Sam Holstein

There is No Such Thing as a Natural Athlete

There is No Such Thing as a Natural Athlete

My father always referred to me, both when I was growing up and now as an adult, as a “natural athlete.” I’ve never understood why he keeps saying it, especially since I’m not exactly an impressive athlete.

But my abdomen always gives the vague impression of sculpted abdominal muscles regardless of how physically wasted I am, so I am a “natural athlete.”

Women who look like this are not necessarily fit. They might be, but they might not be! There’s no way for you to know. Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

He’s not the only person to have called me a natural athlete. Many people love to call others natural athletes, from doting parents to Olympic Games viewers. And everyone who gets called a natural athlete has the same thing in common — they are all thin and well-proportioned. They are not necessarily sculpted, muscular, capable, or even healthy, but they look like middle America’s fatphobic eurocentric idea of a “healthy person,” so they get the compliment.

I’ve met many people more physically capable than me who have never been called “natural athletes” because of their beer bellies or thick thighs. In fact, physically capable people are more likely to have beer bellies and thick thighs, despite not being called “natural athletes,” because building and maintaining serious muscle mass takes serious calories.

Here are some photos of some actual athletes:

Howard Schatz Olympic Photography
Howard Schatz Olympic Photography

Some of these people look like what we expect athletes to expect like, but many of them don’t. Some of them are fat. Some of them have a soft-bodied, nothing-special look to them. But they are all world-class athletes.

“Natural Athlete” Is a Fatphobic Notion

Society is becoming increasingly aware of fatphobia, which is great. But there is still a large group of people who say things like “We can accept people who are fat without saying it’s good to be fat.” They think they’re promoting good health in the population, but all they’re doing is promoting bigotry.

Sometimes, it is good to be fat. Many types of athletes bulk up specifically because their body fat supports their musculature. Some sick people need to maintain body fat for their own health. Some people have diseases that cause body fat that can’t be eliminated through diet or exercise.

If you point that out directly to fatphobic people, they’ll use a ‘good fat people’ argument. (We all know how that kind of argument goes). Then they will go on, assuming every fat person they see is unhealthy — and every thin person is an athlete — until proven otherwise.

Athletes are Made, Not Born

The notion of a “natural athlete” suggests there are some people who are born with the potential to be an athlete while there are others who aren’t. But any actual athlete will tell you what horse shit that is.

Human bodies react to the stress we place on them. If we stress our bodies with various forms of exercise (and feed them adequately, of course), we will grow stronger. If we sit our sorry little butts on the couch all day and eat Lays, we will grow weaker. There is no amount of “natural athleticism” that will keep you strong if you spend all day playing WoW.

Athletes are people who stress their bodies continuously. They exercise regularly and eat the foods their bodies need to grow. Athleticism is not a result of genetic luck. It’s a result of hard fucking work.

If we eurocentrically-attractive people allow ourselves to lean back on the idea of “natural athleticism,” we may feel ashamed of how weak we truly are when we go to the gym the first time. We may find ourselves overwhelmed by the amount of effort it actually takes to get gains. We may give up because we think we’re doing something wrong when everything is going exactly as it’s supposed to.

And people who don’t think of themselves as “natural athletes” may never make it to the gym in the first place. They may say to themselves “I’m not a natural athlete” and give up on getting a healthy body before even giving themselves a chance.

“Natural Athleticism” Is Ableist Too

The notion of a natural athlete is also ableist. It suggests disabled people are not natural athletes (unless their disability is conveniently invisible). But there is a world full of disabled kickass athletes.

Howard Schatz Olympic Photography

But you know what? You don’t need to be a Spring & Long Jump Olympic Champion to be a great disabled athlete.

Being a great athlete isn’t about having the right kind of body, certain kinds of muscles, or even about hitting performance benchmarks like ‘miles ran’ or ‘weights on the bench.’ It’s about fully inhabiting your body.

Humans are not brains attached to life-support systems. We are body and mind. An athlete is simply someone who lives in their body to the fullest extent. Just as a well-educated man reads books and sharpens his mind, an athlete uses and strengthens her body.

If you’re doing that, then you’re an athlete.

In Conclusion

Just drop the word “natural” from the word “athlete.” If someone is an excellent athlete, just call them an excellent athlete. Using the word “natural” strips the accomplishment of becoming an athlete and reduces it to a stroke of genetic luck. It’s shortchanging the athletes and reinforcing dangerous bigotries.

And while you’re at it, keep an eye out for athleticism in all its forms. Instead of focusing on someone’s weight or how their clothes fit their body, ask…

These questions provide far more of an insight into physical health than visual impressions about weight.

And dad, if you’re still reading this… I love you, and I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’m not a “natural athlete.” Yeah, I’m thin, and I did go through that phase where I was shredded because I was rock climbing all the time, but that wasn’t due to “natural athleticism.” Getting shredded is just what happens when someone spends all their time rock climbing.