Wellness

Aubrey Gordon Doesn’t Think Your Brain Is Broken

The writer and host of the popular podcast Maintenance Phase has gained an audience by debunking health and wellness myths with a sense of humor.

Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Penguin Random House; Courtesy of Aubrey Gordon

Aubrey Gordon’s laugh is an event, a force of nature. It is thunderous and bubbly, with a warmth and power that could lift a fleet of hot air balloons clean off the ground. Her laugh is so distinct that it gets her recognized in public. "The first time it happened, I was on my phone, and the person I was talking to said something funny,” she said. “I laughed, and this person sitting on their front porch whipped their head around and said, 'Is your name Aubrey?!'”

Gordon is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat and the forthcoming “You Just Need to Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People, which is due out in January. But she’s best known as the co-host of Maintenance Phase, a popular podcast devoted to “debunking the junk science behind health fads, wellness scams, and nonsensical nutrition advice” — an often bleak but comedically rich area of discussion. Every two weeks, she and journalist Michael Hobbes do a deep dive on subjects like the BMI, The Biggest Loser, or Karl Lagerfeld’s diet book, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet. Since launching in the fall of 2020, the podcast has been wildly successful; there was a story about it in the New York Times, and Vulture named it one of the best podcasts of 2021. It’s routinely among the Top 10 health and wellness podcasts on both Apple and Spotify. Each episode is funny, chatty, and exhaustively researched — like a lecture from your coolest college professor, the one who’s young and knows how to text.

Despite the show’s success, Gordon doesn’t get recognized in public that much. It’s only happened three or four times, when she’s walking the dog (which she does a lot, to combat writer’s block). But the fact that she gets recognized at all is notable given that, until 2018, Gordon’s identity was something of a mystery.

She rose to prominence under a pseudonym: Your Fat Friend. With that moniker, she wrote about the physical and emotional realities of being a fat person in America — the horrors of air travel, of being denied effective medical care because of your size, of being forced against your will to bear the burden of everyone’s messy body image issues. Her essays on Medium got thousands of views, sometimes millions. Tens of thousands of people followed her on Twitter. She started writing a column for Self magazine. She gained the kind of attention and success most writers would gnaw their arms off for, all while working a regular office job at a nonprofit where no one knew about her increasingly successful side-gig — the Clark Kent to Your Fat Friend’s Superman.

When we spoke over Zoom earlier this year, she recalled the surreal experience of balancing these two realities, and seeing her essays go viral while she was going through the motions of her day. “All day during work, I would go into a half-hour- or an hourlong meeting, and then I would come out and I would have hundreds of notifications of like, Roxane Gay sharing a piece, or James Corden sharing a piece, or Gavin Newsom sharing a piece,” she says. “It just blew up.”

Eventually, Gordon got a book deal, and before her first book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, came out in November 2020, she wrote an essay revealing her name and weight. The decision was mostly a practical one. “It’s really difficult to do a book tour with a bag over my head or something,” she said.

But she had serious safety concerns as well. Fat acceptance and fat justice — the idea that fat people are worthy of respect, dignity, safety, rights, and freedom from oppression and discrimination — should not be radical ideas, but they are. And they’re ones that deeply challenge those who cling to the status quo. Since she had started writing publicly, Gordon had gotten a number of serious, specific threats to her safety. Her transgression? Being a fat person who spoke out against fatphobia. “I was genuinely afraid that someone was going to show up at my house,” she says. “My main fear was, can I do this and physically stay safe?” Then, a shrug. She laughed.

“I’m still kicking!”

Gordon grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. Her mom was an early childhood educator turned school administrator, and her dad was a commercial airline pilot. She was, in her own words, “a chubby little nerd who liked swim team and Shakespeare day camp.”

After college, she worked for years as a community organizer, with a focus on LGBTQ+ rights, immigrant rights, and voting rights. The job required Olympic-level communication skills. For every ballot measure her group supported or opposed, Gordon had to be prepared with research, data, and the emotional intelligence required to get people to engage with her ideas. These were tools that would come in handy when she started writing publicly, but they were also ones she occasionally had to call upon in personal interactions.

In 2016, Gordon had a tiff with a friend. It was one of those tense conversations that doesn’t quite constitute a fight, but that leaves both parties with a sour taste in their mouth. What happened was this: Gordon’s friend was talking about her relationship with her body, and how badly she felt about it. Sure, fine. Almost no one makes it through life without absorbing the noxious diet culture fumes that tell us our bodies are wrong and bad and that the only way to fix them is to spend money on diet plans, protein shakes, exercise classes, and supplements.

But she was talking about her body image to Gordon who, by Gordon’s estimate, weighed three times more than her at the time. Gordon tried to get her friend to consider the fact that she was hurling fatphobic rhetoric at someone who was fat and how that might make Gordon feel. She recalls trying to say: “I just need you to be aware of when you’re talking about what it means to be a fat person, you’re saying that to a fat person. And that can’t just be water off a duck’s back, to listen to a friend talk at length about how much they would hate to look like me.”

