespread anti-obesity bias is, but how acceptable it’s become to berate heavy individuals. It’s probably one of the most pervasive and persistent biases that society holds, and it has been documented throughout history.

Fast-forward to last weekend. As the racers from the Clydesdale division got into the water prior to their swim, the announcers tried to explain to the spectators what a Clydesdale was. They described the competitors as “not wanting to share their pizza”, and promised them beer at the end of the race, saying “that should keep them motivated.” They giggled about trying to be politically correct in their description of this race division. All this over loudspeakers.

There was more, but I was too shocked to remember it. None of us knows why these individuals are heavier than competitors in other divisions. They are, at least, competing, which is more than I can say for myself, since I was only there to cheer someone else on. No one poked fun about the other race divisions. But comments about stereotypical eating habits of overweight individuals were okay?

If you want to call me hyper-sensitive, stop. After all, if singling out a single group of people based solely on societal biases about their body types were justifiable, why would I care? Especially when I don’t have a weight problem.

But I do have a brain. And a close friend who carried a lot of excess weight due to complex factors, whose attempts to “move more” were met with insults yelled from cars as she walked down the road. I know thin people who are self-conscious about exercising in public — you think someone who’s heavy and been dealing with colorful commentary for most of her life should be able to shrug off invectives?

My guess is, if you’re unsympathetic, it’s because you feel that insults are motivating and that a heavy individual is deserving of verbal abuse. Maybe it’s tied into your feeling that anyone who carries extra pounds is gluttonous, greedy, unmotivated, lacks self-control…and taking that further, is stupid and evil and ugly. History is replete with these types of descriptions.

What if they’re not? What if the reason someone is heavy has nothing to do with personal character?

Ponder that thought. Please.

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Here’s a side note: notice that the weight requirements of the Clydesdale/Athena divisions are not particularly high, given the relative size of the current U.S. population. Because of the direction that we’re heading, maintaining our fitness is paramount to keeping ourselves healthy.

Wouldn’t it be a travesty if someone opted NOT to train and NOT to race simply because they feared opening themselves up to ridicule?

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