Mar 31 • 48M

The Myth of Visible Abs

Reclaiming the deep core and the pelvic floor with Anna Maltby

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Virginia Sole-Smith
Weekly conversations about how we dismantle diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting, health and fashion. (But non-parents like it too!) Hosted by Virginia Sole-Smith, journalist and author of THE EATING INSTINCT and the forthcoming FAT KID PHOBIA.
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It was just this overnight conversion. Like, oh, okay, yep, the way I've been doing things my entire career is super wrong, and super harmful, and has hurt a lot of people. And that's terrible. And I'm very done with that.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet, culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I'm chatting with Anna Maltby. Anna is a longtime magazine and digital editor and someone I've worked with many times over the years, including at Medium’s Elemental Magazine, where I wrote features on diet culture and fatphobia that she edited. And right here on the Burnt Toast newsletter, Anna is often the person who does a top edit for me on particularly tricky reported essays.

Another cool thing about Anna is that she’s a certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor. In addition to her editorial work, she does a lot of fitness consulting and training. That gives her this pretty unique perspective on the world of fitness journalism and the fitness industry —and on the harm that these industries have caused to folks in marginalized bodies, what changes are happening, and where we still need to make these spaces better and safer for all kinds of marginalized folks.

But Anna is really here to talk to us about the myth of visible ab muscles.

I want to say really clearly before we start the show: Health and fitness are not moral obligations. Core strength is certainly not a moral obligation, although it is practically useful. We are talking about core strength in a very different and much more functional and accessible way. But if even that feels triggering to you, I get it. There was a long time where I just couldn't engage in abs talk at all.

One more disclaimer that Anna is a thin white lady. We both have a lot of thin and able-bodied privilege in this conversation. I'm seeing this episode very much as the start of a conversation about fitness I want to have on Burnt Toast. There are lots of folks in marginalized bodies doing really amazing work in the fitness space that we also need to center and hear from and we talked about some of them on the show. I'm hoping some of them will be joining me in future episodes.

PS. Friends! The Burnt Toast Giving Circle is over $8,000! We are so close to our goal. And if you’ve been thinking about joining, we still need you! Here’s the Burnt Toast episode where I announced it, ICYMI, and the link to donate.


Anna Maltby

Episode 37 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Anna! Why don't we start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Anna

I started my career as a magazine editor. I worked mostly in the service space, so magazines that tell you how to do things: Men's Health and Self and Marie Claire and Real Simple. I've worked in the digital space as well for a while: Refinery29 and one of the in house publications at Medium. I've done a lot of things, but but health has been a main thread for me. I've also been a certified personal trainer for about seven years. I'm a pre- and postnatal certified exercise specialist, and I received my mat Pilates certification about a year ago. I now do a bunch of freelance editorial and fitness-y things, like fitness programming, fitness performance coaching, and then I also train a few clients every week. I do a mix of Pilates and weight training.

Virginia

Did you start out as a journalist and then go into the health and fitness stuff? 

Anna

I definitely was not into sports or exercise or movement at all, as a kid. I always loved reading magazines and that was what I focused on in school. I sort of fell into this internship at Men's Health when I was in college, and my manager there was like, “Okay, if you're going to write stories for us, you're going to need to know some of the basics of scientific reporting.” Like how to read a study, how to talk to a researcher, how to interview a medical expert. I loved that process. I suddenly had at my fingertips just being able to pull a study and understand what it said.

Then, through a random series of magazine world misfortunes—which I'm sure you're very familiar with—I ended up going freelance. I got a job as the fitness editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and I really loved that work. I found more flow in it, honestly, than more hardcore health reporting. One of the things that I did for that job was to be on set during workout photoshoots. We would always have to hire a personal trainer to be on set as well, to oversee the form for the models to make sure everything was safe and accurate. I was just so interested in it and I felt like I kind of had the basics of what these people were doing. So I was like, “For the cost of this person's day rate, my company could just pay for me to become a personal trainer.” Which was like a lot easier said than done, because it's really hard. All of the studying that you have to do and the reading and the test is really intense.

