On Shame, Fitness Consciousness, and What Fat Friendliness Means
September 6, 2012 10 Comments
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?