They talked and talked. Her friend felt Gordon wasn’t hearing her; Gordon felt she wasn’t being heard. And while they parted on good terms, nothing had been resolved. At home, Gordon decided to write a letter to her friend. She wasn’t sure whether she would send it, but she wanted to spell out, in clear terms, how their conversation made her feel.

She sent the letter to another friend, just to make sure that she wasn’t being “a total *sshole.” He confirmed that she wasn’t, and actually, he found the letter so moving that he asked if she would be willing to let him share it on social media. Gordon hesitated. There could be real personal and professional repercussions for her, even in her well-intentioned, lefty bubble.

“There are really a lot of people on the left who are all in on the idea ... that fat people only exist because of capitalism and corporation,” Gordon explains, “as if we did not exist at every point in history.”

She asked her *sshole-detector friend where she could post it anonymously, and eventually posted it on Medium, under the name Your Fat Friend. She didn’t share it anywhere, but he shared it on his Facebook. Then his friends started reposting it, and their friends started reposting it, and within a week, the post had over 40,000 views.

Seeing how strongly readers responded to the essay made Gordon realize there was a lot more she had to say. She thought: “Well, listen — I’ve got at least 30 more of those in me.”

What Gordon wanted to write about was the stuff her friend hadn’t been willing and/or able to grasp in their initial, dissatisfying conversation: the emotional and somatic experience of moving through the world as a fat person. In her essays, she wrote about feeling alienated from those she loved when they denied the reality of her existence by saying, “You’re not fat!” She wrote about strangers feeling entitled to comment on her body, and doctors telling her to lose weight when all she wanted was treatment for an ear infection. “There are really high-stakes situations that fat people are in all the time specifically because of bias against fat people,” she says. That’s what she wanted to talk about.

Gordon’s writing was unusual in mainstream media at the time. Outside of academic and activist circles, much of discourse about body acceptance amounted to lots of cis, white, able-bodied, straight-size (meaning, sizes 00 to 14) women posting photos of themselves gripping a roll of belly skin, or pointing at their cellulite, and loudly declaring themselves willing to love their bodies anyway. That kind of content still occupies a lot of the discourse, really. But Gordon didn’t have much interest in that conversation. “The more Dove ads you saw, and the more Halo Top ads you saw… It just became a vehicle for people who were already well within the beauty standard to feel like they were the most within the beauty standard.”

As Gordon wrote, her inbox filled up with messages from fans, trolls, and journalists asking for comments. One of them was a message from reporter Michael Hobbes, asking her if she would be interviewed for a story. Overwhelmed, she ignored it, and all the other messages too. “It really flipped me out because it was so much more than I anticipated,” she says.

She and Hobbes did eventually connect. She saw his message when she went to reach out to him about a story he had written for the Huffington Post in 2018 called “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong.” The two got lunch in Seattle in 2019 and stayed in touch. Then, in 2020, near the beginning of the COVID lockdown, Hobbes, who co-hosted the popular podcast You’re Wrong About, decided he wanted to do a spinoff show focused specifically on health and wellness myths. Gordon was the first person he thought of to co-host.

What makes Gordon an effective host as well as an effective writer, Hobbes says, is her ability to balance storytelling with concrete knowledge. “She’s good at bringing in the personal stuff, and also bringing in the scientific, factual context stuff. She does this when you talk to her, too. She switches back and forth between the two seamlessly. So what it feels like is a smart person who’s telling you the science and telling you why the science matters to them.”

Gordon recalled the origin of Maintenance Phase this way: “Mike called and was basically like, ‘Do you want to do a podcast?’ And we were both like, ‘You seem fun, and I’m bored.’”

Initially, Gordon and Hobbes only recorded six episodes. They weren’t sure how people would respond, or if they would gel as co-hosts. But they did, and when they started releasing the episodes — about topics like about the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, fen-phen, Snackwell cookies, and Moon Juice — “it got big fast,” in Gordon’s words. After a brief break, Maintenance Phase came back with a regular, biweekly schedule. The show’s following continued to grow, and eventually, Gordon and Hobbes launched a Patreon, and released merch with quotes from the show like “History Should Make You Feel Weird” and “Ohio: A Paradise for the Incompetent.”

Gordon doesn’t work at her office job anymore. Now, she says her typical day is “super boring in a way that I deeply love.” She wakes up every day at 6:30 or 7, walks her dog, and then spends her mornings researching, and her afternoons writing. She and Hobbes record together about once a week. When she’s not working, she’s watching women’s soccer or Taskmaster, or hanging out with family.

Gordon says she thinks the podcast has resonated with people because it helps listeners understand that it’s not their fault if they feel bad or confused about a lot of the health and wellness messaging out there. In fact, the confusion is often by design. “We have so many conversations about body image that presume that your brain is the thing that’s broken,” she says. “And not about how every day, all day, people are yelling at you about what’s going to happen to you if you get fat, or if you look different, or if you become disabled or whatever. So actually, that’s not your brain being broken. That is the intended outcome of a series of marketing decisions, essentially.”