I recently made kind of a big career change and went freelance again and started building my own business and training clients has become part of my week to week work, which has been so cool—just working with real people and seeing how their bodies work and how they respond to movement and how they learn things and seeing them get stronger and more motivated and more confident in the way they move. It has also really informed the sort of content work that I do. Like, how do I explain this to my client? I've seen in practice, that this concept is difficult for people or that this movement is not actually that accessible to people.

Virginia

That makes sense because so often people who are naturally good at certain types of exercise are not necessarily the greatest at explaining them to other people.

Anna

Having an editor brain is really helpful for training clients, as well, because I'm so in tune with what language people understand and how to break things down in a way that's accessible. I think the two things really do complement each other.

Virginia

I want to go back to you being not athletic as a kid because I completely relate. I was a very un-athletic child. I think I played one season of Little League and just sat down in the outfield for several months and was like, why are we doing this? I think I tried one season of field hockey in middle school. Oh, no, I did not try a season, I tried one practice of field hockey in middle school. I got there and they didn't wear the cute skirts to practice and they had to run a lot of laps. And I was like, “Nope. Peace out. Not for me.”

I should also say, I was a skinny kid and I was really given a free pass to not be athletic because of that thin privilege. People didn't think I needed to be athletic because my body was already the acceptable body. My then my understanding of exercise was definitely in this category of either you're some kind of hardcore jock or you do this because you're making yourself thinner. And if I'm already thin, I don't have to worry about it. 

Anna

Totally, I find that very relatable. I was a very skinny kid and very inactive. I remember in maybe in fifth or sixth grade, we played this game called mat ball, which was sort of like kickball, except they put big gymnastics mats out for the bases and for some reason as many people could be on the base as could fit. And I was like, great! I'm going to kick the ball. I'm going to run to the mat, and then I'm going to sit down. My teachers loved me. I have to say, I think I might have been sheltered from the fatphobia of it all. It wasn't really on my radar at that point, that exercise was for weight loss. I just didn't understand what it was for.

But then in my early 20s, a couple of things happened. For a few years, I had been throwing my back out. I was a young, relatively healthy person and I was just throwing my back out. I would sneeze and not be able to turn my head for three days—that kind of thing. My first job out of college, I worked at Men's Health. I was the assistant to the editor in chief. They gave us all really cheap gym memberships, so I got a fancy gym membership for like 10 bucks a month. And I was surrounded by this Men's Health gym bro culture thing. I was like, okay, I've been working on some of this content, I'm starting to understand it a little bit more, I feel like I can stand to get stronger. That sounds interesting. I had a couple of sessions with a free personal trainer. I joined the gym and started doing some of the exercises that person taught me and I was like, Wait a second, I don't have back pain anymore. My back does not hurt. I'm not throwing it out. Although if I skip the gym for a couple of weeks, I throw it out again.

It was just a really clear connection between pain and to my ability to function and live my life comfortably. And that became this incredible motivator for me. I need to work out because if I don't, I will feel terrible.

Virginia

You talking about your back pain leads me perfectly into what I want to talk about next, which is the real reason I was like, “Anna you have to come on the podcast.” It was this great Twitter thread you did recently about the myth of visible abs. 

Anna

I got this mat Pilates certification a year ago and a lot of my work is focused on sort of the prenatal and postpartum period. I think a lot about the core, the pelvic floor, the diaphragm—all of the things that we work on in Pilates, all of the things that change and are affected by pregnancy and the postpartum period. I think the core is so amazing, especially for the pelvic floor, and is not talked about enough. It's something I think about from a very functional perspective.

So, a few weeks ago I got a message from a friend of mine, who is a few months postpartum after having her second kid. She sent me this message and she said something along the lines of like, “Can You please help me get my abs back? I am doing everything I can think of. I'm doing Pilates a few times a week, I'm doing HIIT workouts a few times a week.” She said, “I'm restricting. I'm doing Whole 30 about like, 80% of the time, I'm not drinking alcohol. I feel really strong and feel really toned but I can't get to my lower belly pooch. Like, what's your secret? What do you do?”

It really took me by surprise and made me feel sad. For someone who has two children and a really busy professional life to like, be spending so much time—

Virginia

So much time in pursuit of this one thing.

