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.