How Maintenance Phase Interrogates the Wellness and Weight Loss Industry
“It’s so fun to get your mind blown,” says the author and activist Aubrey Gordon over Zoom. Gordon, who writes under the moniker Your Fat Friend, is referring to the revelatory moments that tend to punctuate episodes of Maintenance Phase, the podcast she co-hosts with the journalist Michael Hobbes, formerly of You’re Wrong About, where they methodically dismantle health myths churned out by the “wellness-industrial complex.” Sometimes these moments are sensational—an Australian wellness influencer named Belle Gibson faking cancer—but more often the duo is bringing overstated wellness claims back to earth. (It turns out, for example, that celery juice is not a cure-all elixir, but simply a glass of water.)
But there’s no moralistic finger-wagging here; Hobbes and Gordon don’t care if you’re vegan or whether you do CrossFit. But by rigorously fact-checking quackery, they reveal that wellness is a cultural construct often exploited by profit-driven grifters and upheld by well-meaning, health-conscious consumers. Ultimately, when it comes to our health, logic and science are no match for myth and narrative. In other words, mocking someone for trying the Master Cleanse isn’t the point. The idea is to encourage us to question these dizzying institutional narratives that we’ve absorbed as fact, and then, says Gordon, “do whatever you wanna do, man.”
Over Zoom from their respective homes in Portland and Berlin, Gordon and Hobbes talked to GQ about falling for fad diets, why health myths spread and the limits of the body positivity movement.
GQ: Have any listeners told you that you’ve changed their minds about something?
Michael Hobbes: Those are the only emails we like getting [laughs]. We’ve heard from people who say, like, “I used to talk to my daughter about her weight and I’ve stopped doing that because I think that it can be really harmful for her.” We’ve gotten messages from people who are like, “I’m in medical school and I’m really shocked at the fatphobia and I’ve started pushing back on my professors.” We’ve gotten messages from doctors who were like, “you’re right, I’ve been lecturing people about their weight for my entire fucking career and this is terrible”.
You bring a lot of empathy to the show. You’re not condescending in your approach to debunking these health myths, even when it’s really hard not to be.
MH: Some of my best friends are thin [laughs].
AG: I feel like I don’t, because I feel like there are absolutely villains in these stories. And those villains are people who are pulling a lot of strings for profit motives or political motives, or almost anything but the health and wellness of the many. It important to me to portray anti-fatness accurately. A lot of people who are the most active participants in anti-fatness genuinely believe that they’re doing a good deed, from start to finish. When I have someone recommended diet to me, unsolicited, they look so proud of themselves. And it does not occur to them that they’re going, “you look fat and you should change that.”
MH: So much of this is about who has power in a situation. I think that most of the messages that people have gotten about this issue have been so misrepresented to them. As soon as you start talking about this stuff publicly, what you get is somebody will say, “well, what about the fat activists who think it’s fat-phobic to go to the gym?” This actually happened a couple of weeks ago. Some random person on a talk show—I think she was, like, 19—said it’s fat phobic to do CrossFit or something like that. And it’s like, she’s in college, she’s experimenting with ideologies, but this becomes then, like, 55 YouTube video essays [saying] “fat activists don’t want you to go to the gym.” Other than like, I think individuals should be kind to others, I really have no individual prescriptions for anybody. And what we’re trying to change is like these people with power, who are like, in measurable ways, harming people.
AG: It is extremely ineffective to try and get a bunch of individual people to change their individual behavior and expect societal change to result solely from that. That’s how we got here. It feels much more important to me that if we’re having a conversation about working out, we have a conversation about the ways in which bodybuilding culture and working out has been used to drive, like, organized white supremacy. That feels much more interesting and fruitful to me than like getting into a fight with somebody about whether or not it’s okay for them to be on a low carb diet.
What do you make of the cultural shifts like the body positivity movement and efforts to combat fatphobia?
AG: I would say that as a fat person, the primary effect that I notice with body positivity is a false sense of security amongst people who are not fat that they’re doing the right thing because they tell people to love their bodies. It doesn’t require folks to reflect on their own behaviors. Much of the body positivity movement is focused on very slightly moving the goalposts, very slightly widening the target of who we consider an acceptable body. If body positivity was exploding our understandings of beauty, that would look really different, we would have more people who were visibly disfigured or disabled, we would have more people who are my size or larger, like very fat people, we would have more folks with like skin issues or acne being pictured.