Anna

Exactly. And of course, hearing that she was restricting was pretty disturbing to me. I tried to respond in a very kind and non-judgmental way while also being like, “Please don't do this. Please eat bread, please take care of yourself, please feed yourself please do movement that feels good to you. It's great that you're building your core, but…”

I actually, I sent her a mirror selfie. I was like, “I want you to see my stomach right now. It's not flat. It’s not ‘toned.’ It's bloated and round and cushiony.”

Virginia

Because that’s what bodies look like when they’re not fitness models on photoshoot.

Anna

That's what a belly looks like.

So I was thinking about that and this is the time of year when a lot of us start getting advertisements on the internet about workout plans and supplements and workout clothes, and all of those things. I noticed a couple of them popped up in my feeds that had people with very visible, cut abdomens. And I was really surprised, by my initial gut reaction to those ads, which was, “Oooh!” I was so drawn to those images of people with really defined, visible abdominal muscles. Of course, immediately, it was like, What are you doing Anna? You know that's not achievable. You know they're trying to sell you this thing. Move on.

But those two experiences started me thinking, what is this pull that abs have on us? I'm sure you remember from your magazine years the many cover lines that we had to write about “get a toned, taut, tummy” or whatever. Or when I was at Men's Health, like “get shredded in six weeks” and stuff. You always had to have some kind of abs cover line. 

Virginia

It sells magazines, it sells media. You have to talk about abs.

Anna

Abs just have this pull on us and marketers know this. Companies know this. It's such a central point of insecurity for so many people. So it inspired me to write this thread that you're talking about on Twitter. Because the way that our culture deals with abs is so messed up.

Look, abs are so amazing! They do so many things for you. They're this like miraculous muscle group that we don't really show the right kind of love to because we're so focused on how they look. But how abs look is the one thing that you're never really going to be able to affect unless you engage in potentially disordered eating patterns or pretty toxic exercise habits. 

Virginia

I just want to say this really clearly: The ability to do ab workouts and develop really visible abs is primarily genetic, right?

Anna

It's primarily genetic, because it's really about the way that you carry weight and fat, like how much subcutaneous fat you have on top of your abdominal region. Fitness models and people who compete in fitness competitions, there are things that those people do to change their nutritional intake to really minimize the amount of fat that's showing so that the muscle definition can show through. But even those people only do that some of the time because they know it's not sustainable. It's not actually good for their for their muscles. It's not safe. They eat to build muscle a lot of the time, and then for a very short period of time they eat to cut down on visible fat.

Virginia

I'm so glad that is not how I spend my life. That just sounds exhausting.

It's powerful to think that you, who has all this knowledge, are still looking at a photo of visible abs and feeling that pull towards them. Even people who know that it’s all fake are still caught up in what we're seeing. We can't say often enough that this isn't real, this isn't realistic, this is unsustainable.

My reaction to a lot of this has been to stop doing ab exercises, to be very honest. Exercise for a long time was only about weight loss for me. As I divested from that and stopped dieting, stopped pursuing thinness, it was really important for my mental wellbeing not to do abs exercises because I knew they would trigger a whole set of body aspirations that were not good for me. So I didn't do the ab exercises for a long time—including during the period when I had two children and my abs had to work real hard. I've been through some stuff, they've seen some things. As all my listeners know, in January, I threw my back out and couldn't walk for five days. That is probably the 10th time in two years that has happened. That was when I emailed you in a panic and was like, “What is happening?”

So talk about what abs do, and why they matter, in the non-aesthetic sense.

Anna

It frustrates me so much, as someone who personally has benefited from this kind of exercise, who's seen my clients feel so much better after strengthening their core. It’s so fraught, it's so tied to these feelings for so many people.

But in reality, your core is the most important area of your body to build strength, because it supports your spine that supports your pelvis. It supports these centers of the way your body functions and moves. Your abdomen is where all your organs are too. It's also important for the health of your back, your posture, the way that you breathe, the way you walk, if you're a runner, the way that you run, protecting yourself against injury—even things that seem like totally far away and unrelated, like people who have wrist issues or ankle issues or foot issues, some of that can really be tied back to the core and the pelvic floor.

