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Fat Phobia, the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, & Why It Matters for Your Sexual Health

By Leslie Massicotte, Teens Climb High Manager

You know the presidential physical fitness test you have to take in gym class? Usually, they do it yearly, or maybe twice a year depending on your school, and it consists of things like the flexed arm hang, V-sit reach, and shuttle run. If you achieve certain numbers and times, you are deemed worthy of a physical fitness award.

I remember working my butt off to get those numbers, practicing after school, tracking my times, even in elementary school, thinking that to be fit I needed to achieve these certain numbers.

As a person with thin privilege, I eventually was able to achieve many of these fitness goals and feel pretty good about myself.

Many other people don’t or can’t. And they beat themselves up for not being fit enough or healthy enough or just enough.

So imagine if I tell you that the President’s Physical Fitness Test is based on pretty arbitrary standards that many gym teachers just make up. Um yep. Apparently, back in the day, President Eisenhower found a research study saying that 60% of American students couldn’t pass a random fitness test that all but 8% of European students could pass. (Who created this test? What’s on it? Is it actually a measure of health and fitness? Are the study results due to American decadence as many thought or simply because Europeans did a lot of V-sit reaches while Americans played a lot of baseball instead?) So this President’s response was to create the President’s Physical Fitness Test, mainly because he was concerned that there weren’t enough “able-bodied” people TO DRAFT INTO THE AMERICAN MILITARY.

So, to get this straight. The President’s Physical Fitness Test was created to make sure enough Americans could physically compete with other nations in war and today is based on arbitrary standards that are at the whims of individual PE teachers.

Are you surprised?

I was, but then I remembered how much fatphobia and sizeism (or discrimination against people based on their weight) impacts people statistically.

Turns out, fat* people are less likely to be hired for leadership positions, more likely to be convicted of a crime, and less likely to go to the doctor’s because of discrimination. They’re also making less money overall.

And this anti-fat bias (or fatphobia) is not getting better.

Harvard has been collecting years of data to gauge people’s internal biases and found that many biases (like racism and homophobia, etc) have declined in recent years, but bias against someone’s weight has not--it’s actually increased!

What’s this mean for sexual health?

So much! It means fat folks are less likely to get treatment for sexually transmitted infections and less likely to access prenatal care for their babies. (Did you also know that some forms of emergency contraceptives are less effective for fat people?) It means that fat folks are constantly battling horrible messages about who they are and experiencing lower self-esteem and body image. It means fat people don’t think their bodies are beautiful.

At Teens Climb High, though, we want everyone to know:

  • Being fat does not make you unhealthy or undesirable. All bodies are beautiful and sexy!

  • There are MANY markers of health and fitness that don’t include weight.

  • There’s nothing “wrong” with you. You don’t need to “fix” yourself.

  • You’re definitely not lazy! (Or you’re as lazy as literally everyone else in the world!)

  • You don’t need to accept less because you’re taught that’s what you deserve.

  • You don’t need to conform to a society that’s not okay with who you are.

There are tons of really awesome resources and communities out there doing awesome stuff in fat advocacy. Check them out!

*I use the word “fat” respectfully and intentionally. The word “fat” has often been used as an insult and has developed so many negative connotations. Yet, folks in the fat community are reclaiming this word as an accurate (and neutral) description of themselves and encourage others to use this term.

**Thanks to Valerie Sauer for her invaluable contributions to this article!


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