Friday, March 16, 2012

Respect Among the Stacks


If you’ve ever spent any time perusing the fatosphere, you’ve come across the term “fat shaming.” Fat shaming is the practice of making negative assumptions about people’s health, lifestyle, and very character because of their size, then telling them what awful, lazy, stupid, selfish, ugly people they are. 

Oh, Sassyfats! That's terrible! I'm glad I've never done such an awful thing!

Unfortunately, most people are so subtle about it they don’t even know they’re doing it. Have you ever laughed at a fat joke? Have you ever demanded to know, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” Have you ever lost weight, then posted your “before” picture on your refrigerator as a deterrent to gaining that weight back? Then yes, you are familiar with fat shaming. Don’t beat yourself up too bad about it; it’s so socially acceptable that most people don’t even realize it’s an issue.

Then there are people who view fat shaming as a sport. Not content with being subtle, these people will let you know in a loud and public fashion that they don’t like you. Some will shout you down in a crowded mall. (Yes, that happens.) Still others linger on the Internet to troll health, fitness, and weight related websites and leave comments that would make any decent person’s blood boil. If you want to Google "weight loss articles" and check it out for yourself, go ahead. I'll wait. 

Scary, isn't it? If you’ve been significantly fat for any amount of time, chances are you’ve felt the sting of such vitriol. Welcome to my world.

Since most fat people are all too familiar with how it feels to be ridiculed in public by people who don’t even know them, many of my kind are reluctant to engage in a variety of certain activities in front of other people. We've tried before, we’ve been hurt, and we’ve decided we’d like to avoid getting bullied again. One such activity is public exercise. (Emphasis on the word “public.” Plenty of fatties love to exercise - without witnesses.)

Anyone who has ever started a workout regimen for the first time, or restarted after a prolonged lapse, knows how much extra motivation you need just to do the basics. (I’m talking to you too, skinny people. Don’t act like you’ve never dragged ass. Mmm-hmm.) Not only is it hard as hell to work up the energy to exercise a body that’s not used to it, but it’s also humiliating as hell to move your body in unfamiliar ways and work up a sweat in front of people who are likely to judge you harshly because of your size. Paradoxically, the judgy people are the very same people who are likely to tell you that weight loss is easy – just stop shoving potato chips in your mouth (nom, nom, nom!) and get up off your couch every once in awhile so you could be as skinny as they have always been. But for the love of all that is holy, puh-leaze don’t exercise in front of them, because they don’t want to see your disgusting body.
Because we all wear ridiculous headbands
and look sad when we have to move.
Having been a lifelong fatty, I can identify with the inclination to avoid public exercise. You already feel like a blob, and you've had to give yourself a hearty pep talk just to go for a simple walk. Just at that point in your walk when your energy level goes up and you feel all proud of yourself for doing something healthy (Yay, endorphin rush!), some anonymous douchebag drives by in his car and screams, “FAAAAAAAAAAAAAT BIIIIIIIIIIIIIIITCH!!!!!”

NEWSFLASH: This type of commentary is not helpful. To anyone. Sure, Douchey McDoucherson gets the momentary thrill of humiliating a total stranger before going back to his sad, lonely life. That’s got to count as a positive. But when you’re on the receiving end of such commentary, it makes you feel pretty much worthless. It makes you want to disappear. It makes you want to go back home and hide from the McDouchersons of the world. And if you’re like me, it makes you want to drown your sorrows in a pint of Ben & Jerry's. BREAKING UPDATE TO NEWSFLASH: Making me feel like crap will not make me skinny.
You don't say!
Fortunately, my many years of being a fatty – coupled with many years of therapy and the discovery of the Fat Acceptance movement – have allowed me to grow a thick enough skin (oh, is that what all these rolls are?) so that I’m not as afraid of public ridicule as I used to be. I've finally reached a point where I refuse to give the McDouchersons of the world rent-free space in my head. I don’t internalize the negativity as much as I used to. Yes, it still bugs me. It just doesn't consume me any more. Ergo, I can live my life out in the open and avoid becoming an 800-lb shut-in. Yay, me.

Since I’ve mostly gotten over my fear of looking stupid in public, I’ve been able to enjoy going to the gym more than ever before. But until recently, there was still a part of the gym that I did not want to go anywhere near: the hard-core side. See, when you walk in the front door to my gym, you turn right to go to the classrooms and the smoothie bar. You turn left to go to the warehouse-sized space that houses all the equipment. The right side of the room has all the cardio machines, spiffy-looking, idiot-proof weight machines, and your average suburban gym dweller – soccer moms, retirees, mid-life crisisers, etc. 

