Zach Anner is a very funny dude. If you’ve never heard of him before, then congratulations for clicking on this article.
Anner hosts the Soul Pancake Web series “Top of the Monday,” a weekly news show that brings you the good news from around the world. In his memoir “If At Birth You Don’t Succeed,” he describes getting and losing his own show on the Oprah Network, among other misadventures. He hosts and produces a web workout series called “Workout Wednesdays.”
He also has cerebral palsy, which is why I wanted to talk to him: Here is a guy with a very unique perspective about what it’s like to navigate a world in which the largely unattainable standard for what people are supposed to look like is especially out of reach for him. Even so, he’s out there making people laugh, teaching them about how to face serious challenges with grace and humor, and he’s clearly having a blast.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
PM: In your book you mention that one of your first jobs when you meet new people new is to address all of the misconceptions they have about people with disabilities. What does that entail?
ZA: People tend to treat people with disabilities sort of like they’re aliens from another planet. It doesn’t come from a bad place, it comes from a place of ‘I have no idea what this disability entails, and I don’t want to offend anyone or make them feel awful.’
What that does though, is sort of curb the conversation. My goal is to engage with people in a way that makes them feel comfortable to ask the question even if it’s the wrong question, or politically incorrect. I want people to feel safe enough to have the conversation. It’s not, ‘This is how you should treat someone with a disability,’ instead it’s more like ‘How do you treat people? What is the way you engage with any new person that you come across in a social interaction?’
I do a lot of that with humor, and trying to show people that if I can laugh about it, you can laugh about it, we can share in this experience, and have a good time together.
PM: Does that tend to go well?
ZA: Most of the time. The strangest thing is going through airports. Usually people’s fear that I won’t be able to answer or speak for myself means that they don’t engage with me. Instead they ask whoever I’m with to answer all the questions that I have an answer to. It’s like ‘Can he get on the plane by himself?’ Then I speak up and explain to them that I can, and I’ll throw some big words in there so they know that I have my shit together.
PM: So how did the Workout Wednesday series come to be?
ZA: I had this idea that I wanted to do a show about physical fitness that was actually encouraging. The whole thing sort of started as a joke, like, I’m talking to an audience and I’m teaching them how to get the perfect body, like mine. Because not too many people have a fitness goal of ‘I want to be a guy in a wheelchair with legs the size of swizzle sticks.’
I thought that was a funny premise, but I also thought there was room to actually educate, since most of us aren’t going to look like a guy on the cover of men’s health. Whenever I saw workout videos I’d think, ‘Is that really encouraging to have somebody with a body of a Greek god shouting at you that you can do better?’ I thought, there’s so much room for comedy here, and also to help people appreciate their personal fitness journeys, whatever they are.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that if you don’t have the body you want you can’t be proud of the body you have. I think you can do both. To have that level of confidence and self-appreciation and self-love at the start is important to getting to where you want to go.
I always think it’s important to show me sucking at everything, because I know when you go to the gym, you feel like you have all these eyes on you watching you fail on a treadmill or trying to figure out how to work a stationary bike when all you want is a donut. I know how stressful and discouraging that can be. So I figured, most of my viewers probably have more good physical attributes than I have, and I’ll show them that I can still enjoy working out, so maybe we can get past some of these superficial things that are keeping us from doing what we want to do and being who we want to be.
PM: Your videos have this mix of nonsense, straight up jokes, and then all these motivational aphorisms that given the situation seem like jokes, but it’s really a poignant thing: What could so-called “normal people” (based on society’s superficial standards) learn from you, this idea of striving for something that you might not get? How successful can people be if they’re not even happy with who they are in the first place?
ZA: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point. I feel very lucky to have all of my physical problems and all of my disabilities be very apparent from the get-go. I’ve never seen a magazine cover with the Channing Tatum or Beyoncé equivalent of people in wheelchairs. I’ll never have that pressure. It’s liberating in a way to not be held to the same standards. But at the same time, I understand particularly for young people, and young women especially, it’s really hard not to at least let those pressures influence you.
PM: I wonder then, what you think when you see magazines with messages about “cellulite!” or “melting belly flab!” or “getting shredded?”
ZA: I think it’s pretty fucking ridiculous to be honest. I think you can feel good about yourself at any size and any shape. Nobody should be made to feel inferior because they have a certain body type. If you want to engage in exercise and physical fitness so that you feel a little more healthy, that’s a commendable thing, but fuck all the rest of it. It’s ridiculous that we are in a place where we feel like we can classify and dismiss certain groups of people, just because of the way they look or we have these standards of health—like cellulite is something you need to get rid of. No, it isn’t. It’s just a part of people’s bodies.
There’s so much Photoshop. It’s basically telling people, ‘We like you just the way you aren’t.’ That’s the opposite of what I want to do. If we’re talking about fitness we can take the shaming out of it and just say “Let’s see where we can all get together, and if you have personal goals go for it, and be supported. There’s not any such thing as a perfect body or a perfect physical form. It really has to do with how you feel about yourself, if you’re doing things to enjoy life, and if you feel healthy. And if you aren’t, that’s not my business to judge you.
I think we need to see more people with different body types doing physical activities, because otherwise it seems like an industry that 90 percent of the population is excluded from, or shamed into.
PM: I wanted bring up that video where you’re shooting the basketball—it reminded me of your book, in which you describe your life largely as this series of misses and failures, but throughout it, you’re clearly having a really good time.
ZA: The gift of sucking at everything is not something that I can overstate enough. I understand if you’re an able-bodied person, you think ‘Oh, I’ve got all the things that the Spartans had in 300, so I have all the potential to be the perfect human specimen.’ Well I don’t, so I say ‘what can I do to actually make this activity fun for me?’ And I think that’s the way we need to be treating exercise.
PM: It seems like if people could learn to have an attitude like yours, and approach movement from there, they’d probably be a lot better off.
ZA: I would hope so. I mean, I think there doesn’t need to be a sense of dread and shame around the idea of going to the gym.