Exercising While Fat: A Personal History

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As a kid, I used to love to run and kick the ball and skip rope and ice skate in the winter. I played outside with the kids from my small-town street and was picked among the firsts in phys. ed. because I could throw the ball hard and fast—I’ve always been freakishly strong for a girl. I used to have physical fights with my stepdad for fun, much to my mom’s dismay. In short, I was a tomboy. A fat tomboy but a tomboy all the same.

Then my first period came and brought big boobs along with it. Though I had never been comfortable in my own skin (being put on diets after diets from a very young age will do that to you), I became downright uncomfortable with it. I didn’t know what to do with those new forms that just got in the way when I tried to run or throw or skip. So, I pretty much stopped sports altogether, thinking they were not made for me—or rather, that I was not made for them.

I picked physical activity up again in my early twenties. I had just been on (yet another) diet—this one, particularly insane with its 500 calories limit per day—and had lost a lot of weight (that wouldn’t last long, but that’s another story for another time). My body felt foreign to me. In my mind, I was still fat, but I wasn’t anymore, not really. I had all this excess skin and felt weak all the time, which was the worst because whatever flaws my body possesses, never had it felt weak. I didn’t know where to start with exercise. I hadn’t played a team sport in years and as an introvert, they didn’t appeal. The gym option was looming big with its flashy advertisement, but it was also paralyzing for someone who had never even lifted a weight. I tried my luck at my local gym, signing up with a “personal trainer” who spent more time ogling the pretty girls than showing me what to do. Needless to say, I quit that fast.

Then a friend told me about semi-private training, which ended up being my saving grace. Trained professionals actually paid attention to what I was doing, but also challenged me and recognized that I could do a lot more that what my body might signal. I learned to not only understand, but to trust my body again. And after a few years of semi-private sessions, I was ready to venture into the fitness world on my own.

There’s a strange paradox surrounding fat people and exercise. We are told to exercise because that’s the “secret” solution to losing weight, but we are often ridiculed when we do. Or, perhaps worse, seen as a commodity: the before picture in a body transformation campaign, the image of what you should strive to erase forever.

As most fat people who joined a gym and go regularly would tell you, people have no qualms to come up to you, a total stranger, to give you “encouragements” you never sought. “Way to go!” “You’re making the right decision for your health.” “Keep going! You’ll lose the weight in no time!” Because god forbid that fat people would exercise just because they—gasp!—like it. Because yes, it’s good for their health, not in a weight loss perspective, but per the common principle that it’s healthy to exercise: you relieve stress, you feel better, you sleep better, your body releases endorphins, which is awesome, and you just feel good while doing it or right after (or both!). No, no, no. If you’re fat, exercise equals weight loss. Exercise is a punishment for your past excesses. Exercise is a way to fight your own body.

And if you dare take that exercise outside, you’ll often be greeted with your very own special cheering squad. In lieu of the traditional cat-calling, you’ll get people yelling at you that you’re fat (hey, thanks for this brand new information, buddy) or “Keep running, fattie/fat ass/other such original expletive” (yeah, that’s kind of what I’m doing, but thanks for the “encouragement,” I guess).

But here comes the worst part for me. I’ve been a runner for a good dozen year. I don’t run marathons or, heck, even half-marathons, but I do run on a regular basis—typically three times a week in the winter (they don’t nickname it the dreadmill for nothing) and four to five times a week in the summer. I don’t run because I’m training for something, but simply because I like it. It’s an exercise that works for me. Running regularly means needing new running shoes regularly. Like many fat people, I hate shopping, but shopping for athletic clothes poses an additional challenge: the imposter syndrome kicks in. For many reasons—including those listed here—I feel like I don’t belong in sports equipment stores. I have to enlist the help of a buddy (usually my sister) to provide me with moral support. For running shoes, I always go to the same place. It’s a shop specialized in running gear. The sales staff is mostly made of kinesiologists, and the store features a running track so you can test the shoes to make sure you get the right fit. I go back there because I normally get a good service. I still dread it, but I come out unscathed and with a brand new pair of running shoes.