Home Sweet Home
The left side has all the free weights, scary looking no-frills weight machines that take some know-how to operate, and big muscular dudes. You know the ones – they wear sleeveless shirts to show off their ripped biceps and walk with their arms held out from their sides because their muscles are so tight they can’t reach their own waists.
Seriously, Dude. Put a shirt on.
For many years I stayed on the safe side of the gym with all the soccer moms and retirees. I figured if they judged me harshly, they would at least be quiet about it. They might go tell their friends later, “Wow, you should have seen how fat this woman at the gym was. I think I’ll skip that second glass of wine so I don’t end up like her!” But at least they wouldn't fat-shame me to my face. 

I was afraid to go to the hard-core side of the gym because I figured the body builders would point and laugh. (Leftover impression of jocks from high school are hard to shake. Them scars run deep.) But early in my relationship with my trainer Holloway, he led me straight into the dragon’s lair and said, “Your monthly dues give you access to the whole gym. You belong over here just as much as these guys do.”

What I thought inside my head: Do what, now? You want me to come over here with these dudes – and their college-age groupies with their hair all did up and their chests all jutted out so as to showcase their perky boobies – and exercise?!?!?!? Have you bumped your head????

What I actually said: Um. Ok.

Holloway, not one to waste time or show a whole lot of mercy, got me working right away. He had me sit down on a weight bench near the middle of the hard-core area. Then he had me stand right back up again. And sit down. And stand up. Over and over again, practicing for my debut as a whackamole stunt double. And, oh here. Lift this medicine ball over your head and slam it on the floor as hard as you can when you stand up. (Huff. Puff. Grunt. WHAMO!!!! Huff. Puff. Grunt. WHAMO!!!!) If you’ve never been party to such an activity, let me enlighten you: it draws attention. My cover was totally blown. I was exposed. Vulnerable. Easy prey.

Every time I looked up I expected to see the indiginous peoples of the weight stacks staring, eyes wide and mouths agape. I kept expecting to see them nudging each other and trading amused glances. I kept expecting to hear snickers (the laughter, not the candy bar) and rude comments. I expected scorn, ridicule, and cruel amusement. On the outside, I was working my patootie off and trying to look tough. On the inside, I was bracing myself for the onslaught and hoping I wouldn’t cry like a little girl in front of my tormenters when it came.

But you know what? The onslaught never came. Sure, I saw some guys staring when I first got over there. There was not ridicule in their eyes, but something more akin to puzzlement. (What’s a fat chick doing over here? Shouldn’t she be at McDonald’s or something? Oops, I forgot to flex for a second!) But once I got down to business, they went back to theirs. Nobody pointed. Nobodoy laughed. Nobody sounded an alarm that there was a fatty at the weight stacks. (Red Alert! Fatty at the weight stacks! Get your cell phone cameras out and prepare to enterain the Internet!)

To my surprised relief, the big muscular guys just got on with their routine of picking heavy things up and putting them back down. Then I realized something: by walking me over there and then stating out loud that I belonged, Holloway had given me an all-access pass to a world that was previously forbidden. I was on the hard-core side of the gym, and it was OK.

Now when I walk over there, I do so without fear. Head up, shoulders back, mind on whatever masochistic thing I’m about to inflict on myself. When I see people I recognize, I meet their gaze and nod in salutation. They nod back and then go on about their business. When I see new people looking at me with that familiar look of puzzlement, I meet their gaze and nod in salutation, and then I go on about my business even if they’re still trying to figure out why I’m not actively shoving french fries into my mouth by the fistful. (nom, nom, nom!)

When I work out, I work hard. I do not whine. I do not complain. I do not give something a half-assed attempt and then stop after two reps. I keep at it until I get the hang of it. I huff. I puff. I sweat. My face turns an alarming (yet lovely) shade of red. And when I finish a set of something particularly difficult, I sometimes let out an involuntary, “Hooooo!” as I set down the weights. (Cleansing breath. Inhale… hold… and Hoooo!) I’m not worried about who may be watching. Screw ‘em, I gots work ta do. And by going about my work with even the illusion of confidence, I get what every person on this planet deserves – respect.

I invite the fatties of the world to join me in living out loud, so to speak. The less we hide, and the more we get out there and do stuff (whatever your chosen “stuff” may be), the more society will realize that we’re no less worthy of respect than anyone else. I’m not saying it’s easy. But it is a worthwhile pursuit.

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent! As a former HS health teacher, I totally agree that finding a way to be confident is the best first step towards any goal. It's like a Willy Wonka recipe: 10% enthusiasm, 60% bravery, 40% hard work, 5% someone supportive and a pinch of chocolate.

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