On Shame, Fitness Consciousness, and What Fat Friendliness Means

In the quest to achieve physical fitness, being fat is not the enemy.    

Exercise and eating well-balanced meals help people achieve a healthy lifestyle.  Some meals provide more nutrients and health benefits than others.  It depends on the food, the preparation, and the body absorbing it.  Some exercises achieve better results than others.  Again, it depends on the exercise, the body doing the exercise, and the intensity/frequency.  

Everyone who starts a journey to become fit enters the game at different levels of unfitness.  The amount of weight someone carries is another level, just as someone lean who wants to build muscle is at another level, just as someone who wants to maintain current weight is at another level.  

Why am I starting on this now?  Because reaching a goal of fitness is something I’ve been chasing since my preteen years.  It’s eluded me, partly because of my demons (I eat my feelings, they taste rather like ice cream, and it is difficult to eat ice cream and work out at the same damn time) and partly because of the attitudes I have encountered on my journey.  

I joined a gym earlier this year with a friend.  We selected the gym pretty spontaneously; it’s not particularly close to where we live.  But it has decent machines and fun group fitness classes (my concerns), and it has a pool (her main concern).  Between the two of us, I am the one with the highest weight loss goal.  I’ve experienced different treatment from being overweight and obese most of my life.  But for some reason, I thought that a gym environment would treat me differently because ultimately, the goal is to get people fit and on the right track.

I was wrong. 

I sensed a red flag when after signing the contracts, my friend and I asked if they carried t-shirts with the gym’s name or anything that we could receive as a perk.  Our representative smiled and asked for our sizes.  I asked for a size ending in X, which sounds the Warning: Fat Woman alarm.  His face falters a little bit; but he excuses himself to go retrieve the shirts.  I think, “Hey, this gym actually may have something in my size.  How great would it be to keep getting smaller shirts as I start this journey!  I wonder how many people who have to lose over 100 pounds have come here…” 

He returns with a standard sized shirt for my friend and a beach towel for me.  

A beach towel?  My first thought, and I hate to admit this, is I must look like a whale.  Nevertheless, I accept my towel, and my friend is gushing about how this new gym will change everything.  A few months pass, and as she works out to prepare for her upcoming wedding, I am in the wind because the personal training sessions are too expensive.  We tried a free joint session with a trainer who walked us through the machines and then charged us an extremely high rate to persuade us to continue with him.  No thanks.  We do, however, take advantage of the club manager’s offer to set appointments with us every six weeks or so to take all of our measurements (and I mean all of them) and discuss our progress.  For me, that decision winds up being a big mistake.  

As I mentioned, the gym is not particularly convenient for me.  For those who know me, they know that I still don’t drive, and I don’t live in the best area.  If I can’t ride to the gym with my friend, getting there pretty much won’t happen for a while.  I don’t want to be in a situation where I am navigating an unreliable public transit system at night in a moderately dangerous area alone.  My safety ranked higher than the gym, and I wish it didn’t because I like the gym.  I like going and using the cardio machines much better than I like working out at home.  Being able to listen to music or watch a movie while moving motivates me more than popping in a DVD.  There’s also the communal aspect of the gym: this is the place where people go to exercise.  I can’t putz around and go to a refrigerator to check for cookie ingredients at the gym.  (Okay, I guess I could do that… but I wouldn’t be as successful as I would be at home.)  

Anyway, I reach an impasse where I don’t make it to the gym for multiple weeks.  My friend’s schedule and mine aren’t syncing, my personal life reaches a morass of unfulfilled potential and disappointments, and Talenti gelato tastes better than my sweat and doesn’t blind me when it gets in my eyes.  Not that I ever get it in my eyes.  Stop judging me.  

She takes our measurements, and I know that my results will suck.  I think I am mentally prepared to justify why I’ve gained back every pound I’ve lost.  Little did I know I was walking into a moment that would have appeared on any of these “reality shows” concerning weight loss.  The club manager confronted me, and as I explained the setbacks as best as I could, she kept asking if I wanted to lose weight and be fit.  Over and over and over.  Until I broke down.  Completely.

She seemed surprised that her barrage of questions elicited that emotional response from me.  I think I felt shocked, too.  The wide spectrum that lay between me and her led me to thinking about the beginning of this post.  I don’t dispute that I have a long way to go on my journey to be fit.  My health isn’t in jeopardy; but I don’t want to wait until it is giving me problems to change my ways.  

However, the level of investment it takes to devote yourself to better health in this society isn’t as simple as joining a gym.  It’s getting to the gym.  It’s setting aside time to exercise.  It’s setting aside time to find fresh produce and quality meat.  It’s time to research healthier ways of preparing foods.  It’s determining how much of a food you enjoy you can eat, and how it fits into your daily caloric intake.  (For example, my daily caloric intake is not 2,000 – 2,500 calories a day; so nutrition labels may give me a general idea but not the full picture of how to proceed.)  It’s time to cook and plan ahead.  It’s budgeting for grocery trips.  It’s fighting every urge in you to avoid riding the elevator to your floor at work.  It’s… so much more than worrying about disappointing a gym club manager.  

