In an episode about Angela Lansbury’s fitness book-video-combo, Positive Moves, Maintenance Phase co-host Aubrey Gordon observed that “it is really difficult to disentangle our motives for weight loss from our attitudes towards fat people.” This small statement captures a central thesis of the incredibly popular podcast. That is, our cultural imagination of “fatness” – or what Gordon often terms “anti-fat bias” – has in many ways blinded us to critically assessing the relationship between weight and health.
Gordon and her co-host Michael Hobbes have been working to challenge the many so-called “truths” about fatness since the launch of Maintenance Phase in October 2020. The show may be a recent addition to the increasingly crowded podcast world, but has quickly gained many devoted followers (including over 28,000 patrons) and consistently broken the top 100 list on Apple Podcasts since its debut. Some of this popularity can be attributed to Hobbes’s tenure at another popular podcast, You’re Wrong About. But although Maintenance Phase replicates the style of You’re Wrong About, including the tailored weekly taglines, deep dives into research and methodology, and an ever-present critique of capitalism’s deleterious impact on society, the wellness-debunking podcast offers something uniquely captivating to its audience – the tools to dismantle that small voice inside your head.
From whence came Maintenance Phase? While Gordon had been a community organizer for the LGBTQ community, she discusses in the podcast’s first episode that she is relatively new to fat activism. Gordon began her journey talking about fatness in February 2016, after she published a letter written to a friend following a disagreement over how to talk about fat bodies. That letter, which she published anonymously as “Your Fat Friend,” led to a writing gig at Self where she continued to publish pseudonymously until December 2020. If the word “fat” makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s part of Gordon’s aim. She published her first book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, just a month after Maintenance Phase’s first episode. The book is about activism, not self-acceptance, and is full of statistics about the way that fat people are harmed daily, not by their cholesterol levels, but by anti-fat bias that leaves them with fundamentally worse health care, among other things.
The podcast seems to get its core ideology from Gordon’s book, but Hobbes, who describes himself as thin, has his own interest in the cultural stigma surrounding weight. Inspired by watching his mother’s struggle to lose weight, Hobbes wrote “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong” in 2018, which argued that we are fighting the “obesity epidemic” in ways that reveal our obsession with looking thin, rather than being healthy. (His favorite statistic, which comes up in almost every episode, is that 95–98% of diets fail.) Hobbes and Gordon began to collaborate as a result of the article.
In a recent interview with NPR, Gordon recommended that new listeners start with their episode on the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI assigns every person (starting at age two!) a number based on weight and height, and assigns a corresponding category: underweight, healthy, overweight, or obese. The episode, based on Gordon’s research, traces the origins of the ubiquitous measurement system back to the nineteenth-century Belgian researcher Adolphe Quetelet, who first developed it as a way to track the average weight of a population. While Quetelet did not believe his system could be applied to individuals, what became the BMI was quickly adopted in the twentieth century by insurance companies, the medical establishment, and later, perhaps unsurprisingly, by pharmaceutical companies. In the 1980s and 1990s, BMI slowly became the measure of health, not only in the United States but across the world. Crucially, Gordon argues all of this happened despite the fact that the BMI is shown to reliably identify obesity only half of the time and is almost exclusively based on a white, male, European body.
Gordon’s main argument about the BMI is that the arbitrary measurement is a huge barrier to good medical treatment for everyone. Gordon argues that the BMI, combined with our cultural stigma about fatness as a “choice,” imbues the fat body with meaning. Fatness, Gordon has argued, is seen as a temporary identity, and people, therefore, see a fat person as someone “deciding not to be thin.” This provides a damaging justification not only for cruelty but for a reduced level of medical attention. Gordon shares, “it is one of the great fears of my life that I will die of a totally treatable or preventable thing,” because her doctor cannot see beyond her fatness. As they explored in another episode on eating disorders in fat people, making the BMI, and therefore body weight, the central measure of health leaves our medical system with significant blind spots. Well, that and a “Wellness-Industrial Complex.”