Another part of all of this that gets me is that fitness is so fraught for so many people for lots of reasons. But, getting into a really like healthy and positive movement practice—I think we can agree that that's a really lovely thing for people. It really makes you feel good. It's good for your mood and your sleep and your health, by and large, if it's something that's available to you. When you look at the science around motivation, like what gets people to start and stick with a new habit, there's good evidence that things like reducing pain, feeling good, moving more smoothly, feeling more energetic—all the things that can come from a movement pattern like Pilates or focusing on core and strength—those kinds of things are way stronger motivators. You're much more likely to stick with that kind of practice, if that's what's driving you, than external motivators like pounds lost or visible abs, partly because those things are really hard to attain. Even if you ‘achieve’ a certain visible goal, you're probably not going to be able to sustain it. We all know the research about that. So that's another area about this that frustrates me. Visible abs is such a bad motivator. Strong abs, functional abs—that's a great motivator.

Photo by Kmatta via Getty Images

Virginia

It's a fascinating disconnect. We've really been taught to focus on the aesthetics. It helps you find the lie in the “We're worried about people's health” bullshit. If we were really worried about people's health, we would be focusing much more on how to motivate people to exercise for all those reasons that really work.

You and I both started on the dark side, in women's media and Men's Health, these creators of the pro-ab agenda. You've had this evolution and so have I. I would love to hear your evolution story and what got you into a different place with fitness. 

Anna 

Looking back, I was 100% one of the bad guys. To forgive myself a little for that, I think it was pure cluelessness, not anything malicious. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to work at magazines. Here's the magazine where I got my job, this is what they do. Sure, like, I will do it. Like I said, I started my career at Men's Health and I was specifically spending almost all of my time helping write and edit this series called “Eat This, Not That.”

It started off as a little column in the magazine. It was like, if you're at McDonald's, get the this thing instead of this other thing because it has fewer calories and less saturated fat. So they turned that into a book. They turned it into its own website, my boss went on the Today show all the time to talk about it. I was like helping write and edit those books, writing and editing blog posts, and Today show appearance scripts. All of those were all entirely focused on weight, all entirely focused on calorie counts, which I didn't enjoy. It wasn't the diving into science that had drawn me to that field. So I did move away from that, although unfortunately not like for “the right reasons.” A few years later, I was at Self Magazine—I was not like editing the drop 10 plan or anything each each year, but I was very adjacent to it.  Then when I was fitness editor at Fit Pregnancy, our postpartum fitness story every issue was called “Bye Bye, Baby Weight.”

Virginia 

Oh, that is so cringe-y. I wrote for Fit Pregnancy a lot in my early freelancing days and I had blocked out that part of it. 

Anna

It sucks. It was actually such a great magazine. Then I started talking to Refinery29, in about 2015, about an opportunity there to be the health director. The person I was interviewing with, Kelly Bourdet, gave me some links and some things to look at as I did the interview process. One of the things was the first year of their Take Back the Beach project. I don't know if you remember the project, but it was sort of in response to all of the like “bikini body” stuff. I think there were those big ads that year in Times Square with the really skinny person in a bikini and like maybe it was for some kind of weight loss supplement or something. I'd been seeing things around the internet about body positivity. This was like really the first large scale, very thorough takedown I'd ever really ingested about diet culture and all the messages the media sends to people, especially women, about what makes an acceptable body and how harmful those messages are. It was so eye opening for me. It was this overnight conversion, like, oh, okay. The way I've been doing things my entire career is super wrong and super harmful and has hurt a lot of people probably. And that's terrible. I'm very done with that.

Virginia

So that's what led you into, as you were doing your own work becoming a trainer, taking a really different approach.

Anna

I think all of those building blocks that were set for me at Refinery29 really changed the way that I edit. It changed the way that I work on content. Even after Refinery29, I continued to work in health coverage for several years, taking the reins at different publications and saying, “Okay, this is the stance that we're gonna take on this.” I fought those battles, I brought in fat voices, I made sure that we were doing right by that subject matter. That has all really deeply informed the way that I approach fitness with my clients. I think also, continuing that education process by following other thinkers in this space, especially people who aren't thin or white or straight or cis, like Mikey Mercedes is just amazing. She's been with you before on the show.