Which leads to my ultimate point… shouldn’t people involved in fitness be aware of these obstacles?  Food deserts and activity goals have sociological weight when you share them in the news or talk offhand to other politically aware folks.  I don’t dispute that.  But in the fitness business, where gyms and gurus sell products based on statistics of overweight and obese people making up X percent of Y population, shouldn’t basic understanding of how social shaming and deterrence of healthful living affect how Fitness Inc. interacts with overweight and obese people?  

Because I didn’t feel motivated when I left the office that day.  I felt ashamed.  I wanted to go home and stop because clearly, since I eat and work and don’t drive, clearly since I have days when I don’t want to cook or I simply want to enjoy a meal without thinking of its nutritional composition, clearly since I am taking the very slow route of learning what’s best for my body instead of falling for every nutrition label and chemically enhanced food designed to cater to my immediate need to Not Be Fat Right This Moment And Forever After, clearly fitness isn’t in the cards for me.

I believed that for a good bit.  Because I’m fat, right?  It costs more to make fat people clothes, and it’s fat people’s faults that unhealthy foods exist.  Or something.  

But then I changed my belief.  It is a person’s responsibility to take charge of how she lives and to make the changes according to what she can do.  But there is a sphere beyond her control, and in that sphere, people do not know how to treat positive, gradual change.  In this sphere, people don’t realize that a fitness conscious world is a fat friendly world, or that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive terms.  One person’s fat is another person’s fit, and the numbers may not match perfectly with the bodies or experiences.   

People think increases in compliments and sharing the knowledge that you’re not like those other bad people will motivate you instead of expose their biases.  I’m not getting fit for that.  I’m not undertaking this journey for that.  Some may be, and they may relish the day they can turn the ire, contempt, and shame they have internalized from society onto others.  But that’s… that’s not healthy.  And isn’t that largely what fitness is about?  Good health?  

About problem chylde
"In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths." Proverbs 3:6

10 Responses to On Shame, Fitness Consciousness, and What Fat Friendliness Means

  1. Lemur says:

    That’s… awful. I too am A Fat Lady, and my spouse and roommates wangled me into joining a gym. The mobility part is a bit easier for us, but we are still poor enough that we can’t always make the best quality meal choices. And the first few weeks after I joined, I was a wreck. If anyone had looked at me wrong, I’d have flipped my shit. However, I’m lucky to have a very supportive and attentive spouse, and the gym we joined (let’s call it Fanet Plitness) has shirts in larger sizes as well as a pretty strict “no judging” policy. Everyone pretty much minds their own business and there are a variety of people there, from the usual muscleheads to the extremely obese to the elderly. So now I actually enjoy going. I don’t worry about losing weight, I just tell myself I can do a little more each day, and get a little stronger every time.
    You should not have been pressured that way. You want to feel good, and you definitely deserve that. You can choose to skip the weighing and measuring and just tell yourself you’re doing it for fun, because after all, if you’re doing it at all, you’re doing *something* positive! (This method may or may not be what you need for yourself, but it works for me, so I offer it.) If I had a ‘fitness plan’ and monthly ‘weight goals’ to meet, I’d probably freak from the perceived pressure and stop going. So I just go because… it’s healthy! I’m doin’ stuff! Yay! And that makes me and my spouse happy, and to hell with anyone else’s idea of what I should be like.

  2. THANK YOU for this post. I am constantly astonished by how little these supposed “experts” know about helping people who have a very long fitness journey ahead of us. I’m so sorry the employee at the gym resorted to fat-shaming, and then was shocked – shocked! that you weren’t grateful. Gee, first person ever to have tried ridicule as a motivator: if fat-shaming “worked,” we’d all be in great shape!

    The message I see is: “You’re way too fat for public viewing, you lazy fat person! But I can’t be bothered to research anything about people with great fitness challenges ahead! Also? Workout clothes are for people who are already FIT, Fatty! No t-shirt for you!”

    Try, just TRY, to go into a sportimg goods store, running store, or the “active wear” department of any department store, and find workout wear above a size 18.

    I have even googled “online trainer very fat” and varieties thereof. I get endless variations of “I’ll help you eat less & exercise more! Because you’re too stupid to have ever tried that approach!” So I read fat acceptance and HAES material for help.

    Hang in there, and thanks again for this great post.

  3. Quercki says:

    I’m sorry this happened to you. And that it is the usual state of affairs.

    It shouldn’t take enormous self-confidence to be able to increase one’s fitness. The ability to tell other people, particularly gym employees, to stop shaming you. To demand that they do the job you are paying them to do. Which is to help you become more fit.

