Not a single person who has ever fat-shamed me has even bothered to asked me if I want to be thin. I don’t.
I hate the gym. It’s a traumatic space for me. Being a fat person in public is hard, and being a fat person in a gym is even harder. It can shatter your confidence in a split second, with one chuckle, one smirk, one look of disgust, one eye roll from another patron. Gym culture is toxic, and like many other institutions centered on physical appearance and desirability, it’s built on a foundation of fatphobia and antagonism, whether the gym rats on Instagram want to admit it or not.
For a long time, I hated exercise, too. When I was growing up, I wanted to wrestle. I wanted to play football. I wanted to take up boxing. I wanted to lift weights. I wanted to climb the trees in our front yard. Instead, I was limited to gymnastics, cheerleading, and basketball, activities that were acceptable for a girl to be engaged in. I still defied my mom and climbed trees sometimes, and I was always reprimanded for it.
I quit cheerleading after one season because I hated it, and did the same with basketball because I had no passion for it (even though it did sometimes help me feel the masculine energy that I had always longed for as a girl, but had not the language to take about it). For financial reasons, gymnastics was no longer accessible to me, and while I did enjoy it, it was incredibly gendered and classes for girls never focused on strength and conditioning like the classes for boys. I played in the marching band in high school (which burns way more calories than you “cool kids” think it does, by the way), but apparently that wasn’t enough.
Countless fat kids and teenagers, and people who just weren’t thin enough for their family’s liking, are unfortunately familiar with forced exercise and degradation from the people around them growing up. My mom forced me to exercise in the way that she wanted me to, punctuating her disgust for my lack of a trim body with comments like “You can’t honestly say that you’re satisfied with yourself” and “Don’t come crying to me when the boys don’t want to date you.”
One year, I actually did lose some weight, unintentionally. It was the year I played basketball. My jeans would no longer stay up on my hips without a belt and my mom praised me in a way that she never had before, and hasn’t since. It made me self-conscious. It made me anxious. It made me feel like shit. It made me hate her, and myself.
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In my mind, exercise became a punishment for not being thin enough, and the “reward” for losing weight was unwanted comments about how my body was changing that sent me plunging into an anxiety attack before I even knew what one was and left me asking if my mom would love me more if I were thin.
That question never went away, it just changed over time and cropped up again and again as an eternal intrusive thought: Would my friends love me more if I were thin? Would my family, my professors, my coworkers, my potential employers, my partners? Would the entire world love me more if I were no longer fat?
As I grew older, anything that I saw or read about fitness was an instant trigger and further complicated my relationship with my body. I became torn between wanting to be active and gain strength, but at the same time not wanting to drop any weight out of fear other people’s reactions to my body and what implications that might have for my mental health.
Everything in fitness rhetoric seems to be about weight loss, especially for women. I’m supposed to drink weight loss tea and follow #thinspiration accounts on Instagram. I have “no excuse” for being fat if a working mom of two can manage to stay trim. In all of this, I see hardly anything about how to become stronger, more powerful, more formidable, more balanced, more flexible. There are no mainstream fitness campaigns highlighting the many benefits of physical activity outside of “burning fat” and “trimming your waistline.” I’ve had to do my own research to learn about how exercise can improve my health and potentially make life better for me in many ways, the most notable of which for me are the mental health benefits.
I have far too many memories of former friends and exes, concern-trolling and pressuring me to lose weight for their own comfort and satisfaction, all under the guise of caring about my health. However, the biggest barrier to my complete health is not my body, it’s my mind.
Exercise can help with anxiety and depression, two things I battle daily. It can also help to relieve stress, improve sleep patterns, increase brain power, improve memory, increase energy, boost immunity, endorphins, and creativity, improve work performance, and reduce symptoms of PMS. All of these are far more important and more beneficial to me than worrying about the size of my ass and how to decrease it so that others around me can be more comfortable with my body. Imagine if this was part of the mainstream narrative about fitness, rather than a narrative which relies on shaming people for the amount of fat they carry on their bodies.
Not a single person who has ever fat-shamed me has even bothered to asked me if I want to be thin. I don’t. People simply cannot fathom that thin bodies are not universally desired. I don’t and have never wanted to be thin, but I do want to be strong. I want to wrestle, and play football, and take up boxing, and lift weights, and climb trees.
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This is hard for me to write, if you haven’t gathered that already, but it feels necessary for me at this point in adulthood to speak or write out loud about the things that I have kept hidden in an attempt to protect the child in me from admitting that all of this was abuse.
As the 30th year of my life draws near, I am finally able to begin thinking of fitness and exercise as a celebration of what my body is currently able to do and what it is working towards. I can see it as a meditation on my relationship with my body, as opposed to punishment for being fat or “out of shape.” I am approaching it from a place of confidence rather than a place of shame.
My entire life, fitness and exercise have been synonymous with fat antagonism, body terrorism, shaming, and abuse. For the first time, it’s about only the important things: my health – mental, spiritual, and physical. Fitness and exercise do not have to look or mean the same thing to/for everybody and every body. My fitness journey does not have to be about weight loss, and it won’t be.
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