Virginia

Yeah. Someone I learn so much from all the time,

Anna

She's just brilliant and she's really helped push my thinking. I think I owe her a lot. I try to support her as much as I can. And then people more specifically in the fitness space, Ilya Parker of Decolonizing Fitness is someone. I'm a supporter of their Patreon, and they just have amazing resources for fitness professionals, making sure that the spaces that we're creating are trauma informed and welcoming to people of all body sizes and abilities. Especially as a thin white lady, how can I make sure I'm creating a safe and positive relationship to movement for my clients and in whatever content that I'm helping create.

Virginia

I felt like the fitness industry for a long time was really lagging behind the anti-diet conversation. There has been this sort of steady growth of Health at Every Size, anti-diet, weight-inclusive dietitians trying to get away from the weight loss focus that most dietetics is based on, but there wasn't a parallel shift happening in fitness for a long time. I think in mainstream fitness brands, it's still really in its infancy. I look at what brands like Peloton are doing, and there's certainly lip service and use of rhetoric, but I am not yet convinced it is backed up by a full rejection of intentional weight loss. I think that they're still trying to have both. Like, for the folks who want weight loss, we do that and then for the folks who want something else, of course we want you to love your body. But I think there is more creeping progress in fitness now. The folks you mentioned like Ilya and other people who have just been doing the labor for so long. We owe them so much for starting to shift these conversations. 

Anna

What I'm finding now in my consulting work is that people are really open to it. When I come in and I say, “Okay, if you want to create this body of editorial work or this fitness program, it's going to be it's going to be body neutral. We're not going to talk about visible results. We're not going to talk about calorie burn. We're not going to talk about weight loss. Here's how we're going to approach this.” They're actually surprisingly really open to it. I don't get pushback on that. But it's things like sizing. What are we going to put people in for a shoot? It's things like casting. Like, “Oh, it's, it's kind of hard to find somebody in the larger sizes. I hope this like size 12 person is good enough.” There are all these process hurdles which are ultimately pretty bullshit. If people cared enough about it to invest the time and money, they would. 

Virginia

All fixable problems. 

Anna

All fixable problems, but when you're in the room and you're trying to make it happen, it is hard. It isn't as easy as waving a wand and magically a size 20 model appears. Like, are they working with a casting agency that offers those options? It's those little cogs in the machine where each one has to be set up for success. If that kind of representation and accessibility and inclusivity isn't centered in the process, it's just going to end up being not a priority.

Virginia

We've been kind of bashing women's media and I'm comfortable with that, but brands like Self have done a real 180 on these issues. It's not a print magazine anymore, but self.com is very committed to an anti-diet, weight-inclusive, pro diversity perspective. That's just a world away from what it was, ten years ago. Man, if you had told me I would live to see the day that women's magazines would care about fat people. 

Anna

Self has gone through such an interesting process now. When I started there, there was no fat representation. Of course, it was talking about weight loss and all of that stuff, but the vibe overall of the magazine was about being kind to yourself and about exercising and participating in sports because it made you feel good and felt fulfilling and felt like putting yourself first and taking care of yourself, which is a pretty positive message, if you take out the weight stuff. 

Virginia

And if you ignore the fact that they're only showing skinny white people.

Anna

Absolutely, absolutely. I remember while I was there, we went through this rebranding, like they brought in some outside consulting agency. And the determination was we need to go younger. The way to reach a younger audience is to focus entirely on aesthetics. So any recommendation we were giving, even if it was in a freaking like breast cancer story, “Make sure you get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. As a bonus, you'll get toned for the summer!” Every single story had to take it back to being hot which just like, I hated that. A lot of people that work there hated that. We started getting letters from readers who were like, this isn't why I read Self. So it just kind of sucked. Then a few years later, the magazine folded and they went digital only. I know Carolyn Kylstra, the prior editor in chief, did so much work to bring that brand to where it needs to be from the lens through which they cover health and bodies and from the visual representation standpoint. 

Photo by skynesher via Getty Images

Virginia

Oh, man, I feel like we could talk about different women's media brands all day. But I do want to go back to abs.

So, as I was saying, like, I have had this experience of throwing my back out. I finally started physical therapy, in large part because you encouraged me to—thank you very much. It is amazing how well it works. Maybe because I took a fairly long hiatus from doing any kind of ab exercises, this is the first time in my life I'm noticing when I do ab exercises how much better I feel the rest of the day.