The last time though was a completely different story. I ended up with a sales clerk who just didn’t believe me. He kept on addressing me as though I was a beginner, despite my numerous claims to the contrary. It took me mentioning that I took part in one of the shop’s 8-week running clinics and my sister interjecting that I also biked and swam regularly, and, oh, that I also owned a punching bag (hint, hint: back off, dude) for him to accept that I was indeed not a beginner. By then, he switched to the weight loss talk. Because of course, that must be my ultimate goal!

For me, that’s the most exhausting part of exercising while fat: having to constantly justify wanting to exercise for the simple benefit of exercise.

Wanting to run because I like to run.

Wanting to exist just like everybody else.

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Biking While Fat or Driving While Stupid*

(*post renamed following suggestion from Ann Marie)

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The general consensus is that it’s hell to drive in Montreal. If you don’t have the snow and ice to contend with in the winter, you are faced with the dreaded orange cones on the myriad of road works sites all happening at the same time from May until November, and all being terribly managed by our inept city administration.

The summer of 2016 is a perfect storm kind of situation. With a bridge about to collapse, an interchange falling apart and the 375th anniversary of the city looming just around the corner, everything is happening at the same time. It’s frustrating enough for drivers, but for pedestrians and cyclists, it’s downright nightmarish, because nobody thinks of them in their planning. They block the streets and sidewalks, leaving just enough room for cars to go through in a very narrow line and no alternate route for pedestrians and cyclists.

Last night, I was invited for dinner at a friend’s place on the Plateau. From my home in the Hochelaga borough, it’s a pretty simple route. I ride up to the Rachel bike path, which takes me right through the Plateau, only one block up from my friend’s place. Simple. Yeah… No.

Road works on Pie-IX and Sherbrooke meant blocking the bike path abruptly and offering absolutely no way across. I had to ride on the sidewalk (something I hate doing) and hop off whenever I crossed pedestrians to find an East-West street with no road works but also large enough for bicycles and cars.

I managed to get to my friend’s place (almost on time) and immediately thought about how the hell I was going to get back home later in the evening.

In the end, I opted for a pretty long detour but one I knew was free of obstacles and would allow me to ride safely home. And it all went well… Until I got to just three blocks from my place. A road works site that wasn’t there when I left home four hours earlier was now blocking my bike lane and much of the road. Fortunately, at this late hour, drivers were kind enough to give me room to circumvent the obstacle and join the bike lane again, which I did, only to be stopped once more—this time by a driver who had chosen to park right on the bike lane. Not only that, but also right in front of the point where the bike lane becomes a bi-directional bike path, which meant that I couldn’t bypass the car on the road side because a platform stood between the road and the path. So my only option was to bypass it on the sidewalk side (something I hate doing—repeat). As I was doing that, the driver came back to his car and so I told him, in passing, that parking there was not exactly brilliant. And those were pretty much my words. No invective, no swear words, no yelling—just me saying, “Hey! That’s really not smart to park there because you’re blocking the bike path.”

(A quick aside: I rarely, if ever, engage with drivers when I’m wearing my cycling helmet. They are sitting in a potential weapon and road rage is not as uncommon as one might think. I’m a very respectful cyclist. I stop at red lights and stop signs, I signal my intentions, I check my blind spots: in short, I always keep in mind that if an accident occurs, I’m the one who will wind up dead or, at the very least, seriously injured. The end.)

Of course, that driver could not accept responsibility for his poor choice of parking and had to stop very aggressively (or more appropriately: jump in my lane) at the next red light to shout a “What did you say to me over there?” in my direction. Because he was blocking my path, I didn’t have much choice but to engage. I repeated the same words I had said earlier in a calm voice. He made threatening gestures at me. I told him that he was the one out of line and I had been nothing but polite, but the fact remained that he had parked on a bike lane, which is illegal and—well—frustrating and unsafe for cyclists.

And of course, because you can’t bicycle while fat, that’s when he chose to call me a fattie and to stay in my way until the light turned yellow just so that I would miss my light. Thanks so much for that, best buddy! It’s not like my ride home already took an extra fifteen minutes because of the long detour I had to make or anything.

I have to ask though: Do the people who try to insult you by referring to your weight actually think it’s a great insult? The ultimate diss? The retort to kill all retorts? Because between you and me, that’s pretty weak. And honestly, I was much more concerned with the possibility that he might run me over than by whether or not he thought I was fat.

