This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in
Fat Studies on 3 Dec, 2018, available online:
Yes, We Can (No, You Can’t): Weight Stigma, Exercise Self-Efficacy, and Active
Fat Identity Development
Angela Meadows & Andrea E Bombak
Title: Yes, we can (No, you can’t): Weight stigma, exercise self-efficacy, and active-fat
Authors: Angela Meadows1 and Andrea E Bombak2
1. School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK
2. Department of Sociology, University of New Brunswick, PO Box 4400, Fredericton, New
Brunswick, Canada, E3B 5A3
AM: email@example.com (corresponding author)
An inverse relationship has been observed between body mass index and physical activity
In the present paper, we draw from a range of literatures to construct a novel,
theoretical dual-pathway model that identifies direct and indirect impacts of societal weight
stigma on exercise behavior. The direct pathway operates via experiences or threat of stigma
and discrimination, which create traumatic learning experiences and impair the development
of exercise self-efficacy. The indirect pathway impedes engagement in physical activity due
to the absence of positive representations of fat exercisers, and a glut of negative
representations, resulting from societal anti-fat attitudes. Thus, fat people lack role models
from whom they may develop vicarious self-efficacy. Low self-efficacy, in turn, hinders the
development of active fat identities. We review the existing literature for evidence supporting
such a model, identify directions for future research, and briefly consider the implications of
this framework for public health and policy aims.
The focus of this paper is on how weight stigma, specifically, impacts on self-efficacy and active identity
development. As such, we have written predominantly about fat people and their exercise behavior. This is not
to suggest that exercise is something that thin people do and fat people don’t, that fat people’s exercise behavior
should be unilaterally targeted in public health policies and health promotion campaigns, or that fat people (or
anyone else) are under any obligation to engage in leisure time physical activity.
Higher-weight individuals report experiencing weight stigma in practically every domain of
daily living, including at work, in education, healthcare, and interpersonal relationships (Puhl
& King, 2013). Experience of weight stigma has been linked to avoidance of exercise and
reduced exercise intentions in higher-weight adults (Schvey et al., 2016; Vartanian & Novak,
2011; Vartanian, Pinkus, & Smyth, 2016; Vartanian & Shaprow, 2008) and children (for a
review, see Salvy, de la Haye, Bowker, & Hermans, 2012), and to less frequent engagement
in moderate or strenuous exercise in both higher-weight student (Vartanian & Shaprow,
and community (Jackson & Steptoe, 2017; Vartanian & Novak, 2011) samples.
Surprisingly little work has been done to elucidate the mechanisms by which weight stigma
influences physical activity levels in higher-weight individuals. In the present paper, we draw
on insights from self-determination theory, role model theory, and identity theory to devise a
novel, dual-pathway model that links endemic weight stigma with reduced physical activity
via impaired development of exercise self-efficacy and active fat identities. We first consider
the direct impacts of experienced weight stigma on exercise experience, perceived
competence and the development of active fat identity. Secondly, we describe how societal
anti-fat attitudes in general are both manifested and perpetuated via the absence of positive
representations of fat exercisers, and how lack of representation directly and indirectly
impacts on exercise self-efficacy and active identities. We conclude by briefly discussing the
limitations of this model, directions for future research, and potential public health and policy
This study involved a weight-diverse sample (N = 100). Analyses for the subset of participants with a BMI
25 kg/m2 (n = 25) indicated much stronger associations between weight stigma and exercise variables compared
with lower-weight participants.
Experienced weight stigma was linked with increased exercise levels in a study of 177 higher-weight women
(Pearl, Puhl, & Dovidio, 2015); however, the measure of experienced stigma in this study comprised only three
broad yes-no items and may not be sensitive enough to capture true levels of stigma experiences, particularly
more subtle and insidious occurrences (Meadows & Higgs, manuscript in preparation).
