Video produced by Diana Fraser
Article written by Cat Polidova and Saraya Boghani
The gym: a multifaceted space filled with dreamers, schemers, and believers. It’s a place of sweat and tears and triumph; every person flexing their self-esteem and stretching their ability in the ubiquitous wall mirrors. In it, you’ll find simple and complex machines, and people engaging in simple and complex systems. Everyone who enters the heavy, hallowed gymnasium doors is assumed to do work. Hard work. Determined work that shows their merit and fortitude and strength.
Unless they’re fat.
If you’re fat, walking into a gym is an obstacle course of perceived and experienced fatphobia. These obstacles come in multiple, tenacious forms.
Fat people face barriers to fitness before even entering the gym. Prioritizing fitness or a gym membership is a challenge when it’s rarely presented to you or to people who look like you as a safe or comfortable place to spend your time. Dedicating finances to gym memberships can also be a financial burden when we know that sizeism negatively impacts hiring and earning for those in larger bodies. It’s also difficult to find comfortable, supportive and affordable workout clothing in plus-sizes – especially larger plus-sizes.
Once inside, fat people contend with negative interactions from gym patrons and even staff. Staring, laughing, sighing, rolling eyes or even photos being taken without consent are all possible realities. Bullying doesn’t get left behind in the high-school gymnasium. In fact, it proliferates in adulthood – only now you get to pay for it!
Of course, no one can assess your health by just looking at you and no one can predict why you’re at the gym. That being said, inaccurate and often condescending assumptions abound in fitness spaces. Some interactions are seemingly positive like, “Good for you!” or “You’ll get there some day!” or “You’re an inspiration!” As if the only reason you or anyone might be at the gym is to lose weight. Unless these pseudo-affirmations are systematically being shared with every gym patron, this type of interaction isn’t as welcoming or even as well-intentioned as it seems. In fact, it’s a microaggression. These behaviors create a negative environment for fat folks to engage with fitness.
The external negativity easily transposes to our internal dialogue. If new to a gym or fitness, you might ask yourself: Do I belong here? Am I doing this right? If I ask for help, will it just feed into the stereotype of a fat person who can’t or doesn’t prioritize fitness? Will they judge me if I can’t keep up? Is that person staring at me? And so on.
It’s also easy to internalize the consistent microaggressions that contribute to negative self-talk as a barrier in fitness spaces. Even for fat athletes or gym regulars, there are so few people who resemble them, so self-comparison or trainers with lack of expertise working with different bodies can be destabilizing. All of these experiences, of course, are compounded by your gender expression, ability, age and class status.
All of these obstacles are rooted in our culture’s misguided commitment to contrasting fitness and fatness. When exercise is positioned as a means to change your body shape or prevent being fat, we allow fatphobia to rob us of the joy of activity and exclude countless members of our community from engaging with it.
The reality is that movement or fitness or working out or whatever you want to call it is beneficial for all who choose to participate. Folks of all sizes should be able to take part in fitness for whatever reason!
We can’t help but dream about what gym culture could look like without the discordant disconnect of fitness and fatness. If health and weight weren’t conflated as one and the same and a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach was the norm, many of the obstacles described above would be overcome.
So we wondered: What would a body-positive, weight-neutral gym based in universal design look like?
Gym culture that’s not a clique, but an intersectional community:
The staff looks just as diverse as the gym’s patrons. Everyone who works here has gone through HAES training, anti-bias training, and is actively engaged in making the space welcoming and comfortable for folks of all abilities, genders, ages, races and backgrounds.
Weight loss is not emphasized or prioritized or mentioned. Everyone understands that a focus on intentional weight loss is inherently fatphobic and that fatphobia is deeply intertwined with multiple systems of oppression.
Plus, focusing on weight loss (that is often not achievable or sustainable anyway) is no fun! Instead, in this gym, success is measured by strength, joy and the rush of endorphins. Goals are personal and, if shared publicly, are celebrated without pressure for comparison.
The gym’s community and leadership has intentional checks and balances so that incidents of fatphobia, and any hints of toxic diet and gym culture, are confronted and worked through. Holistic coaching is also available for physical and personal growth.
A peek into a group fitness class:
As an instructor leads a class, they share modifications readily and offer different levels of activity so the class is enjoyed by all.
Class participants of all body sizes and abilities are dressed in workout wear that’s comfortable for them. Some are covered head to toe, while others comfortably bare a little skin, and all looks and style expressions are celebrated.
As the instructor shares motivations throughout the class, they don’t discuss calories burned or rely on shame as a misguided motivational tool. Rather, they encourage participants to go at their own pace, challenge themselves in ways that feel good for them, and encourage them to thank their bodies for whatever they’re able to do today.
Outside the classroom, the gym is buzzing with warm, bright energy:
Some friends chat as they walk on neighboring treadmills, while other patrons work out independently and don’t feel pressure to socialize.
There’s enough space for those of all sizes and abilities to make their way. Folks of all fitness levels are comfortable accessing all areas of the gym. Quotes and art share reminders and affirmations rooted in fat liberation. Locker rooms and restrooms aren’t gendered and offer individual privacy for those who want it.
While this might be far away from our current gym realities, it feels possible.
From Cold War-era calisthenics to a wave of capitalism that encouraged individual engagement like jogging, and celebrity-endorsed workout tapes and equipment, to niche fitness communities like Curves, CrossFit and Equinox, fitness culture has evolved a lot over the last 100 years. So the time is right for this reimagining – not necessarily to replace gyms in their current iteration, but to add to the landscape of fitness options and offerings.
This is, in fact, already happening in small ways and even locally in the Twin Cities. There are gyms and fitness professionals who include HAES and other accessible principles into their practice. The Radical Health Alliance champions health for fat people by offering Rad Fat Yoga, a Libratory Wellness program and Rad Fat Adventure Camp. The Rose Academy of Burlesque is a body-positive dance studio in Minneapolis that offers burlesque, dance and movement classes. The Minnesota Chapter of Fat Girls Hiking brings together fat activism and outdoor community in practice and with their motto “trails not scales.” These individuals and organizations are a part of a liberatory movement for accessible health. They’re forging the way toward a new world of fitness.
So, back to where we began…
The gym: a multifaceted space filled with dreamers, schemers, and believers. It is a place of joy, movement and triumph; every person flexing their self-esteem and stretching their ability. In it, you can find simple and complex machines, and people engaging in simple and complex systems. The assumption of everyone who enters the heavy, hallowed gym doors is that they are here in community. A community built on the belief that any who choose to engage with fitness can find liberation and joy in it. Especially if you’re fat.
Editor’s Note: The video accompanying this article was filmed in February 2020, before we all started grappling with the requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. Real Life Coffee & Yoga was shuttered by the pandemic in July 2020. To stay up-to-date on their next steps, follow their Facebook page.
Matter of Fat is a body-positive podcast with Midwest sensibilities co-hosted by Cat Polivoda and Saraya Boghani. Currently in its third season, MoF highlights community voices with a focus on body size, body positivity + intersectional fat liberation. The conversation highlighted in this article is from a recently released minisode. Check out the MoF Mini: Fitness + Fatness.
Cat Polivoda (she/her) is a fat intersectional feminist + shop owner. Cat owns Cake Plus-Size Resale based in South Minneapolis.
Saraya Boghani (she/her) is a multiracial millennial living + working in Minneapolis. In addition to co-hosting + co-producing Matter of Fat, Saraya is also the podcast sound engineer.
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