Exercising and Exorcising: on Fitness and Fatness

This article originally appeared in Bad Reputation – a feminist pop-culture adventure on 24 January 2012.

This article began as a reply to the Guardian’s call for responses on body image, but I had more to say than would have fitted into their 200-300 word limit.

For starters: I am overweight and I am not fucked up about it. Here are some of my thoughts on a lifetime of body-based bullshit – a lot of which I only started to realise and address when I joined a gym for the first time this year.

I’m going to focus on the body shape and exercise side of things here because food and loathing is in itself a subject which would take more word count to tackle than our lovely editor has time to read through. Suffice to say that due to being raised right I have always known how to eat healthily, and that ‘diet’ is a four letter word. I’ve sometimes felt a bit left out of the whole dumbass ‘detox fat flush carb starve blah blah fad’ being discussed around the water cooler, but I’m also profoundly grateful that self-hatred regarding food has never been my mother tongue. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not particularly confident about my body, but crucially it’s never been the main thing I measure my self-worth by. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am that I dodged that bullet.

I have always been overweight (to varying degrees), but I’ve also always been pretty active (my post-viral fatigue syndrome years notwithstanding). For the last few years I’ve been swimming around a mile a week (sometimes more), I do some yoga, and every couple of years I start working out for a bit. Often people do a double-take when they find out that I swim a lot. ‘But you’re a size 16. Does not compute!’ As Health at Every Size can tell you, fat and fit are not always a dichotomy, but nonetheless the cultural assumption is that a big person must be stationary.

However, since the beginning of November last year, I started exercising a lot (I’m unemployed/’freelancing’ and needed something to get me out of the house) and as I started to ‘tune up’ physically I found myself – despite wanting to move up a gear to the next bit – really dragging my heels about ever moving the exercising out of the privacy of my room. I found myself looking up exercise tutorials on YouTube and then trying to figure out how to supplement the equipment they used with something I had lying around. (Water bottles filled with sand instead of weights because owning weights is for, y’know, them… and I’m not one of them.) However, at a certain point I realised that there weren’t many workarounds left for the machines I was genuinely craving a go on – I needed an actual real-life gym.

Swimming (like I say, my physical activity of choice) does involve wearing a swimsuit, but this is one activity I was raised with, and something about being submerged once you’re in, about not ever getting sweaty, about not having to make eye contact with anyone else, made me think of it as the exception to the ‘exercise is scary’ rule. Gyms remained terrifying to me.

Photo showing a row of cross trainers and exercise bikes, by Flickr user sirwiseowl, shared under creative commons.

Previously known only as the Valley of Horrors

I’d never been inside a gym before this year, and I was convinced that it would be stuffed with supermodel-beautiful people. I was sure the moment I walked in the music would stop playing and everyone would turn and stare like I’d walked into the wrong saloon in a bad western.

When I finally just bit the bullet and went, I was relieved to find out it was full of a range of shapes, sizes and ages, and I did fine on the machines. The guy who did the induction just talked me through how to use each machine, set a goal and left me to it. No hectoring, shouting, or close-ups on unflattering areas like they do on the TV all the time.

I realised later it wasn’t my own performance I was worried about (I know I’m pretty fit these days – I barely got out of breath), but an internalised shame about being a larger person being seen doing exercise at all. I realised I saw exercise as a ‘thin person’ activity.

I get that if you’re aiming to get fitter, thinner or both, then a gym sure as hell helps, but still I was reluctant. It didn’t seem to make any sense – but then I realised: all the shame and embarrassment I was feeling wasn’t about me, it was a response to a lifetime of others’ assumptions. Experiences like being laughed at if I got pink-faced after running somewhere, or always being picked last for the teams in PE (despite being pretty good at football back then – fuck you, my Year 5 class), or a school bully cackling loudly when she overheard me say to a friend “yeah, sure, I’ll meet you after dance club”. My own abilities didn’t put me off exercise – other people’s (conscious and unconscious) group shaming did.

In fact, avoidance of embarrassment has been seen to be one of the largest factors inhibiting girls in the UK from doing PE. The WHO’s own study has noted that:

It is important to recognise the significance of girls’ early experiences of physical activity and it is often within the context of physical education lessons where understanding of individual sporting identity is developed … what were initially regarded as lesser concerns for school governing bodies, such as specific uniforms for physical education lessons and the standards of showering facilities were shown to be significant aspects in girls’ actual enjoyment of school sports.

[…] in sports there are many occasions where the body is literally displayed and this has the potential for the individual to be exposed to negative emotional experiences of shame and embarrassment.

Can I get an amen, sister? I’m writing this a few weeks away from my 26th birthday, but I only very recently realised that I am still haunted by the memories of the Nelson Muntzs of my school years pointing, laughing or making bitchy comments.

Anyone who does any sports or goes to the gym will tell you: you will get sweaty – that’s how it works – but in my teens (and even before) how well you did at PE wasn’t half as important as avoiding the indignity of getting sweaty, red-faced or out of breath. As a chubbier kid, I was an even easier target for the standard crap.

In a world dominated by the RED CIRCLES OF SHAME from Heat magazine and the like – drawing attention to any perceived imperfections, sweat stains, funny creases and so on in even the most highly-regarded beautiful people – is it any wonder that the perceived embarrassment of getting hot, sweaty or out of breath is prohibitive to many people? The Surgeon General in the ‘States has drawn flak for suggesting that the extra haircare required might be a small contributing factor in putting many women off exercise, and in a world where a bad hair day for some celebrities can make it to the press, is it any wonder that the trickle-down effect has been to make ordinary women even more self-conscious about these things too?

Fat-shaming is not just a shitty way to treat people (duh) – it’s also utterly counter-productive. To be honest I only ever felt moderate embarrassment about my figure, but I felt acutely ashamed of my body in relation to exercise. I felt that because of my body shape, certain doors were closed to me. Ironically, most of those doors were ones that led to better fitness and possibly even changing my shape.

Photo of the screen on an exercise bike. It reads GREAT WORKOUT! in red LCD letters. Photo by Flickr user Tim Dorr, shared under Creative Commons.In an inverse-snobbery retaliation I’d decided that explicit, gym-type exercise was for horrible/vain/stupid people. When I started exercising, I started working through all the years of rubbish I’d accumulated in relation to physical activity – and my self-image has done far more of a reshape than my body has over the past three months (though the body’s coming along nicely, thanks for asking). While I’ve been really enjoying exercising under my own steam, I’ve also been exorcising the ghosts of schoolyards past.

Some of the things that kicked me into upping my exercise ante were finding friends of mine were into certain sports and realising that exercising was actually a pretty normal thing that pretty normal people do. Not everyone who goes to the gym is either a supermodel or a wanker. And some exercise can be pretty badass (I’m still looking for boxing lessons locally – I really want to hit things).

So, uh, morals. Well, the moral of the story is don’t be scared of new stuff, and if you are trying to get healthier then for God’s sake don’t worry about other people. You’re not at school anymore and no one gives a crap. That haw-haw Nelson Muntz kid from the playground isn’t here. They’re grown up, somewhere else, and would probably be embarrassed to remember they were that mean. That toned person sweating on the exercise bike next to you? They’re much more worried about their own abs than yours, and are probably mentally compiling shopping lists as they go. No one cares, and no one should be judging you anymore. This is about you and your body. You’re the one that gets to live in it.

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