A reader sent me a link to a much-shared Facebook message -- over 5 million shares, as of this writing -- evidently written in response to seeing a fat person running on an outdoor track (i.e., a FITNESS UNICORN!).
To the fatty running on the track this afternoon:You, whose feet barely lift off the ground as you trudge around the track. You, who keeps to the outside lane, footslogging in the wrong direction. You, who stops for water breaks every lap, and who would probably stop twice a lap if there were bleachers on both sides. You, whose gaze drops to your feet every times we pass. You, whose sweat drenches your body after you leave, completing only a single, 20-minute mile.There's something you should know: You f***ing rock.Every shallow step you take, you carry the weight of more than two of me, clinging to your bones, begging to be shaken off. Each lap you run, you're paying off the debt of another midnight snack, another dessert, another beer. It's 20 degrees outside, but you haven't let that stop your regiment. This isn't your first day out here, and it certainly won't be your last. You've start a journey that lasts a lifetime, and you've started at least 12 days before your New Year's Resolution kicks in.You run without music, and I can only imagine the mantras running through your mind as you heave your ever-shrinking mass around the next lap. Let's go, feet. Shut up, legs. F**k off, fat. If only you'd look up from your feet the next time we pass, you'd see my gaze has no condescension in it.I have nothing but respect for you. You've got this.
This wasn't written about yours truly (so far as I know). But as someone who's received a lot of this type of workout "encouragement" over the years, I had a response anyway, which is broadly applicable to everyone who's ever pulled this sort of thing on me.
To the guy staring at me on the track this afternoon:
Bro, you’re weird. What’s up. You seem to be trying to get my attention and it’s freaking me out. I’m avoiding eye contact because you might be some kind of dangerous creeper. Every time you pass me, I can feel the “Hey, hey, hey, look over here, look at me, look at me, LOOK AT ME” beams coming off you.
I’m a terrible runner. I don’t do it because I’m a damn gazelle. I don't do it because I hate myself. I do it because it makes me feel good. Maybe you’re thinking I’m a terrible runner? I couldn’t argue with you there, but I fail to see how it matters to you either way. It could also be that maybe you’re thinking I’m awesome, or pretty, or disgusting, or maybe you just like my sneakers, or you’re trying to figure out if my hair is red or purple. It could be any of these things.
The fantastic truth of it is, I don’t care what you individually think. That might come as a shock. But I really don’t. I wouldn’t even be aware of your presence if you weren’t so evidently fixated on trying to catch my eye, which -- again -- is creepy.
I understand that you probably want to connect with me to give me encouragement, whether in words or via a cheery thumbs-up signal or whatever is in your mind to do. I know you intend this to be kind and friendly and supportive. But while I’m sure some folks appreciate it, it makes me very uncomfortable.
Do you even know how many times I’ve been exercising in public and had some well-meaning person feel compelled to give me some “encouragement”? Like, “Good for you!” REALLY? Who do we say “Good for you!” to? We say it to children. It’s patronizing as hell. Or the even more bizarre “Keep going!” which I’ve heard dozens of times and I still don’t get. Keep going? What? Forever? Who asked you? When you say this to me, it makes me want to STOP GOING and glare at you really hard.
For me, all this “encouragement” is just a way of pointing out that I am different and unusual in this space, and THAT is what makes me feel out of place and uncomfortable. I was fine until you came along, and basically told me, Hey, I noticed you look different from everyone else here, and you don't look to me like someone who has been exercising for very long, which must mean this is a new thing for you, so instead of letting you go about your business like I would anyone else, I am going to highlight the fact that you don't fit in here, and give you some uninvited commentary/encouragement that will make you feel weirdly singled out and self-conscious. YAY! YAY FOR YOU!
I have heard these “helpful” comments, this positive reinforcement, for literal years, from absolute strangers, in bare-bones gyms, upscale health clubs and just in public. Years. I have been exercising in various places for years. I am also the same size I’ve been for the past decade.
This probably confuses you, because it’s not your experience, or it’s not how you think bodies work. But I don’t care how you think bodies work. And now this is where you really want to tell me how I’m exercising wrong, or doing SOMETHING wrong, because obviously my exercise must be broken if I’m not dropping pounds all the time, because everybody knows that all fat people need to do is exercise regularly and they’ll stop being fat, because all fat people are fat for the exact same reasons, those reasons being mostly that they are gross and gluttonous and above all, lazy. So I must have BROKEN THE CONCEPT OF EXERCISE, right?
I don’t want to hear about that either, because whatever you want to say, I’ve heard it before. I'm not out here for you.
Here’s the really, really sad part, the part you don’t want to hear: You are the reason many fat people don’t want to exercise in public.
But wait, you're saying, I'm not mocking anyone! I'm being positive! I KNOW you think you’re being helpful. I’m sure you think your intentions are good. You think you understand me and my life. You think I’m beating myself up for “bad choices” I’ve made in the past and am now working toward my own redemption. But you don’t actually know any of that. It is people like you, who believe that they are entitled to not only suppose they know things about me, but to vocalize those suppositions out loud, that make exercising in public difficult and sometimes downright unpleasant. It almost doesn't matter if the things you want to say are positive or negative -- both are alienating, because both require that I be specially singled out as different.
Instead of treating me like an individual, instead of talking to me like I’m a normal person, and finding out what my deal is, you’ve made a series of convenient, grandiose, sweeping assumptions. Assumptions that let you think that telling me “you f***ing rock” is kind, and makes you a very good person for saying something so nice.
If you respected me, as you claim, you’d treat me as just another person on the track, and you’d recognize that I have my own story which may or may not match the neat little narrative you’ve written for me inside your head.
Maybe I've hurt your feelings, but I can't really worry about that, especially since you didn't think enough of my feelings to actually ask me about them. It’s none of your business how or why I exercise. Why do you care? Why was it that when I was going to a particular former gym where the machines were REALLY close together, I would inevitably have to put a towel or something over the elliptical’s control panel because some workout busybody next to me would always be trying to see what level I had it set to? Are we competing? Are you just curious as to how hard a random stranger exercises? You make me nervous, yo. Mind your own resistance.
I don’t require your approval, and those words of positive reinforcement you so desperately want to say to me? They’re intrusive. Since you can’t always tell who wants encouragement, but you still want to give it, maybe try talking to people about their lives first, and gauging whether they’d be receptive to your uplifting words based on your conversation.
“If you’d only look up from your feet the next time we pass, you’d see my gaze has no condescension in it.” Forgive me, but given everything you’ve said before this, I am doubtful. You have looked at me and immediately presumed you knew all about who I am, why I am here, why I like to exercise, what it’s all about for me, and even about my internal monologue. I count that as condescension.
So maybe, instead of thinking of me as a monumental aberration, you could back off a little. Just be nice without trying to make me into some beautiful story of inspiration. Maybe then we could make eye contact in an organic, assumption-free way, and we could chat a bit, or not, or just exchange smiles at how awesome it is to be outside exercising even in the cold, how great and happymaking and cheerful it is to be active in ways that make us feel good in our respective bodies, and satisfied and accomplished and proud. Maybe it's okay that I'll never be a runner like you. Maybe you could learn a little something from me as well.
At least we agree on one thing. I don’t need you to tell me I fucking rock. I already know I do.