We’re also having a similar sort of transformation in the weight loss world where it’s sort of changing its clothes and putting on a fedora and those glasses with a nose and mustache attached. Like, “we’re wellness now,” you’re like, “oh, it’s still Weight Watchers, it’s still Nutrisystem.” It’s still absolutely the same product and playbook.
Why do health myths and misinformation spread so rampantly?
AG: If you can cast your minds back to the first couple of months of the pandemic, the number of people I know who are, like, astonishingly smart people who would call me and be like, “hey, I heard that if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, you definitely don’t have COVID.” I think what advertising health, wellness and weight loss products do a great job of is fearmongering. You don’t, at this point, have to make the whole spiel about diabetes and heart disease and all of those sorts of things to get people to be like, “hey, it’s bad for you to be fat.” You just have to be like, “is it good for you to be fat?” And I’ll be like, “no.” Like, that’s sort of all it takes.
MH: I’m actually struck by how the kinds of myths that we’re falling for are actually not new. There are only like five diets, and they just repeat themselves. Nothing is new. I think the job of journalism, in the next coming decades, is going to be this inoculation thing of like, this is how a moral panic works, these are the kinds of messages that you should be really wary of. When somebody says that any kind of lifestyle can cure cancer? We’ve been doing this since we knew about cancer.
What’s been your favorite episode so far?
AG: I loved researching snake oil—that was really wild ride and very, very fun. I like the ones where I go in not knowing the story. It felt like it got to the nexus of a bunch of stuff to the sort of like garbage wellness playbook and to the ways in which racism are just intrinsic to wellness culture. There’s just not American wellness culture without racism and colonialism.
MH: My favorite episode is probably celery juice. That was just I think the purest distillation of a pure health grift. You almost respect it.
Public trust seems to be waning in science and conventional medicine, and probably for valid reasons. A lot of people can’t access proper healthcare or are being ignored by their doctors. But then you get a Belle Gibson, that “illness influencer” who lied about being chronically ill to sell fake products.
MG: I would say level one is filling the gaps in the healthcare system. But then I think level two is a huge shift in media. We’re in this transition period between an information-poor and an information-rich environment. And I think that we’re in the middle of this debate about like, how should media be covering these things? Should media be amplifying people like Belle Gibson?
AG: I think there’s also something in that media world that is, like, training folks out of this idea that any new health-related scientific research is also a behavior mandate. That every study on antioxidants turns into like, should you drink red wine or should you stop drinking red wine? If we could just pull back on that set of impulses of just filling in a bunch of blanks down to “here’s how you want to behave”, then we would also be in a much better place where we just go, “hey, here’s this study, it looks promising.” I feel like a lot of what the show is doing is recontextualizing this stuff just in that context. “You heard about celery juice? You think it came from a doctor? Nope, ghosts.”
Have either of you ever felt cheated by a fad diet?
AG: I mean, all of them. I have yet to use a wellness product, or do a diet where I’m like, wow, this really lived up to its promises. The most recent one for me was keto. If you’re restricting what types of vegetables you can have because they’re not low carb enough, that feels like maybe a red flag.
MH: I did the Shangri-La diet, like, a thousand years ago. Like everybody else, I lasted three days. And then the guy that invented it became weirder and weirder. It was like, man, I probably shouldn’t listen to this guy in the first place.
What’s the one thing you want listeners to take away from the show?
MH: Forgive yourself, be kind to yourself, it’s fine. We try to be really graceful to people who do fall for these wellness scams. And at the institutional level, I think people should think about the power that they have over other people. I’m much more interested in the power that people have with people they employ, people who they manage, corporations they work in. I think that’s where people should be thinking about where their actions can have some meaning rather than like, should I do CrossFit or not.
AG: I would say two things on that front. One is that all of this stuff is infinitely more complex than we give it credit for. We spend so much time on the internet and in person yelling at each other, and particularly with people yelling at fat people about science without ever doing an actual deep dive into what that science says. And thing two is, I feel like I am in this work in large part because I know a lot of wonderful people who are deeply good people trying their best who are terrible to fat people and are not clocking that.
A big part of this, for me, is figuring out how to make legible to folks that things that they’ve been doing that they thought were helpful are upholding a lot of the stuff that they also feel harmed by. If you feel harmed by a pressure to lose weight, and then you also talk shit about how much your fat family member eats at Thanksgiving, then, you are both a target and a perpetrator of this thing.
All of those wellness and weight loss conversations are just about how to build a better mousetrap to stop people like me from looking the way that I look. And I can’t consent to a conversation that’s like, the best world is the one without you in it. It’s bizarre to me that we do talk about weight loss so much—and we absolutely never talk to fat people about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.