Considering there are over two million podcasts out there, it’s hard to believe that a relatively new one launched by two noncelebrities could reach the top of the charts. But Maintenance Phase, a show dedicated to “debunking the junk science behind health fads, wellness scams, and nonsensical nutrition advice,” according to the show description, has done just that. Hosted by Seattle-based writer Aubrey Gordon, who until last year published anonymously under the pseudonym Your Fat Friend, and Berlin-based journalist Michael Hobbes, the podcast is currently ranked third in Apple’s Health and Fitness category and is placed in the top 75 overall.
Maintenance Phase doesn’t just offer a new take on the same old self-help advice—it looks closely at how these tips and trends have actually impacted people. The hosts’ approach to research is one part investigative journalism, one part Wikipedia rabbit hole. “One of us spends probably two weeks full-time researching each episode,” Hobbes says. They’ll read a book or two, anywhere from 20 to 60 academic articles, and various media stories in order to present a complete picture of a diet (like Weight Watchers), wellness trend (i.e., celery juice), or lifestyle guru (Dr. Oz or Oprah). Then one of them will present their findings to the other on the air.
Both are great storytellers and quick with humor, so it feels less like a lecture and more like eavesdropping on two smart and enthusiastic friends. “I love listening to other podcasts like that, with somebody who has a real passion for an issue presenting it to someone else,” Hobbes says. “It’s also nice to just experience two friends bouncing off of each other, having inside jokes, and constructively analyzing an idea.” Gordon and Hobbes don’t present any topic as black-and-white, which they think the format of audio facilitates more than than written stories. “There’s just more room for the kind of nuance and couching that happens in conversation with friends,” Gordon says.
At a time when so many popular podcasts are either deeply reported true-crime stories or totally off-the-cuff conversations, it’s nice to tune in to something that mixes both research and personality. Gordon, a self-described “fat, white, queer cis lady” talks about her experiences with eating disorders, weight-loss drugs, and Weight Watchers meetings. Hobbes describes watching his mother repeatedly try and fail to lose weight. And although the subject matter is often serious, the show itself is funny. Each episode starts with a quick intro that foreshadows what’s to come. Sometimes they’re lighthearted: “Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that butters your coffee.” (The topic was keto.) An episode titled “Is Being Fat Bad for You?” kicked off with: “Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that’s [yelling] just concerned about your health!”
That’s a universal excuse given by people who believe they have the right to comment on fat bodies, as Gordon—and every other fat person—well knows. Almost every listener has likely been on either the giving or receiving end of the line, and approaching such a loaded topic with some humor makes it feel safer for all. The jokes work because they don’t come at the expense of fat people (or any bullied group) and because Hobbes and Gordon can gracefully transition from humor to humanizing vulnerability and thoughtful criticism.
In an episode called “The Obesity Epidemic,” they joke about news stations’ tendency to pair segments about obesity with neck-down footage of fat people walking around. “The only place in American life where you see that many headless torsos are local news segments about obesity and Grindr,” Hobbes says. Then Gordon opens up about her own experience as a fat person tuning in to those news segments of headless fat people. “I spent a good 10 to 15 years watching that B-roll, and I would often tear up watching it, because—oh, I might tear up now—because I was looking for myself.” Listeners in thinner bodies may never have considered how dehumanizing it is to be filmed without their consent as an example of poor health by a cameraman who doesn’t actually know a thing about their health.
On-air moments like this elicit thank-you messages from fans who can relate to Gordon’s experience as a fat person and are relieved to finally hear these things being voiced to such a large audience. But there’s also lots of positive feedback from those who work in the health field and are excited to see this perspective—that being fat isn’t inherently bad, and that fat-shaming is nothing but harmful—presented in a way that makes sense to an audience of nonexperts. “I think the bulk of the responses that we get are from people who do this work professionally—public-health officials, health care providers of all stripes, researchers, the whole bit,” Gordon says. “They’re overwhelmingly extremely complimentary, which is lovely.”
That’s not surprising, since the hosts are well versed in the research and the social systems around health and fatness. They’ve both published widely on the subject: pick up a copy of Gordon’s 2020 book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat and give Hobbes’s widely read HuffPost feature “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong” a read if you haven’t already.
Although Hobbes and Gordon followed each other’s work for years, they’d only met once in real life before starting the podcast (which they record virtually), when Gordon was in Seattle for a few days. “We met for dinner at 4 P.M., hung out, and just had a delightful goddamn conversation,” Gordon remembers. “It was a really lovely vibe.” But the podcast didn’t come about until many months later, after the pandemic hit, when they suddenly had far more free time.
Hobbes had done an episode about obesity on You’re Wrong About, a podcast he started in 2018 with fellow journalist Sarah Marshall dedicated to setting the record straight on past events, people, and things that have long been misunderstood by the public. “There are so many misconceptions about health and wellness that, if I wasn’t careful, You’re Wrong About was just going to become a health and wellness show,” Hobbes says. So he reached out to Gordon, and they decided to try something new. (Ultimately, Hobbes left You’re Wrong About in October 2021).
They recorded six or seven episodes over several months, then decided to start releasing them. “We had this secret relationship for six months, because we didn’t want to announce it or make it a thing,” Hobbes says. “We wanted to record a couple just to see, Does this feel good?”
“I remember having a conversation that was, We’ll see if other people care,” Gordon says. “Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.”
“The response was absurd,” Hobbes says. “We thought, yeah, this is really meeting a need for people.” An overwhelming number of their listeners love the show, enough to pay for a monthly bonus episode. On the membership platform Patreon, they have over 23,000 patrons, with subscriptions ranging from $3 to $50 per month. This means the show will never have to take on advertisers, something its hosts believe would damage their credibility.
“We keep a running list that includes things that we think of along the way and suggestions from listeners. The list is long,” Gordon says. “We’re living in a time where everything, everyone, and every product seems to have some kind of wellness angle.”
Critically, the hosts don’t pass judgement on those who buy into these fads or act like they’re immune to the wellness zeitgeist. To wit: “At some point we’ll do CBD,” Gordon told The New York Times. “I have been a CBD person, and I’ll be made uncomfortable by my own research.” Instead, they offer a more complete picture of the wellness world than we get most anywhere else, allowing listeners the opportunity to reconsider and challenge their own beliefs, on their own time.