Body image and fitness are so intertwined in the general consciousness that some truly bizzare things can happen when a fat person sets foot into a fitness class.
Fat people are often encouraged to work out (which is problematic for many reasons, but not what we’re discussing here), but when many fitness environments are basically living hells of discrimination for fat folks, it’s not really surprising that some of us eventually end up avoiding those environments.
So when I took my first parkour class and found it to be lacking all the usual stigma and bullshit I have to put up with in fitness classes, I was shocked. And delighted. And it led me to think about all the things I have put up with in other environments which were just downright shitty.
As a result, and since it’s Weight Stigma Awareness week, I thought I’d take a moment to write a how to guide for the more body-privileged among us.
Here are five pointers to keep in mind next time you see a fat person in a fitness class.
1. Don’t assume fat people are necessarily beginners.
For some reason, everyone seems to think it’s okay to assume that fat people must be beginners at all fitness activities.
I sometimes wonder if this has something to do with the prevalence of before and after photos in weight loss advertising. We don’t have any media cues to tell us that fat people aren’t always “before” photos.
It’s fine for an instructor to ask participants about their level of experience with the particular activity they’re going to engage in. It’s not fine when thin students hear, “Do you have a regular yoga practice?” and fat students hear, “Is this your first time at a yoga class?” If you can’t keep from making assumptions, at least keep them out of your language.
In fact, many fat folks, myself included, have more experience is various kinds of fitness activities than most people I know. Considering I basically tried every diet and exercise plan under the sun between the ages of 13 and 29, I’m actually far from being a “beginner” in a wide variety of things.
The bottom line is, you can’t tell how much physical activity a person has done in their life by looking at them, so stop making assumptions.
(For more on this topic, check out This Is What An Athlete Looks Like.)
2. If I wanted a personal cheerleader, I would have brought one to class.
Sometimes people think that what I need, as a fat person, is extra motivation.
Last weekend in parkour class, for example, there was a woman who was in class for the very first time, who decided she was my personal cheerleader. I kept hearing, “You can do it!” and “You’ve got this!” and “Almost there!” out of her mouth every time I did just about anything.
And she didn’t do this to anyone else in the class. Just me. Apparently, despite the fact that I have been training 3-4 times a week for the past two and a half months, she as the new person in class was more aware of my abilities than I was.
Or, you know, not.
I don’t mind when a coach tells me, “I know you’ve got this,” because they do actually know whether or not I’ve got this. They’ve been working with me for months, are aware of my fitness level and ability, and wouldn’t tell me to do anything that would lead to me hurting myself.
The first-timer in the class doesn’t know these things. My fitness is my business and how to motivate myself and/or how to gauge my limits so I can have a safe and effective training session are for me to decide.
Not to mention it’s just extremely fucking patronizing. You’re not the fatty whisperer.
If I want a cheerleader, I’ll make sure to bring my own.
3. I don’t need modifications for everything.
Sometimes I need modifications. I don’t have much in the way of upper body strength, likely because it’s never something I’ve focused on developing. I also have an old shoulder injury from a car accident, so I often find myself needing modifications for certain movements that involve upper body strength.
This doesn’t mean that I necessarily need modifications for every single thing we’re going to do in class.
One of the things I loved most about the first parkour instructor I met is that he trusts me to know my own body and limitations. He doesn’t immediately offer me modifications until I ask for them or demonstrate that I need them.
Other coaches choose to always offer a variety of levels and modifications for every activity to the whole class. That’s another reasonable tactic.
Despite not having much upper body strength, I have excellent flexibility and pretty good balance. Sometimes, I can even figure out how to modify things on my own, using my flexibility to supplement my strength. Since the goal of parkour is learning how to master your movement (not someone else’s movement) this is generally pretty accepted.
Unfortunately, in most fitness environments, this is far from true.
When I’m in a yoga class and the instructor looks and me and shares a modification for every single pose, or comes over to me each time to try to show me a modification when I’m doing the pose perfectly fine, then it’s patronizing and demeaning.
Take the time to observe what I’m actually capable of before you start imposing assumptions on me.
4. Don’t assume we’re trying to lose weight.
There are a million good reasons to go to fitness classes. I might want to improve my strength or flexibility. I might want to decrease stress. I might need some endorphins. I might think zumba is just really fun (which, in fact, I do.) I might just be there for the social aspect.
So, please, please don’t assume I’m trying to lose weight. Don’t ask how much weight I’ve lost or what my goal weight is. And similarly, don’t tell me about how much weight you’ve lost or the new diet program your friend tried.
Yes, I suppose it’s possible you’re just terribly awkward at making conversation, but I generally get the sense that you’re trying to tell me something without actually saying it. And the thing you’re trying to tell me, which is that you think you know what I should be doing with my body, is just downright rude.
I personally don’t mind questions about my goals if they aren’t framed in such a way as to imply that my goals must involve weight loss, because often this gives me the chance to talk about my interest in exploring the capabilities of fat bodies. However, I obviously don’t speak for every fat person who has ever walked into a fitness class.
I think a fair gauge is that if you wouldn’t say it to a thin person, don’t say it to a fat person either.
5. Do treat us like human beings, deserving of basic decency and respect.
I hope there are fat people out there for whom this is not true, but for me, I have experienced a lot of shame and stigma in fitness classes from the time I was in elementary school, and so I’m already on the defensive when I walk into a new one.
It’s truly sad that I’m sitting here writing a request for basic human decency, but the truth is that fat people often get treated like second class citizens in fitness environments, and classmates and instructors alike are often so influenced by their own prejudices and assumptions that they don’t actually see the person as anything more than a caricature or a “before” photo.
I’m insanely grateful that I actually finally found a community in which this idea of treating everyone and every body with respect is upheld. I can’t begin to explain the joy and relief and amazement I feel every time I walk into class. I still notice myself holding my breath some days, worrying that today will be the day when someone will make a fat joke or another fatty whisperer will show up in class and stay, but despite those reflexes, I am really at the point where I trust the community and have faith that everyone there has good intentions and I could handle any situation that came up.
While again I can’t speak for all fat people, I don’t think my situation is the norm. And while nobody is ever required or obligated to exercise or be involved in any fitness activities in any way, it would be nice if those of us who actually want to participate can do so without shame and stigma and discrimination.
So think about these tips the next time you’re in a fitness class, and you too can help make the world a little more welcoming for every body.