I think that Maintenance Phase is making a big splash in the pandemic because it so easily taps into the zeitgeist: we are looking into almost every aspect of our lives for systemic issues masquerading as individual problems. And make no mistake – this is not a “wellness” podcast; it is an activist manifesto. Both Gordon and Hobbes bring their experience as organizers and non-profit workers to bear upon the problem. But if the podcast is one part exposé of the systemic anti-fat bias in our society, it is also one part nostalgia cycle. Hobbes and Gordon, who were born in 1982 and 1983 respectively, are especially interested in exposing the diet and wellness trends (like Snackwell Cookies or the weight-loss drug Fen Phen) that dominated their formative years in the 1990s and 2000s. This period also gave birth to the idea of the “Obesity epidemic,” which was only declared in 2013 yet pervades every aspect of our culture.
The podcast, therefore, brings a critical historical element to the popular discussion about fatness, and with it brings that bracing realization that the “truths” that dominate our world are not ancient, immutable, or permanent, but messy, complex, and sometimes based on very lackluster evidence. When I take all thirty-three (and counting) episodes together, I feel like they constitute a fascinating retrospective on the post-WWII world; that is, a world fundamentally transformed by vaccines and antibiotics where our greatest enemies are now so-called “lifestyle” diseases. New medical science and mass consumption have given us a definition of “health” based on a thin-to-fat spectrum that is no less culturally circumscribed than the “water cure” and vegetarian crazes of the nineteenth century.
This, of course, can be destabilizing. In a moment where distrust of the medical community runs very high, I sometimes think that Gordon and Hobbes do not do enough to underscore that their aim seems to be to hold doctors and researchers accountable for their anti-fat bias, and not to dissuade their listeners from trusting the medical community writ large. An early episode did explore the “Wellness to QAnon Pipeline” but the topic has not been substantially revisited since, while almost every week we are provided with new stories about the uneasy relationship between medical science, state power, and capitalism. The two hosts often repeat the refrain “science communication is hard” and give credit to well-meaning, if sometimes ill-fated, research. But I think the podcast would be more balanced if they brought in more people like Erin Harrop, a researcher who spoke about eating disorders and anti-fat bias in medical care. No doubt Gordon and Hobbes feel the weight of this responsibility, and I noticed they included researchers and fact-checkers in their recent episode “Is Being Fat Bad For You?”
Maintenance Phase is a fun ride that at its heart is about the production of knowledge. Who decided that full-fat milk was bad? How did we develop a category of “morbid obesity”? What science lays behind the President’s Physical Fitness Test? In the process, the podcast encourages us to question our cultural assumptions about fatness and reevaluate how we imagine, judge, and treat our bodies, and–most importantly–other people’s bodies. Unlike other podcasts that find their way as they grow, Gordon and Hobbes outlined an extremely clear path for their podcast from the very beginning, which is why I highly recommend starting with episode one. And, fair warning, you will feel compelled to yell loudly into the void. A lot.
- This statistic comes from a 1959 study by Albert Stunkard and Mavis McLaren-Hume that studied 100 people categorized as “obese.” See “The Results of Treatment for Obesity: A Review of the Literature and Report of a Series” AMA Archives of Internal Medicine 103, no. 1 (1959): 79-85. While people have quibbled with that number ever since, it seems that losing weight, especially after one enters the category of “obese,” is very difficult. A recent 2015 study that gathered data for ten years concluded that “the probability of attaining normal weight or maintaining weight loss is low.” Alison Fildes, Judith Charlton, et. al., “Probability of an Obese Person Attaining Normal Body Weight: Cohort Study Using Electronic Health Records” American Journal of Public Health 109, no. 9 (Sept. 2019): S252-S331. ↑
- You can find more detail in the column Gordon wrote back in 2019 on the topic. Your Fat Friend, “The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI” Elemental (Medium), 15 October 2019, https://elemental.medium.com/the-bizarre-and-racist-history-of-the-bmi-7d8dc2aa33bb. ↑