fat at the gym

This week, I met one of my fitness goals: to do the ‘hundreds’* in my pilates class without cheating.  It’s a fairly modest goal, but I was still excited about it.

It was a deliberately modest goal because me and fitness goals, we’re not great together.  I often feel defeated by them.  I don’t track my progress at the gym anymore because it leads me to comparing and assessing and inevitably judging my performance as not good enough.  My one, long-term, abiding goal in relation to exercise is simply to do some.  To front up with some regularity and do some stuff.  More ambition, more pressure than that, and I stop going.  When the goal shifts from ‘move your body in ways you find enjoyable’ to ‘move your body more’, my attendance gets spotty, then ceases all together.  It can take months to re-ignite my enthusiasm.

Which is something I try to avoid, because I actually like working out.  I like the feel of my body working, and I like finding out what it can do. I enjoy the way that, even in the absence of goals or striving or any great amount of effort, my body inevitably changes, becomes stronger and fitter and moves differently.  It’s something of a revelation.

I’ve spent a lifetime being told I was weak, physically incapable, not able to do much of anything at all.  Now, some of that is actually true.  I have had dodgy ankles and knees since I was a wee thing.  I was on crutches due to various sprains and pains for half of high school.  I still have some issues now – I can’t walk as fast as most of my peers, and I can’t walk for too long without causing myself a fairly high level of pain.  It doesn’t interfere with my life (walking to the train station or around campus or going shopping is just fine), and the only time I really notice is when I’m walking with a group of people and I get left behind because I’m slow.  I don’t like it, but I’ve learned not to interpret it as a deliberate snub.  Mostly.

Aside from these specific musculoskeletal difficulties which have been been with me my whole life, I’ve always thought my body wasn’t capable because it was fat.  Because fat people and fat bodies are weak and lazy and clumsy and lacking in skill and finesse.  Ironically, it was writing about Australia’s The Biggest Loser for my honours thesis that made me realise the equation of fatness with weakness just wasn’t true.

It’s true that one of the main aims of The Biggest Loser was to encourage fat people to go to the gym.  By ‘encourage’ here, I actually mean ‘shame’.  The show went to great effort to emphasise how very difficult physical exertion was for fat bodies.  It showed fatties sweating while they ran up sand dunes, puffing while they climbed stadium stairs, straining to pull trucks.  The message that was imparted via the filming, editing, and the contestant’s own testimony was that these things were difficult because of their fat; because they had ‘let themselves go’ and ‘gotten into this state’.  The thing is, there is no ‘state’ that one can get into where running up sand dunes won’t make you sweat, where doing laps up and down the MCG stands won’t make you  puff, where pulling a semi-fucking-trailer is ever going to be easy.  Sure, a higher level of fitness and strength will make those things easier, but not effortless.  The reason why they’re hard to do, is because they’re hard to do, not because you’re fat.

It took me a while to see that, amidst all the fat-shaming and blaming, what The Biggest Loser showed was fat bodies performing frankly impressive physical feats.  Fat bodies which had strength and endurance, which were incredibly physically capable and accomplished, despite what the narration implied.  This is in no way an endorsement of the kinds of things the show subjected people to.  It was out-and-out sadistic punishment for being fat, and I found the whole thing abhorrent in its glee.  But despite the awfulness, it nonetheless showed (especially if you turned the sound down), that fat bodies were physically capable of amazing things.  And that was a revelation for me.

It wasn’t until about 6 months after I finished honours (and finished with Loser forever – I cannot tell you the joy I felt!) that I started going to the gym.  I’d left a physically active retail job to go back to office work, and my fitness was suffering because of it.  I was far enough into fat acceptance that I didn’t have that secret hope that this would be the thing, the change, the miracle that would make me thin.  But it was terrifying going to the gym for the first time.  Being up-front about the fact I was there for fitness and not weight-loss.  Reminding the instructors who designed my program and showed me how to use the equipment when they ‘forgot’ and said things like ‘try to get up to x speed to really burn those calories’ (I’ve since moved and changed gyms).  Dealing with ‘encouraging’ comments from gym bunnies, where ‘encouraging’ actually means ‘patronising as fuck’.  Dealing with my fear and projection about what other people might think of me, a fatty working out.  Dealing with the fact that I really wasn’t very fit or strong.  Four inconsistent years later, I’m still neither of these things, but I am fitter and stronger.  I’m also bigger – both fatter, and more muscular.  My thighs are enormous and wonderful.

