Jillian Michaels Implies Pop Star Lizzo Will "Get Diabetes"

Fans and health advocates are angry after Michaels' outburst.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

Markus Spiske / Pexels
Source: Markus Spiske / Pexels

Famous fitness trainer Jillian Michaels has been trending on Twitter—not because of an upcoming project (she's not on the upcoming Biggest Loser reboot), but because people are angry that she implied that Grammy-winning hip-hop superstar Lizzo's curves would give her diabetes. 

It was during an interview on Buzzfeed's AM to DM live morning show.

When the reporter mentioned that she loves how stars like Lizzo and supermodel Ashley Graham preach self-acceptance and show off "bodies that we don't get to see being celebrated," Michaels cut her off, asking: "Why are we celebrating her body? Why does it matter? Why aren't we celebrating her music? 'Cause it isn't gonna be awesome if she gets diabetes." 

There are lots of reasons that Michael's comments are harmful and inaccurate. Let's unpack just a couple of them.

First, diabetes is not caused by a person's size.

Without knowing Lizzo's family history, A1C levels, and other medical details, no one—not a doctor, not a diabetes researcher, not Jillian Michaels—can predict her diabetes risk.

Anyone of any size can get diabetes. A 2012 study in JAMA found that about 20 percent of people with diabetes are of "normal" weight, and another study found that about 14 percent of people presenting for diabetes 2 care in one British clinic had BMIs under 25. Forty percent had BMIs under 30. Or, as actress Jameela Jamil put it on Twitter: 

My whole damn thin family has diabetes and high cholesterol and problems with our joints. Why is This woman acting like she’s an MRI? Stop concern-trolling fat people and get in the bin.

Higher levels of body fat (especially abdominal fat) are correlated with a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, according to research. But so are polycystic ovary syndrome and being of Asian descent. Diabetes is a complex and multifactorial disease with multiple causes and risk factors including genetics, family history, ethnicity, lifestyle factors (such as drinking and eating habits, and exercise), and body mass index.

Second, people with diabetes didn't "give" it to themselves. 

Whether she intended it or not, Michaels' diabetes comment also carries with it some implied blame: If Lizzo gets diabetes it'll be her own fault. Because...just look at her. Many people assume that large people get that way by "not trying hard enough" at dieting, or by eating too many Cheetos and sitting on their backsides. Eating well and exercising clearly impact weight—and, that's not the whole story. Bodyweight is complex and obesity researchers now unanimously agree that while weight is related to diet and exercise, it's not a simple matter of "calories in, calories out" (aka "trying hard enough").

People's bodies metabolize food and store fat differently—and bodies naturally come in many different shapes and sizes. One seminal New England Journal of Medicine study of twins who were raised apart from each other found that genetics accounted for 70 percent of the subjects' future BMIs.

Representation matters (Even Jillian Michaels says so.)

In the now-infamous Buzzfeed video clip, Michaels asks "Why are we celebrating [Lizzo's] body? Why does it matter?" Let's allow Michaels to answer that one herself. 

In a 2016 interview with Entertainment Tonight, she told the reporter that seeing images of bisexuality and women kissing in Madonna's "Justify My Love" video helped Michaels accept her own sexuality and helped to move her from a place of homophobia to becoming a mom of two alongside her female partner, Heidi Rhoades. "I was homophobic because I obviously didn't know that I was gay and I was like, that's gross, that's disgusting, that's weird. And when she did that I was like, oh, okay, that's not gross or disgusting and it kind of allowed me to figure out who I was." (Rhoades and Michaels have since split.)

Clearly, representation mattered a lot for Michaels. Is it so hard to understand how seeing a performer like Lizzo light up the stage with her talent, style, and feats of athleticism could matter to the 67 percent of women in this country who are closer to Lizzo's size than to Ariana Grande's?

It's fine if Michaels isn't inspired or awed by Lizzo's "rule-breaking" body. But her mannerisms, words, and facial expressions in the interview make me wonder: Does Michaels think no one else should be inspired either? An unwillingness to try to understand why Lizzo touches a nerve for so many women is a hallmark of self-righteousness and unexamined privilege—in this case, thin privilege.

Our own struggles inform our outlook.

It would be easy to accuse someone like Michaels—a fitness expert who got famous on the much-maligned weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser—of "hating fat people." That's what quite a lot of folks on social media did. Not only is that most likely untrue, but it's also too easy for people to bat away. ("I agree with Michaels, and I don't hate anyone!")

The truth is so much more nuanced. I've met Michaels before and liked her. We had coffee, and I even worked out with her once when I was a health editor at Glamour magazine in the '00s. I noted a clear compassion for the people she worked with—despite the public displays of screaming at fat people on televisionand a real ambivalence about her role on The Biggest Loser. She actually parted ways with the show in 2014 and said publicly that she felt "ashamed" of her role there after a previous winner became what many described as disturbingly thin.

You can be the kindest person in the world and still have biases, knowledge gaps, and privileges that blind you to the objective reality of others' plights — and, as in Michael's case, allow you to spread truly harmful, stigmatizing half-truths about both body size and diabetes, a chronic illness that affects millions. 

References

Carnethon MR, De Chavez PJD, Biggs ML, et al. Association of Weight Status With Mortality in Adults With Incident Diabetes. JAMA. 2012;308(6):581–590. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2012.9282

Fothergill E, Guo J, et al. Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Obesity. 2016. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21538

Stunkard, AJ,  Harris, JR, et al. The Body-Mass Index of Twins Who Have Been Reared Apart. New England Journal of Medicine.  1990; 322:1483-1487 DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199005243222102