I have to admit, as someone who has this whole other experience with fitness being really toxic, I almost feel like a traitor to myself being like, Wait, doing core exercises makes me feel good. It's like this weird, disconnect. But if I do five minutes of core exercises in the morning, my back doesn't hurt. I'm sleeping better. I'm feeling better walking up a flight of stairs in my house and picking up my four year old who I really felt like I'd gotten to the point where I couldn't pick her up that much anymore. And now I'm like, oh, I can pick you up again.

I feel like I've been lied to for a long time. But I also just want to hear more about like, is that the deep core? What is that that just doing a few minutes of ab exercises can actually produce that. I feel like I'm in an infomercial now.

Anna

The visible abs, if you were to able to see them are the rectus abdominus, which is sometimes called the “six pack muscle,” unfortunately. It's those muscles that are right on the front of your stomach. Basically, when you're bending at the waist those are the muscles that are working. They certainly serve a purpose—abdominal flexion is a functional movement, like you use it to get out of bed and off of the sofa and things like that.

The deep core muscles that that you mentioned—specifically the transverse abdominus, the multifidus, which is like a really small, deep muscle on the back of the deep core, and then the diaphragm at the top, and the pelvic floor muscles at the bottom. That’s the deep core. That's what really has to expand to accommodate a pregnancy. Obviously, the rectus abdominus has to expand for that as well, but working the deep core during pregnancy really helps protect you from the activities of daily life putting too much pressure on the pelvic floor and potentially leading to a pelvic floor dysfunction. They really are what supports the spine and the pelvis. Strengthening those deep core muscles—the TA especially—really supports any other kind of movement that you want to do, whether it's picking up a kid or walking up and down the stairs or standing. Bringing strength and bringing activity to that area is so good for you. It feels amazing. It's a different.

Sometimes working the TA, working the deep core can be as simple as a deep breath—breath work essentially. I like to teach this: if you place your hands either on your ribcage or on your belly—you could even do one hand on your ribs, one hand on your belly. You take a really deep inhale and really send the air down into your belly. Instead of just letting your chest rise, you're really breathing, you're sending the air as deep as you possibly can. And you're feeling your belly get bigger on the inhale, like there's a balloon inside your stomach. And that inhale fills it up with air so the balloon gets bigger, your belly relaxes and expands. Hopefully your pelvic floor is also relaxing and expanding on that inhale. And then on the exhale, it kind of zips back up into more of a neutral position. If you really use a strong exhale like a “ssss” or like a “hah” you could actually feel those deep core muscles kind of tightening and turning on underneath your hand. It should move in just a little bit. 

Virginia

For listeners at home, I'm doing it and I'm feeling it.

Anna

Yeah, so that kind of breath work. Both the inhale and the exhale are really important. Because being able to relax and release the tension in that area is almost as important as like building the strength. It's so functional, because your breath and your deep core are so connected. You could do this kind of breath work any time of day. You can do it before bed. It'll help you get stronger, it'll help you get more relaxed. Your deep core, your pelvic floor in particular, holds a lot of stress and tension. If you have a really stressful day, sometimes your pelvic floor tightens up a little. So deep breathing at the end of the day will both release that tension in the pelvic floor and also help you relax a little bit emotionally.

Virginia

I love that. The idea of relaxing and letting your belly expand runs so counter to the diet culture version of abs. Like, that's all about sucking in and keeping everything tight. Whereas what you're saying is actually much more beneficial and also lets you relax. That seems great. 

Anna 

A healthy pelvic floor can do both—can be strong and engaged when it needs to and can be relaxed and released when it needs to. So many of us are just by habit, since we were kids probably, going around trying to suck in our gut all day. It is so bad for your pelvic floor to do that. It puts so much pressure on that part of your body, it can end up causing more discomfort and bloating and all that stuff.

It's really hard if you're used to walking around that way and you feel self conscious about your stomach, but: Anytime you can, let your stomach go.

Virginia

I love this. This is the new Burnt Toast mission.

Anna

Let it go. The other thing that's ironic to me about sucking it in is it actually doesn't like align with anatomy. Exhaling brings your stomach in. You can't suck it in. When you suck air in, your belly gets bigger.