When I first started, I could barely manage 3 minutes on the cross trainer.  My thighs and calves would burn, my legs turn to jelly, and the instructor who suggested I go faster to ‘really burn those calories’ would have got a punch in the nose if I hadn’t needed to hold on with both hands to stay upright.  My free weights exercises were all done with one or two kilogram dumbells, and they absolutely caned.  I was using my body in new ways, and it was hard work, and it hurt, and  I really, really liked it.

Once I got more familiar with the gym and the equipment, the anxiety about what people would think or say subsided.  I put in my headphones and turn my iPod up and away I go.  The music is important.  I have a pretty ecclectic range of songs on my gym playlist, from The Pixies and The Clash to Florence and the Machine and Santogold.  There’s a lot of Gossip, because I love the Gossip, and because Beth Ditto is one of the most kick-ass fatties I know of and if I’m going to be in an environment which is traditionally positioned as anti-fat, then I want a kick-ass fatty there with me.  I get a kick out of being fat and working out and not loosing weight either deliberately or incidentally.  I get a kick out of being in the gym listening to someone who tells normative ideology to go fuck itself.  There’s also some Divynals, because I get a kick out of secretly listening to Chrissy Amphlett singing about kink and masturbation.  Same goes for the soundtrack from Hedwig and the Angry Inch – listening to a big queer musical in a room full of machismo fills me with glee.

The gym I go to now is a Serious Gym.  They have heavy weights and host powerlifting competitions and don’t harass you in the street to come along for a free trial.  They offer a free trial, but they don’t harass you about it.  They don’t market, and they don’t specifically target women, which means that their core business model doesn’t involve selling low self-esteem.  Some of the trainers are kind of fat – they’re strong and fit and round-bellied (although only the male trainers – the women are all quite slim).  I love seeing the people who work out there, from the super-cut femmey boy who always has a full face of (‘natural’) make-up and looks incredible, to the super-macho body builders who probably aren’t the least bit aware of the homoerotic undertones of their manly bonding which please me SO VERY MUCH. I love the variety of bodies, and admire the work that goes into creating them.  I think it’s a shame that bodies like mine aren’t legible as ‘worked on’, though, because what I’m doing when I go to the gym is essentially engaging in body work.  I am strengthening and stretching, and challenging and changing and working on my body.  That work isn’t aimed changing my size, but it is work on my body nonetheless.

I’m almost wary of posting this, because I’m aware of how discussing exercise can play into good fatty/bad fatty dichotomies, which I abhor – not only because they falsely heirarchise bodies and behaviours, but because they deny the complexity and contradictions of how bodies are lived.  Sure, I exercise and I’m a vegetarian with a fondness  for greenery, but I also eat an ungodly amount of butter, cheese, eggs, and chocolate.  I particularly love eggs served with butter and egg sauces (eggs florentine, come to meeeeeee!).  I regularly replace most of the fluids in my body with large doses of coffee and red wine.  Paragon of virtue I am not.  Hedonist would be a more appropriate label, and one that’s much more applicable to my experience of working out, too.  Simply put, I work out because it’s another way that I enjoy my body (and no, I’m not still talking about Chrissy Amphlett here).

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*Hundreds involve lying with your legs raised and holding your torso up in a crunch position for a slow count of 100 while doing various things with your arms.  Believe me when I say this is hard work.  ‘Cheating’ involves lowering either your legs or torso at the point where you can’t hold them up anymore.  Mostly, I’ve been getting through sixties or seventies, so getting through hundreds was pretty damn exciting!