Exercise self-efficacy and exercise identity
Perceived self-efficacy can be defined as an individual’s beliefs in their ability to achieve
outcomes of interest, and as such, influences, among other things, what behaviors we engage
in, how much effort we invest, the extent of our perseverance in the face of barriers or
hardship, and our actual levels of achievement (Bandura, 1997). Exercise self-efficacy is one
of the most robust psychosocial predictors of engagement in physical activity (Bauman et al.,
2012; S. L. Williams & French, 2011) and has been both cross-sectionally and prospectively
linked with adoption and maintenance of physical activity (McAuley & Blissmer, 2000).
However, within the field of health promotion, much of the work on exercise self-efficacy is
framed in terms of self-regulatory capacity – that is, one’s perceived ability to engage in a
behavior when faced with certain barriers and challenges, such as time constraints, bad
weather, or family commitments (D. M. Williams & Rhodes, 2016). This focus situates non-
participation at the level of personal failings or weaknesses, an approach to health promotion
that tends toward victim-blaming (Crawford, 1977; McLeroy, Bibeau, Steckler, & Glanz,
1988). It also presupposes an underlying a priori desire to participate in physical activity, and
does nothing to address the case where individuals may prefer not to engage in the first place.
Here, we instead focus on a different aspect of exercise self-efficacy – that of task
competence. We propose that both overt and implicit anti-fat attitudes reduce perceived
exercise competence in higher-weight individuals. Awareness and personal experiences of
societal weight stigma have been linked with reduced physical activity competence in
individuals participating in a weight-loss program, and appeared to explain the negative
relationship between BMI and perceived physical activity abilities (Schmalz, 2010). We
suggest two potential mechanistic pathways through which weight stigma lowers exercise
self-efficacy: first, via fat people’s own experiences in the physical activity environment, and
second, via the erasure of positive representations of fat exercise and fat exercisers within the
physical activity environment for fat people to look to as possible selves and inspirational
role models in the domain of exercise. We further argue that this form of low exercise self-
efficacy hinders the development of active-fat identities (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Proposed dual-pathway relationship between weight stigma and physical activity, via impact on exercise self-
efficacy and exercise identity. Solid lines represent positive relationships and dashed lines negative relationships.
An individuals’ self-schema comprises a collection of generalized identities across a range of
domains, each representing one aspect of the self by which we understand who we are. Our
self-schema act as a lens through which we interpret our experiences and the world around
us, but also influence how we interact with the world and behave in a given situation
(Markus, 1977). Different aspects of our self-schema will be more relevant in different
situations, and identity theory posits that the greater the salience of a given identity compared
with other self-categorizations, the more likely behavioral choices will be made in line with
that identity (Stryker & Burke, 2000). People prefer to act in ways that are congruent with
their identities (Stets & Burke, 2000): an action that is congruent with a situationally relevant
identity may be pursued even in the face of difficulty – such difficulties may even reinforce
the importance of that behavior for an individual’s self-concept, whereas the same difficulties
encountered during identity-incongruent behavior is likely to reinforce dis-identification with
the domain (Oyserman, 2015). Indeed, perceived ability has been linked with exercise
identity in both cross-sectional and prospective studies, and a strong exercise identity is, in
turn, linked to more frequent exercise, greater future exercise intentions, and perseverance in
the face of barriers to exercise (for a review, see Rhodes, Kaushal, & Quinlan, 2016).
Pathway 1: Weight stigma and the experience of fat exercisers
Explicit and implicit stigma
The primary means by which self-efficacy is developed is via prior achievement.
