Yes, Fat People Can (And Do!) Exercise

When you grow up fat, movement is never just for the sake of movement. My backhand didn't matter; my backside was all people cared about.

Apr 26, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

You know how, in high school, your English teacher made you read "Moby Dick" or anything by Shakespeare or whatever classic thing that was on the curriculum that year, and you hated it? Or maybe it was a vegetable, like broccoli, that your parents forced you to eat until you swore you were going to projectile vomit if you ever had to put it in your mouth again. Or maybe, like a lot of folks, you have bad memories of gym class because the coach yelled at you and you weren't as great at dodgeball or whatever as the other kids.

My favorite part of being an adult is sometimes choosing to go through three drive-thrus to get exactly what I want (a chicken sammich from one place, fries from another place, a milkshake from a third place for the husband) for dinner. But my next favorite part of being an adult is revisiting the stuff that was forced on me as a kid and realizing that, hey, it's either not so bad, or that I actually even love it when I'm not resisting out of general principle.

I was 7 or 8 when, over a single summer, I morphed into a fat kid. At least, that's the way I remember it. Chances are good I morphed into a not-as-skinny-as-I-was-before kid and that got cemented by a lot of overreaction. I was still a kid who rode my bike and ran around and there was, in fact, actual tree climbing going on as well.

But actual reality has less to do with childhood self-esteem than perception -- and I was already kind of a weird, awkward kid. Couple that with my lifelong dislike of looking foolish in front of other people (especially when it comes to physical tasks) and it wasn't hard for me to fall into the fat kid role when it came to gym teachers and peers.

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I had these exact skates when I was 8 years old. Except then the pom poms were pink.

When you grow up fat, movement is never just for the sake of movement. It's increasingly that way in our culture overall -- exercise only counts if it takes a few specific forms, right? Even then, in the delicious sartorial and aerobics-obsessed confusion of the mid-80s, I felt like people were trying to punish me because of my body.

That's no way to get a child to enjoy exercise, lemme tell you. "Good for you" is the death knell of anyone enjoying just about anything.

In high school, I enjoyed playing tennis. Until it became clear that "tennis" was code for "thing to make you lose weight." My backhand didn't matter; my backside was all people cared about. Tennis stopped being fun really fast.

In college, when I was 17, I started going to the gym and doing some strength training. Which was awesome -- I love feeling strong; lifting heavy things and putting them down again is actually really empowering to me. But my gym buddies quickly started speculating how long it would take me to lose how much weight -- the expectations weighed more than I did, by a long shot.

And I have never liked disappointing people. Exercise all just turned into the equivalent of having to read "Hills Like White Elephants" yet again (yes, I still hate you, Hemingway).

But over the years, that stopped being such a big deal, especially once I got involved with fat acceptance. Just as I realized that salad is actually pretty freaking delicious, I realized that I kept being drawn to physical activities and exercise because I really love being in my body, because feeling it do things is pretty awesome.

The more I worked to divorce physical activity from the concept of weight loss -- the cultural imperative of weight loss, as though the only reason a fat person might like going to the gym was to lose weight -- the more I felt like, yeah, actually, I do love all kinds of movement. Movement like going dancing and walking around a lake and parking at the back of the parking lot just for how nice the sun feels on the walk into the store.

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Weebles wobble but they don't fall down. Even on wheels.

I also felt more confident in my movement. Even now, when faced with a new physical thing, I find myself wondering if it's something I'm physically capable of doing. But, you know what? Yes, actually, fat people can ride bikes. And rollerskate. And hike. And a whole bunch of other things.

The social message that physical activity is only for thin people is so utterly damaging. It's also counterproductive. I've had people on the street yell at me that I need to go to the gym ... but the gym often winds up being on the of the most unwelcoming places a fat person can go.

I don't think my gym teacher being nicer or more encouraging would have made me have this realization sooner -- largely because, as a kid, I really was wildly awkward and self-conscious and constitutionally incapable of participating on a team.

We aren't all good at everything and I'm not great at team sports. I can live with this. But as an adult, with the distance and perspective I've gained, I've found things I AM good at. And more importantly, I've found things I enjoy, which do not always equal the things at which I am good.

Like this clowning thing; I'm currently taking a clown course. I wouldn't class clowning as exercise -- but pantomime is really physical and awesome. Jumping on trampolines remains one of my favorite ways to spend an hour. I'm even pricing treadmills because I miss being able to spend 45 minutes walking in a climate-controlled environment.

I love dancing in the living room and wrestling with my husband and chasing the dog around the yard. I love water aerobics and, yeah, I do love weight training. And I love doing it all because it is an enjoyable way of connecting with my body, feeling my own power.

There's no impossible or improbable goal, so I am more likely to engage in activity. There is no consequence for not doing my activity other than missing out on an enjoyable time, so I am more likely to engage in activity.

Physical activity isn't a punishment for your body failing to conform to some arbitrary and impossible ideal. Physical activity is about being in your individual body.

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Movement feels good even, maybe especially, when it's a little scary.

And for some bodies, that is going to look very different than for others. In fact, when people get on their high horse about how all someone needs is a little exercise, it's important to note that some people actually do not feel better as a result of exercise. Some people are thoroughly trashed by it.

This is why movement and our enjoyment of it is such a personal, individual thing and why it pisses me off something fierce that we've built up all these cultural barriers to people feeling comfortable and confident about movement. We've convinced ourselves we can't do all sorts of things just because we don't look "right" -- whatever right is, anyway.

We're grown-ups now, at least in chronology. We get to make more of our own decisions. Reclaiming movement and exercise is, doubtless, one of those things I'll be working on for a while. But it's so much better than hanging on to that childhood baggage, all that cultural connotation.

I really like broccoli now. I like Shakespeare's histories better than his tragedies. I actually really love "Moby Dick." And now, even though I still suck at dodgeball, I really love moving my body in all the ways that I can.