What's Her Excuse?

In 2012, an Elk Grove mother of three caused a social media stir with a single Facebook post. By 2013, that post went viral, transforming Maria Kang into a polarizing figure at the center of a national debate on obesity and fitness. With a new book out and her nascent “no excuses” movement growing, she’s grabbing the spotlight again. Is she helping or hurting? It’s more complicated than you might think.

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Photo by Jeremy Sykes

 

FFit Mom vs. Curvy Girl: It was the body image brawl that dominated social media and daytime television in the fall of 2013.

In one corner was Chrystal Bougon, owner of a San Jose lingerie shop that caters to women size 12 and above and champion of heavyweight ladies across the globe for promoting a beautiful-at-any-size mantra.        

In the other was Elk Grove mother-of-three Maria Kang, 125 pounds of blunt force drama and contender for the title of America’s most outspoken fat shamer after posting a glamour shot of herself in a sports bra and short shorts with her three young sons and the in-your-face tagline “What’s Your Excuse?” on her Facebook page.

For weeks, the two women went at each other, defining opposing sides in the national debate on whether heft precludes health, with Kang saying that obese people are likely going to wind up sick and Bougon saying that Kang wasn’t a “magical unicorn” who could judge a person’s vigor solely from appearance.

Sometimes interviewed together, sometimes alone, they fiercely argued their viewpoints on CNN, Good Morning America, The Dr. Oz Show and elsewhere, Kang always perfectly made-up with long locks softly curled like the former pageant queen that she is.

Bougon, tough and poised, took her share of hits. But people seemed far more obsessed with Kang. Comments and calls came in by the thousands, many dubbing Kang a bully and narcissist—just another “stick-figure silicone Barbie doll,” as the Meghan Trainor song goes, making them feel bad for failing at an impossible ideal. Just as many—if not more—defended the brown-eyed beauty and her enviable abs, saying they understood the inspirational intent of her slogan.

More than a year later, the weight debate is as fierce as ever, and so is Kang. She’s polished up her packaging but remains defiant about the contents of her message—which the masses can read the old-school way with the recent release of her first book, The No More Excuses Diet. Ambitious and contentious, flawed and extreme, and with a penchant for putting it all out there (whether she’s talking about her stretch marks or her religion), Kang’s got that magnetic draw that could make her a compelling reality show heroine. Or villain.

“I really do have good intentions, but sometimes people don’t like me,” she admits.

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Kang was no newbie to controversy when she hit the talk show circuit in 2013. An aspiring lifestyle guru for more than a decade, she began promoting herself seriously in 2012 at age 31 when she first posted that infamous photo. Back then, she only had about 50 followers on Facebook and was mostly known just to the local women who attended her free weekly workouts. She decided to have professional photos taken to stir up some interest in her ventures.

“I knew it was going to be a provocative image,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was going to hurt people’s feelings.’ I knew it was going to rub people the right and the wrong way.”

Maria Kang poses with her three young sons in this viral photograph, which caught the attention of the national media in 2013. (Photo by Mike Byerly, courtesy of Maria Kang)But the portrait rapidly spiraled beyond her like-minded students and into the cyber abyss of the Mommy Wars, where women of all shapes and sizes routinely battle over issues of parenting, poundage, feminist politics and just about anything else that crosses the female consciousness. The inclusion of her kids—Christian, then 3, Nicholas, 2, and Gabriel, 8 months—in the picture made it especially insolent to some.

Kang, intelligent, impetuous and direct to the point of curt, answered back, often in take-it-or-leave-it terms that belied her ultimate goal of encouraging action rather than contempt. Watch the YouTube videos of her appearances, and you’ll see a raw charisma, full of jagged edges that often seem to snag the nerves of interviewers and audiences, despite a genuine underlying concern about obe-sity, a problem that she sees as pandemic and devastating.

“The biggest thing, and what is so sad, is that I’m actually trying to empower you because the first thing you have to realize is that this is a choice. You are the reason why you’re successful and you’re the reason why you fail. And it sucks but it’s true, and if you can focus on that accountability, you can make things happen,” she says. “It’s not like ‘What’s your excuse’ had someone’s name on it and I was talking to you and I know everything about your life and all your excuses. You know, people really need to get over it. We live in such an egocentric society.”

Love her or hate her, people “liked” her. Kang’s Facebook followers jumped from 50 to more than 23,000 within two months of her bikini shot, eventually reaching more than 320,000 followers over the course of a year as she continued to brashly espouse her certainty that obese people are unhealthy, and that anyone can change their weight through the self-control of good eating and exercise. But Kang’s critics were just as vocal and harsh as they perceived her to be.