Successfully engaging in an activity increases an individual’s belief that they can do so again
(Bandura, 1986). In contrast, repeated lack of success despite effort can result in learned
helplessness – a phenomenon wherein people learn that no matter how hard they try, they
will not succeed, which, unsurprisingly, often results in disengagement from that activity
(Maier & Seligman, 1976). In the absence of perceived ability to achieve a desired outcome,
individuals may have little motivation to engage in an activity (Bandura, 1997).
early age, fat people’s experiences of formal exercise may be more likely to resemble this
second pattern of learning. Qualitative studies among adolescents about their experiences
during physical education (PE) classes, report frequent experiences of weight related name-
calling and bullying, being mocked for their perceived or actual lack of skill, and being
laughed at if they fall or are injured, often with implicit or overt acceptance of such behavior
by teachers (W. Li & Rukavina, 2012; Trout & Graber, 2009). Weight-related victimization
in PE classes is associated with lower perceived physical abilities among higher-weight
adolescents, with greater fear of being stigmatized, and with reduced engagement in physical
activity outside the school environment (Maïano et al., 2018). PE teachers often hold
Although it is possible that, in some circumstances, an individual may be motivated to try something that they
currently think they are unable to do, in the present context, we refer to the situation where repeated efforts have
resulted in consistently negative outcomes, as described below.
stereotypical negative attitudes toward fat students, expect them to be less fit and healthy than
slimmer students, and have lower performance expectations for them (Greenleaf & Weiller,
2005), especially for female students (Peterson, Puhl, & Luedicke, 2012). Thus, the
intersection of gender and weight compounds the gender-stereotype inequalities already
faced by girls in sports environments (Chalabaev, Sarrazin, Fontayne, Boiché, & Clément-
Guillotin, 2013). These negative assumptions and stereotypical beliefs may well become self-
fulfilling as fat youngsters are implicitly and explicitly taught that their bodies exclude them
from enjoyable and profitable engagement in exercise and sport, and consequently exhibit
reduced self-efficacy and engage less frequently in physical activity (Rice, 2007). These early
experiences may have long-lasting effects. In-depth interviews with adults about their
recollections of school PE classes suggest that, for many, “fat phobia created extremely
difficult situations that demanded constant psychic/emotional work, provided pitiful
opportunities for learning, and numerous alienating and traumatic movement experiences”
(Sykes & McPhail, 2008, p. 68).
The confluence of physical activity with weight-stigmatizing experiences does not end at
graduation. Fitness center employees, including management, reception staff, and fitness
professionals, have been shown to hold negative implicit anti-fat attitudes, despite
considering themselves to be unbiased (Dimmock, Hallett, & Grove, 2009). Witnessing fat
people exercising, that is, engaging in counter-stereotypical behavior, did not ablate these
attitudes. Other studies have demonstrated both strong implicit and explicit anti-fat bias in
current (Robertson & Vohora, 2008) and future fitness professionals (Chambliss, Finley, &
Blair, 2004). Some gyms mock fat people in their advertising (AdWeek, 2010; S. Murphy,
2017; Schlossberg, 2016), and it is not unusual for class instructors to openly stigmatize fat
bodies and use them as a fear-based “motivator” for class participants (Kenen, 1987; Packer,
1989). Other gym members may be another source of weight stigma. In a large UK sample,
frequent exercisers exhibited more explicit anti-fat attitudes in general (Flint et al., 2015), and
in a small qualitative study, focus groups conducted in regular gym-goers demonstrated that
these attitudes were not limited to those fat people who were considered to demonstrate
negative stereotypes of laziness, but extended to fat exercisers, both within a formal gym
setting and those exercising in outdoor settings, with numerous examples of bullying,
harassment, discrimination, and dehumanization recorded (Flint & Reale, 2016). Indeed,
strangers are one of the most common sources of stigma, and being stigmatised in public,
even in the presence of bystanders, is not unusual (Vartanian, Pinkus, & Smyth, 2014). Fat
people report being stared at, photographed, verbally and physically abused by strangers, or
otherwise stigmatized (Puhl & Brownell, 2006), including while exercising (Bombak, 2015;
Ellison, 2009; S. Lewis et al., 2011).
