I Got Fat-Shamed While Quitting My Sketchy Gym

Once the tanning beds came along, I felt secure in my decision that I had to break up with my gym for good. Our priorities and ideals weren’t on the same page.
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Michele Sponagle
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Once the tanning beds came along, I felt secure in my decision that I had to break up with my gym for good. Our priorities and ideals weren’t on the same page.

Joining a gym as a plus-sized gal can feel daunting. Will I feel comfortable amid the buff, bronzed and pumped? Will my ass jiggle visibly on the elliptical machine? 

None of that mattered to me. I wanted to become more fit and perhaps lose some weight in the process. 

At almost 300 pounds, I was taunting fate when it came to my health. And mundane day-to-day life experiences, like going through turnstiles and buckling up seat belts on an airplane, were more hassle than they should be.

I live in a small town with just 15,000 people. It has only one gym. A fall sale on memberships prompted my boyfriend and I to get off the couch and sign up. It was a big day for us, but there were problems early. 

Initially, the receptionist said our orientation session would include the creation of a fitness program with one of the personal trainers on staff. It didn't.

Here, I'm showing off a little bit of my own beast mode at the gym. 

Here, I'm showing off a little bit of my own beast mode at the gym. 

Instead, the session dictated what my fitness goals should be. Without any discussion, the trainer told me that I should weigh 140 pounds – at least according to her. At that point, I think my thighs weighed that much. Shouldn't I be the one who sets my target? What if I said I just want to improve my cardio capacity, or boost my strength, or lose 10 pounds?

Then, she made a pained, scrunchy face, conveying a combination of sympathy, pity and sadness. "I know how hard it is to come into a gym as an overweight person," she said. "I used to be 60 pounds heavier than I am right now. So full of shame, embarrassment… You just have to ignore how people look at you and concentrate on your workout."

Her comments were loaded with her own fatphobic thinking. I had not expressed any concern whatsoever about being a big girl working out at the gym. She was projecting her former fatty hang-ups my way. They weren’t mine. 

I didn't say anything to her since I knew I didn’t have to deal with her again. There was no way I was signing up for personal training sessions with her – or anyone. I knew what I wanted to achieve and could do it on my own steam.

I left my orientation dumb-founded. Some of it had been useful, like following a low-carb diet and eating small meals throughout the day. Some of it was comical. 

No, I was not interested in carrying around a bag of cooked chicken breasts to snack on. And no, I don't think a portobello mushroom topped with tomato sauce and cheese constitutes an equally enjoyable option to pizza. I also dismissed her recommendation to travel (which I do frequently for work) with a cooler pack full of fruits and vegetables. From my experience, I know that many countries freak out when foreigners try to bring fresh produce across their borders.

Regardless, I went on my merry way. I did change my diet drastically, cutting out "bad carbs" (like white flour and sugar), eating low-fat protein, ending a lifelong hatred of eggs and dutifully working out three or four times a week at the gym and generally, trying to move a heck of a lot more.

My clothes were getting baggier with each passing week. I felt great, but not entirely comfortable at my gym. It was filled with a lot of grunting bodybuilder types, who spent an inordinate time looking at themselves in the mirror when they weren't even lifting weights. The usual stuff at any gym.

Then there were the motivational posters. They featured photos of the gym owner, a 40-something, reasonably buff guy, dramatically draped in heavy steel chains while wearing only tight black shorts, looking earnest and pseudo-tough. 

These images were scattered around the gym, presumably to provide inspiration to fellow iron pumpers. I couldn't pass them without giggling. And, at the front desk, there was a full array of T-shirts the gym created with BEAST MODE on them, available for sale to beast-minded members.

I came into the gym one day to discover a massive and I mean, massive -- at least 8 feet across -- metal sign/sculpture with the name of the gym installed over the front desk. This thing must have cost a pretty penny. It seemed foolish expense on two counts: I know where I am when I walk through the front door. I don't need confirmation, but thanks.

Secondly, I really would have preferred the funds from membership fees to be spent on something pragmatic, like, say, water. This gym did not offer a water cooler or even a fountain. If desperate, you could get some from the bathroom taps.

I really started to have my doubts about my relationship with this gym. The breaking point came when I saw a sign announcing the availability of tanning beds to members. I was stunned. I know very well that the connection between tanning bed use and skin cancer is clear and indisputable.

The World Health Organization places tanning beds in a category of high-risk carcinogens, including asbestos and tobacco. Brazil and five out of six Australian states have banned indoor tanning outright. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, even a single indoor tanning session can increase a user's risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent. Annually more than 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. are linked to tanning bed use.

I couldn't understand why a gym that promotes fitness and health would offer something as potentially lethal as tanning beds. To me, it’s insanely hypocritical. 

Once the tanning beds came along, I felt secure in my decision that I had to break up with my gym for good. Our priorities and ideals weren’t on the same page. It was over.

Like any break-up, timing is key. I was going to wait until the end of the month when my year-long membership ended and write the owner, Mr, Man in Chains, a note explaining my decision.

After what would be my last workout at the gym, I asked the receptionist when my membership was expiring. She told me, then asked, "Are you rejoining?' I said, "No." She asked why. I told her that I didn’t want to support a gym that was now a tanning facility. 

I was prepared to leave it at that. She could have just said something like “Well, that’s too bad. Sorry to lose you.” Instead, she shot back, "You know, they use the same UVA as the sun. They're safe."

As a journalist who has written hundreds of health features for major media outlets over more than a decade, I simply could not let this go. I could not stop myself from attempting to enlighten this woman with some facts. 

"Yes, they are the same, but they can be as much as 10 to 15 times the strength of the sun," I said. "There's nothing safe about that at all."

I pointed out the research done by the WHO. Her retort? "Well, there are studies saying the complete opposite." 

At this point, two women also sitting at the front desk, who, coincidentally, were there to install the new computer software for tanning appointments, piped in with the myths often cited by the makers of these cancer-inducing coffins, everything from "Well, alcohol is toxic and it's legal" to "In 10 years time, they'll probably have studies that say tanning is beneficial." 

To that, I asked, "How did that work out for tobacco? In the 1950s, doctors promoted it as safe on TV commercials." Silence.

They also whipped out the often cited and completely incorrect fact about tans protecting skin from the sun by creating “a base.” Sunscreen works even better and you don't have to barbecue your skin either. One of the women from the tanning bed company even boasted how she took her 16-year-old son to a tanning session before leaving on a tropical holiday last winter.

Like many states, and Canadian provinces, too, laws prohibit anyone under age 18 to use tanning beds. This woman was so committed to her beliefs that she’d put her own child at risk. Now, that's conviction and stupidity all rolled up into one.

The discussion was getting livelier by the second. Mr. Chains had been hovering nearby before and decided to investigate. I repeated my choice not to support an establishment that promotes something so dangerous to health.

Finally, he spoke, looking directly at me: "Well, have you read the studies on obesity?" Oh, dude. Did you just go there? We were talking about indoor tanning and you try to deflect the argument with a personal affront. 

I replied with: "Yes, I am well aware of the dangers, which is why I have been coming here regularly for almost a year."

I’d worked very hard at getting fitter – down three clothing sizes. (I don’t weigh myself so I don’t know how many pounds I’ve lost, maybe 60 or 70?) I was incensed he attempted to fat shame me into silence – a cowardly act from someone who, rather than add something relevant, opted to reveal his own judgments on fat people.

I haven't been back since that day. I've let my membership lapse. I've found a new love – very nice fitness facility in another town close by, full of seniors and teens and everyone in between. And it is blessedly beast free.