The first thing you notice from her Facebook photo is that Maria Kang is hot. Dressed in a sports bra and short shorts, she looks like an underwear model, except that Kang was photographed with three little boys – two toddlers and an infant – flanking her toned midriff and athletic physique.
How can she look like that and be scarcely removed from birthing those kids?
But it’s the words that push some over the limit: “What’s your excuse?”
The Elk Grove mom was vilified by some for posing that question on her blog alongside that photo.
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Kang writes for an audience of fellow moms and was trying to inspire others to get fit, as she did after vowing to lose the weight gained during multiple pregnancies.
But some saw it as a form of taunting from a 32-year-old woman who appears ready-made for a pinup calendar but in reality runs homes for the elderly while juggling a growing family.
The Internet sensation triggered by Kang’s image actually had a powerful effect she never intended. It ripped the scab off the jagged psychology of fitness and weight loss, a mind-set that can be emotionally debilitating, unhealthy, cruel and irrational.
Kang’s photo got more than 200,000 likes on her Facebook page and generated more than 20,000 shares and more than 30,000 comments. On Friday, a story about her written by The Sacramento Bee’s Stephen Magagnini was the most viewed on sacbee.com. Many of the comments Kang received were positive and cheered her without reservation.
But Kang’s story became news because of the people who reacted to her with anger.
“You, as a woman, should be ashamed that you are furthering the downward spiral of how society views women, and how we women view ourselves,” wrote someone identified as Morgan Moss on a rival motherhood blog. “Most REAL moms don’t look like you, sweetheart.”
Other comments were even more nasty and misguided. But some tugged at the heart because they verbalized the pain and self-loathing some feel when looking in the mirror.
“People like you who post pictures like this make me cry because without surgery I will never look like you,” wrote one.
I know that feeling. As I’ve written here before, I’ve lost 75 pounds in the last two years after decades of poor health.
I once clung to my own excuses that I repeated like scripted lines. They were my shields to keep concerned friends and family at bay.
Meanwhile, people I love thought they were helping by trying to shame me into losing weight. I once was subjected to many snide “fat” remarks dripping with condescension. I was lectured as if I was a child and heard people talk about my weight as if I were not in the room. During this period, I read an article that resonated deeply. It was about a faded ’80s rock star who said he got more emotional support and sympathy when he was strung out on drugs than when he later grew overweight.
Tell me about it. We now know via various academic studies that “shaming” overweight people can have the opposite effect from the one intended.
One 2012 study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy at Yale University found that negative images used in weight-loss campaigns actually made the problem seem insurmountable to overweight people.
“By stigmatizing obesity or individuals struggling with their weight, campaigns can alienate the audience they intend to motivate and hinder the behaviors they intend to encourage,” said Rebecca Puhl, the Rudd Center’s director of research, to Yale News.
In Kang’s case, her message is very positive.
It’s just that some judged her by her photo without considering the story behind the photo. Kang has suffered from eating disorders and was overweight. Her mother has endured diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure – all issues Kang attributes to her mom’s lack of fitness.
Moreover, Kang works full time and does not have a nanny to help her and her husband care for the kids.
Why is it that movie stars with battalions of helpers are lionized for achieving a level of fitness while Kang is ripped for doing it on her own?
That Kang’s life is so similar to ours is what clearly makes her so objectionable to some. She is just as busy and is no more privileged than her audience – and yet there she is looking the way she does.
It’s actually not Kang that people are mad at. They are mad at themselves.
“Maria Kang, I hate you. But you’re right. And now I hate you more,” wrote one blogger quoted in Magagnini’s story. “I don’t like the woman because she’s done what I’m not doing.”
In truth, Kang is inspirational.
What I would tell the blogger who “hates” Kang – and all those who feel hopeless about getting fit – is that it can be done.
The point isn’t to look like anyone else. The point is you. It’s all about you – finding a way to realize that you can feel better than you ever imagined. I once couldn’t run a city block. In early October, I ran my first half-marathon and will run a second on my birthday weekend in mid-November. I’m going to be 51, and I’m in the best shape of my life.
It happened when I cast aside my excuses, just as Kang did. But it’s not about Kang or me or anyone else. It’s about finding the belief that you can feel better. You can.