Even in the absence of a stigmatizing incident, most fat people are acutely aware of the
stereotypes that others hold towards them and their devalued status in society (Degher &
Hughes, 1999; Kwan, 2010). This culturally shared knowledge imbues daily life with what
Link and colleagues termed “symbolic interaction stigma” (Link, Wells, Phelan, & Yang,
2015, p. 118), where much psychic effort is devoted to fear, expectation, or anticipation of
others’ reactions, and mental rehearsals of how one would respond if such an interaction did
arise. That is, living as a fat person in a fat-phobic society can lead to feeling stigmatized
even in the absence of overt stigma experiences. Fear of weight-related stigma or anxiety
about others’ weight-based judgments has been shown to be a more potent driver of some
psychological outcomes and health-related behaviors than weight-related self-devaluation per
se (Lillis, Thomas, Levin, & Wing, 2017; Meadows & Higgs, manuscript in preparation). In
one qualitative study, a large proportion of higher-weight participants mentioned,
unprompted, the impact of direct, indirect, and structural stigma on their desire to exercise in
public, and describe their hypervisibility and expectations of ridicule and abuse (S. Lewis et
al., 2011). Even purportedly well-meaning commentary, either in person or on social media,
tends to carry patronizing assumptions about fat people’s motivation for exercise (to lose
weight) and lack of experience and fitness, reinforcing the point that fat bodies are observed,
judged, and somehow considered public property (Chastain, 2014b). Fat exercisers are
deprived of agentic motives. Instead, these exercisers are presumed to be recognizing their
culpability in a fat-phobic culture and trying to atone by taking responsibility for fixing their
burdensome bodies (Monaghan, 2008; Rauscher, Kauer, & Wilson, 2013).
Stereotype threat provides another potential barrier to physical activity in fat individuals.
Stereotype threat occurs when a person is in a situation where their behavior is likely to be
judged along stereotyped lines, and they risk reinforcing negative stereotypes about a group
to which they belong (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002). Engaging in physical activity, by
definition, will produce a physiological response that is likely to include outward signs of
exertion: breathing hard, sweating, flushed face (not to mention a certain amount of
‘bouncing and jiggling’). While these signs are a normal response to a body working hard, it
is a commonplace that they would be associated with the stereotype of lack of fitness in a fat
person (Danielsen, Sundgot-Borgen, & Rugseth, 2016; Sykes & McPhail, 2008). Thus, for
the fat exerciser, simply being observed in the practice of exercising risks confirming the
stereotype that fat people are lazy, inactive, and unhealthy (Bombak, 2015; Puhl, Schwartz,
& Brownell, 2005), with anti-fat attitudes giving rise to the double standard whereby sweaty
thin people are admirable but sweaty fat people are disdained (Flint & Reale, 2016; Zimdars,
So powerful is the link between a stereotyped identity and attitudes and behaviours in a
stereotype-relevant situation, that activation of a fat identity can induce a threat effect in an
exercise context even when the individual would not be observed exercising. One
experimental study, conducted over the telephone, found that simply asking overweight
women who were already frequent exercisers to give their weight after hearing about a sham
study regarding healthy habits versus health outcomes, thus making their weight salient in a
health context, resulted in reduced exercise (and diet) self-efficacy, which in turn was
associated with lower intentions to engage in exercise, compared with women who were not
asked to provide information about their weight (Seacat & Mickelson, 2009). A Singaporean
study of 140 higher-weight youngsters enrolled in a school-based weight-management
program that used a videogame-based exercise paradigm, found that those in an
experimentally manipulated stereotype threat condition reported more negative attitudes
toward exercise, lower exercise motivation in general, and even lower motivation to engage
in future exergaming activities after completing the running game than those in a non-threat
condition (B. J. Li, Lwin, & Jung, 2014).
Pathway 2: Weight stigma and the erasure of fat exercisers
Active fat role models
Self-efficacy may also be developed via vicarious experience – that is, seeing other people
with whom you can identify engaging in or succeeding at a task (Bandura, 1986). In general,
personal mastery experiences are a more prominent source of self-efficacy than are vicarious
experiences; however, a meta-analysis of studies of physical activity self-efficacy
development found that interventions based upon vicarious experience, including both real-
world and virtual representations of similar others, were more effective at increasing self-
efficacy than many traditionally used approaches (Ashford, Edmunds, & French, 2010).
