Fit mom Maria Kang has graced the pages of The Huffington Post, CNN and my Facebook feed — and probably yours — this week. Why? For either being an inspiring exercise-loving mom, or a fat-shaming bully. You decide.
Let's start at the very beginning
One year ago, freelance writer and business owner Maria Kang posted a photo of her bikini-clad self looking amazing, posing with her three sons under the age of 3 with the words, "What's your excuse?" stamped across the top. After overcoming the struggles of tricky genetics and overwhelming bulimia, Kang thought her loyal following — who knew her story — would find the photo inspiring. Kang says, "I often saw posters of grandmothers running in marathons, paraplegics competing in the Olympics and even a father performing a pull up with three kids in tow — all with the same caption: 'What's your excuse?' I felt that if others can overcome incredible challenges to be in shape, why would my story be any different?"
Fast-forward one year later, and Kang's story was, indeed, different. Kang noticed an influx of new Facebook followers and comments on the photo. Some were supportive, and some were not. Kang says that 80 percent of her new and old followers reacted to the photo with some variation of, "Good for you!" So what happened with the other 20 percent?
Some tried to find fault with Kang asking if the photo was photoshopped, if her genetics were impeccable and even if her children were truly her own! A quick scan through Kang's website and Facebook page clearly debunks these theories. Where things became interesting — and hurtful — was within the next layer of reactions.
Women being so very hard on each other
The next group of women focused in on the time Kang must be spending away from her children to work out. Kang answered this criticism efficiently, "I believe it's a huge myth that you need to work out for several hours in a day to gain results. What's most important is the intensity of your workout and what you also do throughout your day." Kang works out for 30 to 60 minutes a day, an appropriate amount of time to spend on self-care by anyone's standards. More than a television show, less than a movie.
Unable to find fault with Kang's exercise routine, but still feeling rubbed the wrong way, people turned to the photo itself, and the heart of this matter was revealed.
Good for me, shame on you
Many of the 20 percent felt that Kang's message was fat shaming rather than fitspiration. allParenting editor Laura Willard explains, "I think the issue is in her word choice. 'Excuse' is a loaded word. You need an excuse for things you're supposed to be doing, but aren't — you miss a deadline, what's your excuse? Your kid isn't in school — you have to call in with the excuse. Women are so used to being on the defensive for both their parenting choices and their bodies (thank you, media) that using such a strong word upset them. The implication, with those three words, three young kids (ages included) and one very fit mom is that you need an excuse if you don't look like that. Sadly, the problem is much bigger than this photo. It's more about what many people perceive as the ideal body type, however unrealistic for them, largely due to what we see in magazines and on TV, day after day."
Kang's desire to respond to this line of thinking is what incited the reposting of the photo. Kang said, "Every woman is different and my intention was not to ask, 'What's your excuse for not looking like me?' My intention was to imply, 'What's your excuse for not exercising?'"
Kang's theory is that what people read into the photo and caption was dependent on their own emotional state when they saw it. Tayarra Sharp, a fit, working wife of three boys aged 7, 5 and 2, couldn't agree with Kang more. She says, "Here's the deal, ladies. Your reaction to Maria's picture has nothing to do with Maria or those beautiful babies. It has everything to do with where you are in your journey and your thoughts about it. Bottom line: If this picture bothers you, I would recommend finding the source of that negativity and then doing something about it."
Pauline M. Campos, founder of Girl Body Pride, who uses her online voice to address the media and its incessant attack on women's self concept with its images and messages, is on the same team as Sharp. She took one look at the photo and said, "We can't blame others for exercising or having a good hair day just because we don't exercise and our hair isn't magazine perfect. I'm not going to blame the chick in the bikini because I'm sporting the poolside cover up. That's not fair to her or to the progress I've made on my journey to a healthy self-image."
The problem with body image
At the crux of things is how hard women are on themselves and their bodies. Campos says, "The fact that we're even discussing the uproar caused by a mom with a waistline only proves how far we still have to go." And no matter on which side of the Kang coin we fall, most of us can agree this problem is perpetuated by the media. Feminist blogger K.M. O'Sullivan explains, "I give Ms. Kang a pass. I don't support health through body shaming, but Ms. Kang lives inside the same bubble as the rest of us and her photo choice was just following the lead of the much larger health and fitness industries that use fitspiration to sell products. They're insidious."
This brand of marketing is pervasive because it works. It preys on an issue that touches every woman in one way or another. In its largest global study to date on women's relationship with beauty, The Real Truth About Beauty: Revisited (2011), Dove found that only 4 percent of women around the world consider themselves beautiful. This astonishing — and dismaying — fact colors how we view this complicated topic.
The bottom line
We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to look more closely at our reactions to discussions — and Facebook posts — about health, beauty and fitness.
Share with us!^ So share with us! What was your first reaction to Kang's photo? What do you think of it at second blush? Leave us a comment below.