How to Treat a Fat Person in a Fitness Class

by Sarah on September 23, 2014

fat cat waistBody 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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Shannon November 6, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Thanks for giving me some perspective! I may be a fatty whisperer and had no idea how offensive and disrespectful I have been! Glad to have been given a clue.

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Orbie October 13, 2014 at 4:43 pm

First of all, thank you for representing the majority of women. πŸ™‚ Second, please forgive me if my question is ignorant, but how can a person physically continue to be overweight with all this training? Would the body respond by burning more calories? My question is probably what also causes confusion to people like the guy at the sign-up table. Thanks for a wonderful article πŸ™‚

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Sarah October 31, 2014 at 8:24 pm

Body size/weight/etc. are very complex and multi-factoral, so I’m not sure I have a clear answer for you to that question. However, there are some interesting studies I read about (in the book “Rethinking Thin” by Gina Kolata, in particular) that seem to show that our bodies are designed to maintain a set weight. Eat more and your metabolism will speed up. Eat less and it will slow down. This is one of the reasons why the general idea of calories in/calories out is flawed – bodies are not static systems that burn the same amount regardless of how much input or output. That being said, I personally don’t care whether or not I’m losing weight. I’m still getting stronger by working out and likely healthier, although health is again a complex thing that is multi-factoral and not entirely within anyone’s control.

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Commando September 25, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Sounds like you need to find a different yoga studio. If you walked into my class wearing jeans, I’d certainly ask you if you’d ever practiced yoga before. If you walked into my class and looked like you were lost, I’d ask you if you’d ever practiced yoga before. If you walked into my class without exhibiting these traits, I’d ask you if you had any physical limitations/surgery/pain.

I can understand your feeling targeted if the instructor gives you modifications for every pose, yet look at it another way. You were getting personal attention that many pracitioners would love to get. A simple “no thanks, I can do this pose without the modification” should be enough to clue the instructor in. If not, see opening statement.

You might feel patrionzed and demeaned, but other students next to you may feel lonely and isolated because of all the [unwanted] attention you are getting.

And if you ever go to a yoga class that has ‘cheerleaders’… *ugh*

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Cindy September 24, 2014 at 11:20 pm

I saw a post on Facebook’s Fit Fatties linked to this article. Excited to see what else you talk about on your site.
I have never considered parkour in my wildest dreams as a fitness option. I may just like that kind of exercise as I am usually the fool that jumps around all over the shallow end of the pool just for fun!

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Sarah September 26, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Hahaha, I too am that fool. πŸ™‚

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Sara September 24, 2014 at 11:04 pm

Thanks for writing this. It gave me a lot of perspective and made me think about things that I wouldn’t otherwise think about. I’m really glad I found my way to your blog! πŸ™‚

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andrea September 24, 2014 at 6:27 pm

I have just recently gone back to exercise after an auto accident and have replacement parts. I have found trainers and teachers who have had a background in PT or are older (past 40) to look past the weight issue and just treat me with the respect I am due.

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Liz P September 24, 2014 at 3:39 pm

I have been a member of my local gym for 2 1/2 years and I really enjoy it. I have seen many of the people you describe – it is the fatty whisperers who irritate me the most, my general fitness level is pretty good. What is “parkour”, I haven’t heard of it here in Manchester UK?

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