Until very recently, positive representations of fat exercisers were conspicuous by their
absence. Images of exercisers used in magazines, gyms, and on social media usually display
mesomorphic body types with minimal visible body fat and a high degree of muscularity
(Garvin & Damson, 2008; Kenen, 1987) and content may overtly demonize fat bodies
(Dworkin & Wachs, 2009). When fat people are depicted exercising, the images are often
unflattering at best, and frequently derisory or stigmatizing (e.g., Boe, n.d.; Holloway, n.d.).
Fat people’s exercise behavior is represented as punitive in nature, and serving the sole
purpose of rendering their bodies slimmer and more acceptable (Mocarski & Bissell, 2016;
Sender & Sullivan, 2008). More commonly, representations of fat people in news,
entertainment, and social media are likely to show fat people engaged in sedentary behavior
(Ata & Thompson, 2010; Heuer, McClure, & Puhl, 2011; Puhl, Peterson, DePierre, &
Luedicke, 2013; Yoo & Kim, 2012). These divergent representations reinforce the notion that
only slim bodies are suited to exercise, and that exercise and fatness are incompatible
(Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015). Exercising fat bodies are non-normalized and are rendered
intrinsically dis-abled and dys-functional (Mansfield & Rich, 2013).
In addition to reinforcing negative stereotypes about fat bodies, this disparity in
representation serves to deprive fat people of potential active fat role models. Role models
function as representations of the possible; seeing somebody “like us” engaging in an activity
helps us to see ourselves in that context (Morgenroth, Ryan, & Peters, 2015). Possible selves
– being able to imagine a future self that is different from our current self – occur at the
intersection of social cognition, identity, and motivation, and can moderate both who we are
and who we become (Erikson, 2007; Markus & Nurius, 1986). To our knowledge, no
research has addressed the effects of having few positive represenations of fat exercisers.
However, evidence from the wider role-modeling literature supports a negative impact on
self-efficacy and domain identification in under-represented groups (for reviews, see
Dasgupta, 2011; Morgenroth et al., 2015). While these findings remain to be replicated in the
context of fat exercisers, anecdotal evidence suggests that viewing similar fat others simply
engaging in and enjoying active pursuits could serve to counter prevailing stereotypes and
produce a shift in how a non-active fat person views physicality as an option for their own
bodies. For example, a recent UK news story with an image of 41-year old Dawn Nisbet
crossing the finish line in her first parkrun
, hot, sweaty, fat, in last place, and with a look of
sheer exhilaration on her face, went viral worldwide and has encouraged hundreds of people
to take up running (Butler, 2017).
Some progress in representation of fat exercisers has occurred in recent years, thanks in large
part to social media, as plus-sized athletic role models in a range of sports and active leisure
pursuits become more well-known (Macadaeg, 2016; Torres, 2016). Yet even as a number of
positive fat role-models emerge, there is a danger that while celebrating fat bodies who
embody the ultimate physical achievement may be inspirational and challenge dominant
negative stereotypes about fat bodies, limiting representation of fat exercisers to only these
ultimate-achievers may create a superhero narrative that could alienate those whose
physicality is unlikely to ever reach such peaks (Fenson, 2017). Indeed, attainable exemplars
appear to be more effective role models than exceptional ones, who may lead to resentment,
feelings of inadequacy, and disengagement from the domain for self-preservation of one’s
self-worth (Han, Kim, Jeong, & Cohen, 2017; Hoyt & Simon, 2011; Lockwood & Kunda,
The erasure of fat exercisers occurs not only through the prevailing invisibility of fat role
models, but also via the erasure of fat exercise as a concept in general. Manifestations of
societal anti-fat attitudes create structural barriers for fat exercisers. whether by ommission –
for example, assuming that fat people will not be participating in triathlons and thus
parkrun events are free, weekly, 5km timed runs, open to people of any ability.