You don’t need an excuse. It’s not okay to shame women for not having the perfect body after having kids. If I ever have kids, I’d rather enjoy their company than be worried about my weight. Yes, it’s great that you’ve managed to get your body back into shape but that doesn’t make it okay for you to shame women into thinking they need a body that society has defined as “perfect,” wrote one commentator on Kang’s Facebook page in April 2013.

Others went further, writing across social media and in the comments for the dozens of articles posted on the web:

If Maria was happy about the way she looked she wouldn’t be making such arrogant claims, getting implants or airbrushing the hell out of her pictures. It’s too bad there’s no exercise to fix that face of hers.

You’re a classic version of “ugly on the inside” and at the very best, you’re average on the outside as far as the superficial fitness community goes. You should be absolutely ashamed of yourself for posting that in the first place.

She is our modern day Hitler and KKK. I’m sure if she were given a chance, she would eliminate anyone bigger than a size 6.

“I knew it was going to be a provocative image,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not like, ‘I didn’t know that was going to hurt people’s feelings.’ I knew it was going to rub people the right and the wrong way.”

Perhaps stung by months of criticisms, perhaps simply promoting her personal brand, or perhaps both, when “Curvy Girl” Bougon got press for starting a campaign to promote “real” women in plus-size undergarments, Kang shot back on her Facebook page:

I woke up this morning to news stories about how overweight, nearly obese women should be proud of their bodies (as they posed in lingerie). I think we should all accept how any healthy body through good nutrition and exercise manifests, but I’m starting to get annoyed. … I know it’s not easy to break habits and build new ones. I know your environment challenges you and I know making your health a priority amongst the many priorities to stay afloat in today’s world is difficult. But I will tell you this: IT IS WORTH IT. ... We need to change this strange mentality we are breeding in the U.S. and start celebrating people who are a result of hard work, dedication and discipline.

A Yahoo journalist tracked Bougon down in the green room of former Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel’s now-defunct talk show to get a reaction on that rant. “I was pissed,” says Bougon. “Tell her I said f-off,” she recalls saying. A few days later, Bougon reported Kang to Facebook for writing what she tagged as hate speech, resulting in Kang being banned from the site for two days. Kang took to Instagram to let her fans know.

The media machine was spinning fast and hard. But as Kang’s husband, David Casler, a former Marine with an easy charm and intense dedication to his wife’s success, says, “No media is bad media.”

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Kang’s newly gained notoriety has brought Kang closer to her goal of establishing herself as a fitness expert. A month after the Curvy Girl carnival, she rebranded her Fit Mom project under the “No Excuse Mom” name (which is trademarked) and now runs it as an international nonprofit “movement” aimed not just at women, but men and kids as well.

Kang’s “No Excuse” campaign landed her on the May 2014 cover of Shape Malaysia magazine. (Courtesy of Maria Kang)It’s the start of a viable empire that so far encompasses over 300 free weekly workouts for adults and children in 25 countries, led by a loyal team of volunteer disciples and regional managers. In February, she was emcee at an L.A. fitness expo where she met Tae Bo king Billy Blanks, an idol of hers. She’s been on the cover of Shape Malaysia and other fitness magazines. Her book, most notable for its balanced approach and simple plan of moderation, was published in March by Harmony Books, a division of Random House—which has led to a new round of appearances, including on the Today show—and she’s got a growing catalog of calendars (featuring Fit Moms of various sizes) and DVDs she sells on her website.

Someday, she hopes that her fitness business will be profitable through donations, grants, sales and events. But for now, her main income comes from running two elderly care homes in Sacramento and Elk Grove with her husband—her family owns a total of 13 of them in the region.  

But even if financial success doesn’t materialize, she’ll keep doing what she does, because for Kang, this is a pathway to both recognition and redemption. Ask her what it was like to be at the center of that media blitz, and it’s not the green rooms or glamour that she remembers best.

She’ll tell you about riding to the airport in New York after being a guest on Bethenny and the Today show, sitting in a cab and feeling like everyone was talking about her. “Who’s not talking about it?” she recalls thinking of her picture.

“And I didn’t think about the photo shoot. I didn’t think about the first time I became a mom,” she says. “That’s the moment I just started crying uncontrollably because I was realizing this all started when I was a little girl and seeing my mom sick.”

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Personal responsibility is intrinsic to Kang because she grew up with too much of it for a kid. Her mother, Caroline, the daughter of a Philippine diplomat, married at 16 and had four children before she was 22 (Kang is the oldest girl). They lived in San Francisco’s rough Bayview district, just above Hunter’s Point, long before the trendy Dogpatch neighborhood existed, and “Maria played a big role in trying to keep everything together,” says her mom, who developed lifestyle-related diabetes in her 20s.