    I have become better at dealing with this as I get older. But I wish I didn’t get so much practice at it. The last time I asked a gym employee to modify how she was teaching to include me, she got huffy and told me that another teacher was even more impossible. I firmly pointed out that “I am in your class, so I’m having this discussion with you. What can you do to help me?” She calmed down and came up with something. (She has me work near her so that she can give me individual modifications when I need them.)

    Instead of trying to “justify” your lack of results, perhaps you can look at your obstacles and enlist the gym’s help in overcoming some of them? For example, “I haven’t been able to get here as often as I would like because I don’t drive. How can you help with that?” Maybe they have a car-pool system or a transit-buddy system or they should set one up!

    Everything you do to get more fit is good. No matter how small. And you start from where you are instead of trying to catch up. Over and over. You are building healthy habits. Shame and guilt don’t work well to do that. Celebrating every positive step works better.

    In my experience, another thing to watch out for at the gym is some white man trying to intimidate you off the machines before you are through.

  4. Gillian says:

    I think a huge part of the problem is that it’s exponentially easier to stay thin if you were thin to begin with. I have this issue with my mom: she’s always been thin and she’s pretty fanatical about staying that way. She walks every day but apart from that gets very little exercise and she stays thin by eating very little. I eat enough that I’m not hungry and I do a lot of cardio and weights, over the summer it was 2-3 days a week but now I’m ramping it up to 5+ days a week. And she thinks I must be lying about my eating and/or exercise because I’m not losing weight and what I’m doing should be guaranteed to cause weight loss, is what she seems to think.

    If she wants to lose about 5lb, she just diets and abuses laxatives for a few days (she sees nothing wrong with this, she laughed when I said that’s what people with bulimia do) and she loses weight. I told her about one time when I had a bad stomach flu and I basically ingested nothing but water for about 5 days. And I did not lose a single pound. She flat-out refused to believe me. Because calories-in-calories-out! She just kept saying “how is that possible” and “that doesn’t make sense” and then she changed the subject.

    It drives me nuts. I’m the one with a biochemistry degree but she just refuses to believe me that weight and metabolism are more complicated than she thinks they should be.

    I think it’s the same problem with a lot of people who work at gyms, they’ve never been fat so they’re like my mom, they think it should be as easy for you to lose 100 pounds as it is for them to lose 5, just whatever they do to lose the 5, you do for 20x longer and boom, magic weight loss!

    It sucks. I’m sorry.

  5. Rachael Acks says:

    Fitness absolutely has to be something that you do for yourself. It ain’t easy. Anyone who claims fitness (or losing weight) is easy is lying.

    The hardest thing to lose is self-hatred. (I wrote about my own experience here: http://geo-geek.blogspot.com/2012/08/losing-weight-sucks.html It’s a work in progress.)

  6. M says:

    I have a chapter in the book I’m writing that talks about pretty much precisely this.

    Thank you for your eloquent post — you broke it down and I’m wondering if the post shouldn’t be handed out en masse to a fair percentage of folks styling themselves “trainers” in all sorts of gyms these days.

  7. Tim Haft says:

    So when you say “shouldn’t people in fitness be aware of these obstacles” it might be better to say “shouldn’t the people at your gym be aware of these obstacles” because you don’t want to play the game of painting a whole category of people with one brush when you haven’t actually interacted with them. I’ve worked in fitness for 14 years and while I do regularly criticize the industry, I’m well aware that there are many sensitive, kind, loving fitness professionals (like me!) who do get it. Would it be nice if there were more of them? Absolutely. It would also be nice if there were more doctors with a bedside manner and more lawyers who weren’t pricks, and more teachers who give a damn about their students. But, ultimately, it is our responsibility as individuals to make the changes that are going to bring us what we want and to do that we need to seek out the people who are going to support us.

  8. martina says:

    I had a similar experience at a gym recently. A trainer made me feel ashamed and guilty about my weight, body fat percentage, lack of recent physical activity, etc. Everything I said to defend myself was “just an excuse”. Like you, I did not feel motivated when I left. So I quit, and I don’t have a gym membership now, for the first time in my adult life. It feels really really good. :)

  9. I’m sorry it took so long for these comments to show up. For some reason, all my comments go to moderation, and when I don’t log in for a million and eleven days, they can’t make their way to my posts.

    Thanks everyone for the supportive comments; I’m checking out some of the links now. And Tim, I don’t mean to paint the whole fitness professional industry as callous. To the gym employee’s credit, she has put me in touch with a personal trainer to give me exercises I can do at home when I cannot make it to the gym. We’re working together to match up our schedules. So there was a good outcome to a not-so-good meeting. :)

  10. Joel says:

    Glad to hear that you have got some exercises to do at home, that’s what i do now as i can’t get to the gym that often. It seems to work for me but the hard thing is motivating myself to do them, when i go to the gym it is a lot easier to stay consistent. Everyone is different in terms of how easy it is to lose weight, i have been exercising regularly now for two years and i’m much fitter than i use to be but still pretty much the same weight. It ain’t easy.

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