neglecting to make wetsuits in larger sizes (Chastain, 2014a) or through the lack of
appropriate exercise equipment and clothing for larger bodies (Christel, O’Donnell, &
Bradley, 2016; Greenleaf, Pozolinski, & Kauffung, 2015); or by commission – such as when
fitness-wear companies choose to distance their brand from the ‘taint’ of fatness by refusing
to offer their lines in larger sizes or to market them appropriately when they are available
(Marks, 2013). These exclusions serve to label fat exercise as non-normative (S. T. Lewis &
Van Puymbroeck, 2008), reinforcing the perceived disconnect between fatness and an active
identity. Thus, the hegemonic view of active persons as necessarily thin means there is a lack
of relevant cultural signs or ergonomically-suitable activity available to fat persons interested
in activity (Wathne, 2011).
Further, under-representation of a marginalized group within a particular domain may also
increase the risk of stereotype threat (Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, 2009; M. C. Murphy,
Steele, & Gross, 2007; Sekaquaptewa & Thompson, 2002, 2003). Thus, these multiple
erasures of fat exercise and fat exercisers increase the salience of fatness in an exercising
context (Dunlop & Schmader, 2014), which further impedes the development of active
identities among fat individuals.
Limitations, future directions, and policy implications
A number of limitations of the proposed model should be noted. First, the model is founded
on a theoretical synthesis of a number of diverse literatures and a considerable amount of
anecdotal evidence. In the first instance, therefore, it will be necessary to provide empirical
evidence of its validity in the context of physical activity behavior among higher-weight
individuals. Additionally, the majority of research on experienced weight stigma and physical
activity that underpins the development of this model has been conducted in White women,
and it is unclear whether the same mechanisms would operate in other racial or ethnic groups
or in men. Differences in the prevalence and response to weight stigma have been reported
across different racial and ethnic groups (Himmelstein, Puhl, Quinn, & Gorber, 2017;
Meadows & Calogero, 2018). Most forms of weight stigma also occur more frequently in
women, and are prevalent at lower body weights than in men (Andreyeva et al., 2008;
Hatzenbuehler, Keyes, & Hasin, 2009). To date, only one small study with similar
proportions of male and female participant has assessed whether gender influences the impact
of weight stigma on exercise behavior. An Australian study using an ecological experience
sampling technique in 46 higher-weight adults found that in women, but in men, incidents of
weight stigma were associated with reduced positive affect, which in turn predicted lower
motivation to exercise (Vartanian et al., 2016). It is therefore unclear whether gender
moderates the relationship between weight stigma and physical activity outcomes, beyond
that accounted for by the volume of stigma experiences. A consideration of the intersectional
nature of stigma and its relationship with exercise outcomes is beyond the scope of this paper
but is something that should be considered in future studies.
Finally, while the proposed model provides a framework on which future research can be
built, it is not intended to fully elucidate all intermediary mechanisms. For example,
emerging evidence identifies internalized weight stigma as a predictor of exercise enjoyment,
self-efficacy, motivation, and engagement, and a mediator of the relationship between
experienced stigma and physical activity outcomes (Mensinger & Meadows, 2017; Pearl,
Puhl, & Dovidio, 2015). Future development of the model may provide additional targets for
health promotion interventions.
If the theoretical predictions of the model are empirically substantiated, this framework has
implications for public health and education policy. Under current governmental anti-obesity
policies, PE becomes an instrument to deliver policy-mandated ‘solutions’ to the ‘obesity
epidemic’, and success defined in terms of body size rather than fitness, mastery, enjoyment,
or encouragement of physical activity outside of the school environment (Cale & Harris,
2013). Indeed, rather than improving the health of students, these policies promote exclusion
and further entrench prejudicial attitudes (J. Evans & Rich, 2011; O’Dea, 2005). In contrast,
being introduced to alternative ways of understanding fat, wellbeing, movement, and health
outside the boundaries of the ‘obesity as usual’ curriculum (Norman & Petherick, 2016, p.
