For the bazillionth time, it is known, I am pretty fat. We have covered this. And yet, contrary to popular belief, I sometimes participate in non-fat activities such as exercising, enjoying a crispy salad, not crying, wearing a pencil skirt, and not reclining under the gravy spout all day while I wait for Jerry Springer to de-fuse my giant butt from my toilet. It's true! Go ahead and verify it! E-mail my mom! I will wait.
...See? 'Kay. So, for yeeeeeears, before I shacked up with an artist and signed a really expensive (but totally worth it) lease, 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 fucking 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 fuck 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."
And that's why it is politically transgressive to simply be fat and happy in public. It is against all the rules.
So I'm deeply familiar with the sentiments in Emily Anderson's essay about being fat at the gym:
Being a fat woman at the gym is in itself an act of social disobedience. I shouldn't be in there, taking up the space of the lithe-bodied, unless it's with a face of sincere penance and shame. But I have claimed the gym as my own. I celebrate being visible and fat all over the gym—running and sweating and sometimes breaking into song, lifting dumbbells alongside muscle-laden men with uncompleted tribal band bicep tattoos, flinging my weight around in aerobics and finally cooling it poolside in my bright, non-apple-body-shape flattering tankini.
I smile and chat with women before yoga and mention how hungry I always am after class and can't wait to eat. I want to be seen. I am fat and happy in places where I should be fat and shameful, and denying this stereotype is a political action in my eyes.
As a fat person, burdened with the knowledge that your only valid cultural utility is as a "before" picture to inspire Kirstie Alley to eschew that third handful of GoLean Crunch, there is no socially acceptable posture but that of constant apology. Oh, I'm sorry, thin people, for eating where you can see me—but don't worry, I'll just have this salad so as not to confirm your suspicions about my disturbing fettuccine alfredo addiction. Oh, I'm sorry, thin people, for exercising in your gleaming anti-fatness temple, but I'll wear these baggy clothes and stay away from the popular machines so I don't inconvenience the real exercisers.
Now, I'm being hyperbolic here (and, almost certainly, projecting certain oversensitivities after a lifetime of being told I should hide my revolting bulk), but the idea that fat people should apologize for eating and moving in public is not a fringe opinion. It is the norm. We must do our public penance—and, no matter how much penance we do, if we remain fat, we remain open to ridicule. We must be doing it wrong! We must be mainlining pancake batter in the locker room! We are lambasted for not exercising and lampooned for exercising in public. There is no winning unless we decide not to give a fuck.
I threw my fuck-giving out the window very early on at the gym. I lucked out with an amazing personal trainer (UGH, I MISS HIM) who worked with me on fitness goals rather than aesthetic goals, and who once told me that he'd never had a female client who was so comfortable with her body. All of his thin clients, he said, were eternally miserable. So I guess there's no winning even if you succeed in becoming not-me. We could all do with a little less fuck-giving.
Eventually, aggressively smiling through squats and projecting that contentment became as natural a part of my workout as the workout itself. And once I found myself capable of doing that—of forcibly elbowing my way into the gym culture—I was thrilled to do it for the younger versions of me I spied slinking around the corners of the gym. Anderson describes that same conclusion beautifully:
But most of all, [I do this for] the quiet, timid fat teen girls who slink up to the machines like they want to disappear. I know what it's like to think you don't belong in the gym, to look around and see bodies that are so different than yours, bodies you are supposed to aspire toward. For those girls, I wear tiny shorts and wipe my sweat with the bottom of my shirt. I run and I breathe so loudly, big noisy gulps of air. I dance a little on the elliptical and break into song and can't always contain my fist pumps.
At the gym, as a fat person, you encounter a few different types of people: The majority are, most likely, indifferent. They're focused on themselves. They're just there to work out, like you. Some are scornful. They eye you with disgust and you can tell. They are jerks. Whatever. But then, possibly the worst, are the condescending dicks who treat you like animatronic inspiration porn. Like you're theirs. 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!"
But the thing is, I'm not doing it to not be me. I'm doing it because ME WANTS TO. And I love me.