I made a mistake. At first I was going to write this post and pretend I got an e-mail from someone asking me this question but I quickly realized that would be a bad idea on two fronts: one, I’m a terrible liar and two, seeing as I’m the one with the problem, I can’t very well be giving myself advice now can I?
You guys are awesome and smart and have the best ideas. I have good intentions that often go awry. Please help me!
Encouragement is powerful. To be perfectly honest, I’m a people pleaser and have been willing to do pretty much anything to get praise since the second I slid out of the womb. (Doctor: “Baby Girl Hilton, APGAR at one minute – 10” Me: *squeeee*) However, I first became acquainted with this fact in a gym setting about five years ago. My first foray into real adult fitness was right after the birth of my 3rd child and I was about as beginner as they come. I knew I liked yoga. I knew I didn’t fit into my pants. And that was pretty much it.
Then Nasca took me under her wing. A yoga and kickboxing instructor, not to mention a veteran bodybuilder and fitness competitor, she had a personality part Earth Mama and part Warrior Woman. Contrary to how most bodybuilders operate, there was never any talk of fat or thin with Nasca. She simply thought everyone was gorgeous. Including me. But she did think I should be stronger. Not from a looks standpoint but rather a functional one. I remember going on a joint expedition to Costco – with Costco it’s never just a shopping trip; even if you’re just getting milk it feels like the modern equivalent of slaying a buffalo and tying it to the back of your pony – and watching her heft 50-pound pallets of flour.
“Come on, use those triceps!” she joked as I struggled to help her.
“What’s a tricep?” I asked lamely. “I don’t think I have one.”
“Everyone has one,” she giggled. “Two actually. It’s this cool little cut on the back of your arm.” She lifted her sleeve to show me a beautiful mark of muscular definition etched into her caramel skin. Then she lifted my sleeve. “See? Yours is right here.”
“Where?” I could only see white mushiness.
“Hold your arm like this.” She flexed. I imitated her. Still nothing. Concerned, she felt the back of my arm up and down as I tried flexing in several different directions. “Wow,” she finally said. “You really don’t have one!” And then with no judgement whatsoever she said, “We’ve got to start you lifting weights.”
As anyone who has ever explained something they are very good at to someone who is very bad at it knows, educating newbies is not fun. But to watch Nasca teach me basic weight lifting skills you would have thought I was the most exciting thing to hit the gym floor since thong leotards. Nasca gave me a lot of good information over the next few months but the real thing that kept me coming back was her friendship. She was always encouraging, always positive and always cared about me. If I didn’t show up to class one day, she missed me. It sounds like a small thing but it meant a lot to me.
Since then I’ve tried to be that person for others. I try to notice when there are new people in class or on the weight floor. I try to reach out to them – say hi, offer a friendly smile and a little encouragement. And most of the time I think it works. I’ve made some great friends that way and people usually at least smile back.
Here’s where it all went wrong: During a class a while ago I noticed a girl in the very back. She was new and hugging the door like it was the last escape hatch on the Red October. Nothing came easy to her. The choreography threw her, the music jarred her and the workout winded her. I tried unsuccessfully to catch her eye in the mirror so I could smile at her. She was so obviously uncomfortable that I expected her to dart out the door after five minutes and never come back. But at the end of class she was still there. I made a beeline for her.
“Hey, are you new?” I panted, dripping sweat. “You did really great today! It’s a tough class – that’s awesome you stuck it out!”
In an instant her look changed from dazed and tired to bald Britney with an umbrella. “Look bitch, I don’t need your pity. Fat girls can work out too.”
Did I mention she was quite obese?
She was slamming the door behind her before I could recover myself enough to apologize. It occurred to me then that perhaps what I meant to be encouraging actually sounded patronizing. In a society as weight-charged as ours, it amazes me that this hasn’t come into my consciousness before. So what is the right way to encourage someone? Is this the type of situation where I should just keep my mouth shut? Has anyone else stuck their foot in their mouth like me?