The Nike ‘obese’ mannequin outrage reveals hatred, not health concern

When Nike placed new mannequins in the window of its flagship London store last week, the internet trolls emerged from their caves en masse.

The loudest troll of all was British journalist Tanya Gold, who wrote for the UK Telegraph that the new mannequin is “immense, gargantuan, vast", "heaves with fat” and is “glorifying obesity”.

Nike’s “obese” mannequins.

In case anyone was somehow still unsure of her opinion, she added: “The new mannequin is obese, and she is not readying herself for a run in her shiny Nike gear. She cannot run. She is, more likely, pre-diabetic and on her way to a hip replacement. What terrible cynicism is this on the part of #Nike?”

So her point was what, exactly? That people in bigger bodies shouldn’t work out? That they are incapable of doing so? That they don't deserve activewear or that their activewear shouldn't be on display?

Nike launched their plus-sized range (which goes up to size 32) back in 2017, but it’s only since the brand has extended the range and started celebrating diversity in its shop-fronts that the attacks have ramped up. The heart of the horror seems to be about including bigger bodies in the same space as “acceptable” bodies, and acknowledging their right to exist.

Let’s forget for a moment that any body, of any size, can exercise; that any body, of any size, can be unhealthy; or that our faux weight-concern does not cut both ways. One 2017 study found that 90 per cent of female mannequins were “emaciated” (compared with only 8 per cent of male mannequins), but they are rarely trolled.

Let’s also forget that fat people are often yelled at to exercise and are then shamed, and even attacked, when they deign to do it in public. And let’s forget that self-consciousness stemming from our fat-phobic society prevents many obese people from wanting to work out in the first place or that “concern trolling” (where we shame them “for their own good”) is not just inapprorpriate and invasive, it does not work.

But, let’s not forget that our attitudes about bigger bodies and about “obese” mannequins say more about our health than theirs. This is because our fat-phobia is a form of hatred – a toxicity of mind –that is epidemic.

Tellingly, people barely noticed that, alongside the plus-size mannequins, para-sport mannequins were also unveiled for the first time in the same Nike store last week.

The outrage about the plus-size mannequins is akin to saying the para-sport mannequins are “glorifying immobility”, says clinical psychologist and body image specialist, Louise Adams.

The heart of the horror seems to be including bigger bodies in the same space as 'acceptable' bodies, acknowledging their right to exist.

“Imagine the impact an article like that would have on everyone in wheelchairs, who have been told by a mainstream able bodied person – once again – that they don’t belong,” Adams says.

When we look at it that way, Adams adds, it’s “crystal clear” that such anger is nothing more than prejudice and ignorance.

“But when it comes to the topic of larger bodies, it becomes very difficult for people to even identify that they are witnessing or displaying weight bias when reading opinions like these, because weight bias is so incredibly entrenched in our culture,” she says.

Sarah Harry.Credit:Eddie Jim

Sarah Harry, a specialist in body image and disordered eating and co-founder of Body Image Australia, agrees it is so pervasive that we struggle to acknowledge that the problem is ours, not theirs.

“It’s a social justice issue,” Harry says. “Why are we so angry about seeing bigger bodies more in the media? Showing a bigger mannequin, will do nothing to change people’s eating habits.”

Harry, who is “a bigger person” and whose body “can do handstands and can … do anything”, has been accused of promoting obesity for daring to exercise in public and celebrate diversity.

“I am not promoting obesity, I am just myself and I exercise,” she says. “Why do we have to prove we are healthy? Why can’t we just be ourselves?”

The fear seems to be that if we are inclusive we are promoting an unhealthy lifestyle, but, as Adams explains, “Issues of inclusivity and representation are completely different to discussions about health. All bodies need to be clothed, and all bodies wishing to participate in sports should be able to buy sports clothes, regardless of their health status.”

So, if we really want to talk about health status, let's turn the discussion back onto ourselves and take a look at the noxious prejudice that is on full display with the Nike mannequin outrage. If health is our concern, then let's adopt a healthier attitude towards every body and every body's right to be seen.

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