Pool Stories

Olympic-Size Pool

When I took up swimming about two years ago, my friend Rob warned me: some of the weirdest people you’ll ever meet hang out at the pool. I laughed it off, thinking: the weirdos, man, they are everywhere. I mean, I was a member of a 24-hour gym for three years; a gym in my, let’s say, challenging neighbourhood. A gym facing a police station. A gym frequented by exotic dancers, bodybuilders and biker gang members. So I scoffed a little at Rob’s warning (might as well come out and say it) and signed up with a private trainer to learn to swim. And was I ever wrong to scoff.

The weirdest people you’ll ever meet, you will meet at the pool.

There are the obvious weirdos: the ones who rush to take the shower stall you were walking towards even though there are a number of free stalls; the ones who insist on taking the locker right next to yours even though (again) there are tons of free lockers in the locker room. But those weirdos, you meet them at any good gym. The pool weirdos are in a category of their own.

And here is my Top 5.

The even-though-you’ve-been-swimming-in-this-lane-for-15-minutes-I-will-now-take-over-it-and-leave-you-no-choice-but-to-move-to-another-lane weirdo: Self-explanatory, really.

The I-make-my-own-rules weirdo: As the Olympic pool where I normally swim is closed for repairs; I’ve been swimming at the YMCA. The 25-meter pool is pretty much your standard half-half pool with a shallow and deep end. There’s this one lady who doesn’t swim the full lap because she refuses to swim in the shallow end and thus rotates only in the deep end. Tricky when a bunch of swimmers are trying to do full rotations.

The snorkelling pervert: I met this little gem back in December. He was swimming seemingly quietly in the slow lane along the buoy line. I noticed him throwing looks at my trainer and me but was mostly focussed on listening to her instructions before doing more laps. It turns out Mr. Snorkel was ogling me (and when I say me, I mean my boobs) under the water. The pool has this great advantage though: under the water, no-one can hear you scream. And no-one can see you signal… except whoever you signal to. My trainer was very efficient at letting the pervert know “dude, we can see you”.

The I’m-a-much-faster-swimmer-than-you athlete: First of all: yep, you’re faster. Second of all: Who cares? I’m swimming in the medium speed lane here. If you think I’m too slow, move over to the fast lane, mmk?

The older-lady-who-insists-on-chatting-your-ear-off-while-you-try-to-shower-and/or-change: I’m not someone who can carry on conversations stark naked in front of strangers. Call me odd, if you will, but I’m borderline prudish. I believe in taking a quick shower in a closed stall and then getting dressed quickly. So no, lady, I am not here to have a long chat with you about the weather with a boob hanging out. That’s just not how I roll.

Those Mother-Effing Injuries

ImageI run. I bike. I swim.

Not bad.

I am not an athlete. I am not training for anything. I have no big goal or number to beat. I just run and bike and swim because it feels good. It clears my mind. It relieves the stress. It helps me to sleep better. And in the words of the osteopath I have consulted this morning to deal with a recent injury (I’m getting there—the title wasn’t just for show): “Keep running.”

“Keep running” because my body is this tight ball of freaking rock. If I didn’t run (or bike or swim), I think there would come a time when I would not be able to bend any joint. So I know my limits. I don’t have lofty ambitions as far as my sporting eadeavours go. I just want to be able to keep at it.

So when those mother-effing injuries rear their ugly heads, I take it personally. I get angry. I scowl at my body—which is nothing new, and it doesn’t help anything, but you can’t control a knee-jerk reaction. Three weeks ago, I was running happily in the park. Enjoying the spring weather after what has been a harsh winter (even for Canada). I had been running for a good twenty-five minutes when a pain shot in my left hip. It was so sudden and virulent, I wondered for an instant if maybe I had been bitten by some kind of bug. No. I had to stop running altogether; I could barely walk. Fortunately, I had biked up to the park, so I was able to just let my bike glide downhill and get back home.

Then came the stretches. The strength exercises. The ice pack (how I hate the sight of you, you poor inanimate object who just minds its own business in my freezer most of the time). And today, the osteo. She gave me the all-clear to start running again—progressively—in the next few days.

Progressively.

Mother-effing injuries.