We’ve all got our issues…
I’m actually scared to write about this. Seriously. I’ve started and stopped this post like ten times today. Re-wrote the intro at least three times (none of which made it on here clearly since this one sucks). Trashed it. Undeleted it. Stuck it in a future blog fodder folder. And then yanked it right back out again. Why all the dramz? Two conflicting emotions: I really really don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or invalidate their experience and I really really want to know the answer to this. This. This, as in, how do we help “fat” people feel comfortable in the gym? (“Fat” is in quotes because it seems like a descriptor in this case that is subjective more than objective and I don’t want anyone to think I’m applying it to anyone else.)
Lindy West wrote a powerful essay entitled “Hello, fellow gym-goers, look at my fat butt” about the struggles she and other overweight people face when working out (and eating out) in a public setting. She says,
“I used to go to the gym every day. I worked out with a personal trainer. I went to classes. I showered in public. And it was really, really f***ing difficult—but not for the reasons you might think.
The more I exercised, the more I loved it. I felt strong and lean, I had tons of energy, I slept like a brick. But my body didn’t look much different. You’d still see me on the street and read “fat person.” And as a fat person, going to the gym is doubly challenging. There’s the basic challenge we all face—of getting the f**k out of bed, finding a clean sports bra, physically moving your body toward a place where a man will yell at you until you do enough lunges (IT DEFIES ALL EVOLUTIONARY LOGIC)—but for fat people, there’s an even more intimidating challenge on top of that.
It’s entering a building where you know that every person inside is working toward the singular goal of not becoming you.
Do you know how hard it is to walk into a building devoted to not becoming you when you are you!? It’s the worst! I’m me literally every day! “Fat=bad/thin=good” is so seamlessly built into our culture that people I consider close friends don’t hesitate to lament their weight “problems” to me—not stopping to consider that what they’re saying, to my face, is “becoming you is my worst nightmare, and not becoming you is my top priority.” [Emphasis mine]
SO MANY FEELINGS about this. First, enforced lunging defying evolutionary logic made me laugh out loud. I’ve often thought the same about treadmill running. Our ancestors would think we are certifiably insane. Second, I like how she points out that she worked out hard, felt awesome and still looked the same. I’ve been saying for years that the black box weight-loss theory of calories-in-calories-out doesn’t work. Too many variables. We’re not robots. Metabolisms are fickle fine-tuned things. And I also think people can be wonderfully healthy through a wide range of weights. But it was this – “becoming you is my worst nightmare, and not becoming you is my top priority” – that made me write this post. Because I want every person, no matter their weight (or age, race, mental health status or even deodorant-wearing propensity), to feel like they belong in the gym, especially in my gym.
But as all of us probably already know this isn’t often the case.
“I can’t tell you how many times women—strangers!—have come up to me at the gym and said some variation of, “I see you here all the time, and you just work so hard. It’s so inspiring for me! If you can do it, anyone can!” Maybe they cluelessly think they mean well, but it’s code for, “Hey, fatty! Congratulations on doing your public duty to become not-you! It really makes me feel good about my membership in the Not-Being-You Club!” “
The thing is, I’ve done this. I’ve screwed up and it had awful results. Way back in 2008 (whoa, I know) I blogged about this episode:
“During a class a while ago I noticed a girl in the very back [of my kickboxing class]. 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 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.”
Since then it’s been on my conscience a lot. Sadly I never saw that girl again, never got the chance to apologize, never got to explain that I say that kind of thing to all the new people, no matter what they weigh. As a gym newbie, I felt awful when I’d go to the gym and no one ever talked to me. When I finally made my first gym friend (gym buddy!) she made all the difference to me so since then I’ve tried to be that person for other people. But perhaps my apology and explanation would have been useless because to her, it hurt. My intention didn’t matter. My words mattered. And those words… well, they sucked. (To that girl, if you ever read this: Please know I am so so sorry.)
That experience taught me a lot (never speak when a high five will suffice) but it has also made me think a lot about what in our society in general and our gym culture in particular prompted her to react that way. I’m not going to speculate – the last time I wrote something in that vein I got blasted on another website for vaunting my “thin privilege” (from which I also learned a lot and was grateful that I at least got the opportunity to apologize in the comments there; it’s never my intention to hurt people) – but I think that there are some obvious reasons why heavier people feel uncomfortable in the gym. And the most obvious one is the weight stigma endemic in the health and fitness industry.
So my question is this: What is the right way to encourage people in the gym? Is there even a right way? Or should I err on the side of keeping my mouth shut? My problem with the mouth-shut option (besides the fact that I’m naturally chatty and have a hard time not talking to people in general) is that we can’t just pretend this issue doesn’t exist. Every time I read an essay like Lindy’s (and there are a lot of them – this business of feeling mocked in the gym is sadly a nearly universal experience), I want to exclaim, “Okay, so how can I help? How can we change this so this doesn’t happen to the next girl walking in the gym doors for the first time? What should I do differently??” I get what I’m not supposed to do. But I’m still not sure what I ought to do.
Here are a few options I came up with:
1. Don’t assume people are in the gym to lose weight.
2. Whether someone is “too fat” or “too thin”, don’t assume they have an eating disorder.
3. Make friends with people by chatting about neutral subjects (my fave friendly-yet-not-offensive question is the ever-popular “So where are you from?”).
4. Don’t comment on anyone’s weight. At all. Not even your own.
5. Smile a lot.
Um, yeah, that’s all I’ve got. And technically only two of those are “what to do”s. Perhaps the right answer is to just butt out, to mind my own business, to respect the sanctity of the earbuds-in-I’m-just-here-to-workout-not-make-friends look. But that makes me sad. Thanks to the (wonderful) advent of technology, there are very few public places left where we are forced to interact on a daily basis with a wide variety of strangers. And while the gym can be weird, awkward, loud, stinky and hopelessly unhygienic there’s a rawness and an openness that people don’t see anywhere else. The gym forces us to show the sides of us (literally and figuratively) we generally hide from public scrutiny. And the more we isolate ourselves, the more I’m convinced we miss out on what is best about this life: people’s stories. I would rather have someone say something well-intended but dumb to me than say nothing at all. But perhaps that’s just me?
A neat academic discussion about health and willpower and whatever research, this is not. This is all about people’s feelings. And people’s feelings are messy. My feelings on this subject are messy and poignant and confused and perhaps wrong-headed. I want to know your feelings, even if they’re messy too. Or angry. Or sad. All of them. Lay it on me:
What do you say to “Hello, fellow gym-goers, look at my fat butt”? Have you ever been on either end of a weighty (sorry, couldn’t resist!) convo like these? Is this just one more example of society’s imperial march to make sure that none of us feel good about our bodies, ever? Is even blogging about this patronizing and disrespectful? Hellllpppp me, before I stick my foot in my mouth again!