I’m a pretty social person. I enjoy being around a group of people and I would rather go to a group boot camp than have a personal face-off with a treadmill any day of the week. I’m comforted by going to group classes because I feed off good energy and love to be around people who are working just as hard I am to achieve their goals, but I won’t lie like there aren’t anxious thoughts running through my mind before I go to a group fitness class. I often think to myself: Do fat people even take this class? Am I too out of shape to even be in here—like is there a prerequisite to this one? Will I be able to keep up? Who is the instructor?
So many anxious, intrusive thoughts run through my mind because my “otherness” will be apparent as soon as I enter the door. I righteously assume I’ll be the largest person in class. I’m 5’8″ and 340 lbs with a wide set of hips and a very big butt. Listen, I’m used to taking up space, but I’m not used to being comfortable in spaces that treat me as “other” instead of included.
Being the fat girl in the fitness class feels a lot like when Regina George told the group sweatpants were all that fit her and Gretchen Weiners yelled out, “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!” It feels isolating and unwelcoming if the class environment isn’t intentionally inclusive. (The keyword here is intentionally.) It’s not enough to allow fat bodies, disabled bodies, or out-of-shape bodies access to fitness space without also considering how those bodies will be able to successfully function within the space.
Though accessibility to fitness spaces is an issue, it’s important to think about whether or not the infrastructure or the culture of the fitness space proactively and intentionally supports those who aren’t “fit” or as able-bodied as others. Inviting large, disabled, or out-of-shape people into a space without any practices or systems in place to work with them is flat-out cruel if the class or the instructor lacks the tools, expertise, and proper attitude to accommodate larger-bodied people. Have you ever been the one under or overdressed at a dinner party? Have you ever showed up somewhere and you were the only one who didn’t know anyone else? It feels awkward and embarrassing, so instead of enjoying the scene, your only thought is how quickly you can make a beeline out of there without being too noticeable. That’s what being the largest person feels like.
I recognize that more often than not bodies like mine aren’t widely represented in group classes or fitness centers at all. No biggie. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is how thin spaces respond to, or worse, completely ignore, the “elephant in the room.” The elephant being many fitness instructors’ inexperience, ignorance to the fact, inability, or flat-out refusal to create a positive, supportive environment for everyone. Fitness trainers or class instructors should be well-equipped and knowledgeable on how to positively respond to and work with people of all shapes, sizes, and levels of ability. If larger people, disabled people, ill people, out-of-shape people, or anyone that wishes to be active, instructors should know how to foster a positive relationship and work within their limits. I wish I could tell some fitness instructors this:
1. Don’t ignore me
Don’t act like the fat girl doesn’t exist. Please, for the love of God, read the room. Everyone in your class will not come with the same level of ability—fat or not. So to ignorantly assume a person’s activity level or their ability based solely on what they look like is unfair and pretty discriminatory. Thin people can be unhealthy and out of shape. I have several skinny friends who haven’t done cardio since high school P.E. Just because someone is larger or has a noticeable physical deformity doesn’t mean they aren’t capable and strong and healthy. Please, pay attention to who’s in the room and be willing to have a certain degree of flexibility in your teaching. If you notice someone struggling, offer to help them. If you notice someone doing well, continue to encourage them.
2. Offer modifications (without being an asshole).
You don’t have to pull me aside, patronize, or ostracize me. No need in bringing attention to my body which already commands attention. While we’re going through the class, simply voicing alternatives is beneficial. An unwillingness to offer modifications is very ableist—regardless of a persons’ size. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, ableism is “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people,” according to the Oxford dictionary. In context, an ableist attitude doesn’t just separate people between who’s fat and who’s thin, but also who is disabled? Who is nursing an injury? Unfortunately, an ableist attitude permeates the culture of many fitness facilities and consequently, their instructors. I’ll encourage all of you who are fat, disabled, unfit, or somehow short of “able-bodied” to question your instructor or gym on how they cultivate an atmosphere that isn’t ableist? If they can’t answer, it’s not the place for you.
3. Don’t dismiss my physical limits as a lack of effort.
Listen, Jillian Michaels, I know you want me to “push myself,” but there are certain things this out of shape, inactive, and heavy body simply cannot do, and no amount of effort is going to change that right now. As time moves on and strength increases, it’s perfectly fine to encourage larger bodies to do more, but don’t think someone who is larger or relatively inactive will be able to do the same activity as someone more in shape.
When it comes to fitness, every body is different. Some are “in-shape” while others are unfit. Some are larger and heavier while others are light and slender, but none of that should matter. Our differences should be celebrated and encouraged, but our spaces must be inclusive. An active lifestyle is great for the physical and mental benefits, but fitness spaces must be sure to tend to the emotional and psychological part of its patron’s well-being as well. Taking my money and allowing me accessibility isn’t fair if I don’t have access to quality instructors once I get there. It’s like I’m being set up to fail. I want a seat at the table, you’ve just gotta make room for me.