On Being Fat in Gym

Having been overweight most of my life — literally, I think I started being overweight at 3 and have been there ever since — I just wanted to echo Mark Ambinder’s concerns in this article, but also mention a little bit more about fat stigma. He mentions it briefly, and says that it leads to a whole host of problems, among them the tendency to “duck exercise.” But I don’t know how many people actually realize how deeply true that this is, and how deeply tied into fat stigma it is — in other words, big people duck exercise, not because they don’t want to, but because there is a different unbearable weight on their lives: the unbearable weight of other people’s opinions.

Rest after the jump:

Society basically sends fat people two messages when it stigmatizes them. The first is “If you just exercised more and ate right you’d be healthy and skinny.” This is true for some people, for sure, although I think there’s a lot of data to suggest that there are some people for whom “big” isn’t necessarily bad or unhealthy, but is rather their natural body-at-stasis size. I think this fact can be used by some people as an excuse not to stay healthy or work at it, for sure, but fat stigma makes it tougher for people who actually do have a naturally higher weight-stability-point to get by. But I digress.

The second is “fat people are ugly.”  These two stigmas combine together to create an environment in which big people are sent two completely contradictory messages.  On the one hand, they should exercise…but on the other hand, they’re ugly.  I have walked into gyms where I can tell the moment I walk in I am unwelcome.  Eyes stare at you.  People snicker.  Eyes are rolled.  And then, while using equipment, big people are often subjected to certain discriminations not always meted out on others.  More often than with others, people will ask you to relinquish equipment, often implying or directly stating that you can’t be using it efficiently, that you should step aside for someone more responsible with their bodies who will actually put the machine to good use.  Or you’ll wipe a machine down after use, just like everyone else, only to be accused of leaving it sweaty; again, the assumption being that, since you are big, you must be more physically disgusting, to the point of rendering equipment dirty after you’ve used it.  I’ve even been accused of leaving a machine sweaty that I had not used — indeed, a machine that I did not even know HOW to use!

Not all gyms are like this, of course.  There are a great many good gyms out there, ones that cater to a wide variety of people — some wider than others.  These gyms, of which I haven’t found many, but a few, have been good and I’ve been healthier as a result of finding them.  But then they close down, or move to less convenient locations (and sometimes, a good gym like this is already in an inconvenient location), or I move to Chicago, and have to start the search process all over again.  And that takes time — time I don’t always have as a grad student.  And don’t get me started on university gyms.  They are the worst of the worst.

A big person can’t take a search for a new gym as cavalierly as a slender person — each gym they walk into might be a new source of shame, a new place in which people judge you and say mean things about you and indicate by their glances, their mannerisms, and their words that you are ugly and unworthy of even setting foot into a gym.

The same could be true of all sorts of things — anywhere where people might get exercise.  I’ve seen people sigh and heard them lament that they were placed behind me at a rock climbing wall, assuming that I’ll take forever to get up and down.  Ever try to get into a hot gay nightclub where, you know, you might be able to dance some calories away, only to stand outside all night because you’re not “hot” enough to make the cut?  Or you’re out for an exercise walk only to have someone driving past yell “fat fuck!” out of a passing car window?  The problem with fat stigma is that, unlike cigarettes, fat is connected to our bodies, it becomes part of who we are, and the way to change who we are is not to have the world tell us on the one hand that we should just exercise, and on the other that we are so damn monstrously enormous that we should just stay in our rooms and not inflict our mammoth selves on the precious eyes of others.

6 comments on “On Being Fat in Gym

  1. thandiwe says:

    You are so smart and articulate!!!! And not afraid to talk and write honestly about things that most people, me included, have a hard time talking about. Your writing just makes me want to read more. I am going to miss the heck out of you this year. At least Greensboro is pretty and has sunshine! A nice consolation prize since I don’t get to see you every week!

  2. Do you find the term “overweight” appropriate? I’m just wondering because that’s something that I try not to use (although I sometimes do accidentally.) It just seems like it can imply an ideal that really isn’t realistic or preferable for some people.

    My two roommates you don’t know will watch The Biggest Loser and shows like that so they can gawk and laugh at fat people and I have a hard time not yelling at them. I mean, in general, it’s really not that hard not to be an asshole. Chances are that if you want to make fun of someone or feel disgusted by someone when you don’t know much about them, you probably just shouldn’t.

    • tolkienista says:

      The term is fine when parsed with the nuance that acknowledges that it’s possible for someone to be overweight according to their own body’s normal stasis points — and I think an individual can be perfectly fine deciding for themselves to describe themselves as overweight. But more often than not, overweight is just employed in the way you describe — to put someone in a position of having to conform to the social construction of reality.

      Also you can use whatever terms you want. You’re the only person I know who, if you were to use a racial slur, I would probably decide you had a damn good reason.

      • Yeah, with you sure, but I was talking more in general. I mean, I shouldn’t go around using racial slurs or calling people overweight because it’s not like someone who hasn’t know me 15+ years would get the full weight of my meaning/un-meaning(?) from a single, loaded word. I also can’t envision a situation where I’d genuinely need to use a word like that when it wasn’t in quotation marks as some sort of an academic reference.

      • tolkienista says:

        I was jokin’. But only sorta. I intended to express the fact that given the degree to which you reflect more than anyone I know on how your language and behavior might wound others, my general guess is that if you decided it was alright, you’d probably be right.

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