Virginia

All of this stuff you're talking about isn't going to give you a visible ab definition. That's not the mission. So another misconception I want to have you speak to is the misconception that fat people can't have strong cores and that if you're fat, all of this is out of reach for you. Can you help us debunk that? 

Anna

Yeah, I think it is so similar to health misconceptions about body size. Just like you can't look at someone's body and tell whether they're healthy or unhealthy—whatever definition of that you subscribe to—you can't look at someone's body and tell whether they're strong or weak. I mean, obviously, there are people—The Rock, of course he's strong. 

Virginia

I'm willing for us all to make a snap judgment about The Rock.

Anna

Although, I don't know what's going on with his pelvic floor. I hope it's okay. You know, you never know.

Virginia

He's not keeping us updated on that.

Anna

There's certainly research out there about—I hate to say the word BMI—people with higher BMI sometimes have more muscle strength than those with lower BMIs. It's on an individual level, there's no correlation.

Virginia

Weight is not predictive. They may be finding research showing that people in larger bodies have less abdominal strength, but it doesn't mean that's their weight that's the deciding factor there right? Like there could be other things at play 

Anna

I follow all kinds of like amazing like fat fitness influencers on Instagram and they post their workout routines and they do like ab exercises that would have me panting on the floor. I am definitely not as strong as they are. It's so important for everyone to feel like this is something that that is accessible to them and that they can work on and that they can feel the benefits of. That's such a good thing for everybody.

Virginia

I love that. You know, health is not a moral obligation. Fitness is not a moral obligation. Nobody needs to do these exercises. But if you're listening to this, and you're thinking, huh I am interested in a weight neutral approach to abs, here is what Anna recommended. You can take it or leave it, but it's stuff I've been personally finding really useful. 

Anna

Yeah, and on that note, I do want to say I am a thin white person. I did used to write this column where I posted a move of the week on Medium. That's what I sent you, a few exercises that I really recommend for abs strength and back strength. I stopped writing that column because I just started to feel uncomfortable with being a thin white lady putting more images of thin white bodies performing fitness on the internet. It just didn't feel useful or additive. So I want to caveat those resources by saying, “Hey, you're gonna see a thin white lady doing ab exercises.” If that feels like something that would be fine for you, great. If not, don't look at it, it's fine. I agree that it's not the most necessary perspective to have out there.

Virginia

I so appreciate that. And we will also link to the other folks of color, fat fitness folks you talked about. We'll put some resources in so people can see what they're doing. I think that was a tough, but kind of important conclusion to come to. But also your take on fitness is really helpful. You do write exercise moves very clearly. And I appreciate that. So thank you for that. 


Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Anna

Well, we are talking in late March and I have been—I'm sure you'll appreciate this—daydreaming about gardening, and just plotting. I haven't had time to do any seedlings or anything like that, but we had kind of a warm day yesterday in New York and I went out on my balcony and started clearing things out. I noticed my little strawberry plants are starting to regenerate. I was on hold or something and I just spent three minutes clearing out old, dead branches and taking a look at what was going on in the beds that I haven't touched for a few months. It was such a wonderful, restorative feeling and just held so much promise. So I would recommend spending a little time with some dirt.

Virginia

I love that. I mean, I am a well known plant lady so I've given a couple gardening recommendations lately. I think getting out with some dirt is so calming. 

My recommendation is the movie “Turning Red,” which I'm hoping everyone has already seen. If you haven't and if you have kids in your life of any age and any gender—and I really want to emphasize that part—Turning Red is such an important movie to watch with your family. It is the story of this 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who is going into puberty. It turns out in her family when girls go into puberty, when they have big feelings, they turn into a big red panda. It is obviously a metaphor for periods. There's also some great normalization talk of periods and bodies and teenage girls having crushes and sexual desire. I love it so much. The backlash is hilarious and very irritating and outrageous. Particularly the older white men who say that they can't relate to the movie because I guess they were never a child or a person with emotions because that's all you really need to have to relate to this movie. So Turning Red, we love it so much. 

A post shared by Virginia Sole-Smith (@v_solesmith)

So Anna, thank you so much for being here. Tell people where they can follow you and find more of your work.

Anna

They can follow me on Twitter at @amalt.

Virginia

Awesome. Thank you for being here.


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The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.