94) would create more opportunities for positive exercise identities to develop among
children of all sizes. Fat pedagogy is gaining traction (Cameron & Russell, 2016), albeit
slowly, and this movement would be strengthened by availability of data supporting a size-
neutral approach as a means of achieving desired physical activity outcomes.
Within adult physical activity environments,
Pickett and Cunningham (2017) describe a
model for developing body-inclusive physical activity spaces, including cultural and
leadership commitment to inclusivity, inclusive language and physical environments, respect
for personal autonomy in providing participants’ agency in their fitness environments, and
importantly, the creation of community. A space in which social identity is created and
reinforced may be essential for fostering an exercise identity for individuals of all sizes
(Stevens et al., 2017). Identifying strongly with an exercise group can strengthen individual
active identities and increase identity salience (M. B. Evans, McLaren, Budziszewski, &
Gilchrist, 2018; Grant, Hogg, & Crano, 2015). While some authors have suggested that
separate spaces for fat bodies may provide less stressful and more supportive environments
for fat exercisers (e.g., Dunlop & Schmader, 2014; Kemp, 2016; cited in Meadows, 2016),
this approach presupposes reduced ability in fat exercisers, continues to create an ‘us and
them’ dichotomy between those who ‘can’ and those who ‘can’t’, othering fat bodies as non-
normative, and does nothing to address the underlying problems of a shaming, non-inclusive
Although most of these considerations would apply equally to physical activity environments for youngsters.
environment in more traditional spaces (Cardinal et al., 2015; D’Abundo, 2009; Watkins,
Ebbeck, & S. Levy, 2014). Progressing a shared identity based on embracing empowered
embodiment, rather than a particular body type or shared body modification goals, may be
one method of fostering inclusivity and group identity. Rather than perpetuating a divergent
‘us and them’ distinction, inclusive spaces foster the creation of a new ‘us.’
This model may also have implications for health promotion efforts. At present, it is not
uncommon for positive representations of successful fat bodies to be accused of ‘promoting
obesity’ (Chastain, 2011; Gilbert, 2015). Validation of this model would provide an evidence
base to refute such claims, and to encourage the use of images of fat individuals partaking in
pleasurable physical activity. However, it should be noted that in the current healthist,
neoliberal climate, physical activity may, for some people, present a means of negotiating a
stigmatized identity by demonstrating normative and responsible behavior (Bombak, 2015).
Thus, it is critical that efforts to promote physical activity among dis-identified fat
individuals should employ representations of fat exercisers not to obligate, or even to inspire,
but primarily to render exercising fat bodies as normative. In the longer term, more diverse
representation in this domain may also effect changes in broader societal attitudes and beliefs
about fatness (Burmeister & Carels, 2015; Dunaev, Brochu, & Markey, 2018; Hinman,
Burmeister, Kiefner, Borushok, & Carels, 2015).
We have argued that weight stigma in its many forms serves to impair perceived exercise
competence in fat people, and hinders the development of active fat identities. This state of
affairs essentially deprives many fat individuals of the numerous potential physical and
psychosocial benefits that may be derived from being physically active. Importantly, both
exercise self-efficacy (McAuley & Blissmer, 2000; S. L. Williams & French, 2011) and
exercise identity (Cardinal & Cardinal, 1997; Carraro & Gaudreau, 2010) are dynamic
constructs that are amenable to change. To the extent that people of any weight, size or shape
wish to engage in physical activity, they should be able to do so in a safe non-stigmatizing
space and in a manner that brings them joy and rejuvenation, not stress and shame. It is
therefore imperative to address the systemic and individual biases that result in some fat
people dis-identifying with the exercise domain entirely.
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