Stop using fitness as a weapon of hate and shame!

It’s no secret that I’m bit of a fanatic about fitness.  Actually, it’s not so much that I’m a fitness fanatic as much as it is that I am absolutely in love with being an athlete.  I love the training, the preparation, the mental and physical challenges, the electrifying sensation of competing, the bruises, the triumphs, the failures, the agony, the ecstasy – all of it.  Even the shitty parts of being an athlete are still pretty amazing.  The only reason I’m able to do any of this is because I make physical fitness a priority in my life.

As a result, when I come across a post like this, I can’t help but despair a little bit.  (Not because the post is bad; on the contrary, it’s excellent and I highly recommend reading it.) The author of the post breaks down five ways in which the ideals of fitness are used to shame people, and in many cases as a socially-acceptable way of expressing hate.  I’ve seen almost all of those arguments used in conversations about weight, obesity, bodies, health and fitness – in fact, they are impossible to avoid.  The arguers seem to believe that it’s possible to shame people into adopting healthy habits, like if you just make people feel awful enough about themselves, they’ll suddenly start doing CrossFit six times a week and banishing fast food from their lives.   As if!  If that were actually an effective way to do things, we’d have a nation of endurance athletes instead of a nation of couch potatoes.

I hate this line of thinking for so many reasons.  I hate it because it doesn’t work.  I hate it because it erases the existence of fat athletes, as if it is not possible to be fit without being thin.  I hate it because it is so, so cruel, and treating people with cruelty pretty much runs counter to everything I think about what it means to be a good person in this world. And maybe I hate it most because it makes fitness and athletics seem like the sole provenance of arrogant jerks who think having visible abs makes them morally superior to everyone else in the world.  It takes one of my greatest passions in life and turns it into a weapon of hate and shame.

I have gained so much in my life from taking fitness seriously.  I have not only become stronger and healthier, but I have also become more confident, less anxious and more at ease with myself.  And it’s not just me!  Almost everyone who comments on this blog has shared similar stories about the impact of their chosen pursuit in their life, whether it’s yoga or running or swimming or playing soccer or CrossFit or whatever.  There’s something about investing time and effort into making our bodies stronger that carries over to the rest of our lives.  It’s empowering, it’s transformative, it’s life-changing, it’s freaking awesome!

But far too often, the rhetoric of fitness ignores all of these positive motivators in favor of body- and fat-shaming.  In doing so, the people who make these kind of arguments are basically putting up brick walls around “fitness” and spray-painting “FATTIES KEEP OUT” all over them.

Should we be surprised when people aren’t exactly clamoring to get inside those walls?  Should we be shocked when people say they don’t go to the gym or even walk outside because they worry they will be judged?  Or when people who run refuse to take part in races because they think races are implicitly reserved only for the super-fit?  Why should any of this be surprising when that kind of exclusionary and elitist attitude is projected by so many fitness enthusiasts?

To hell with that.  I want my world of fitness to be one that is inclusive of people of all body types and abilities.  I want my world of fitness to be one of taking pleasure in our bodies and lives, not one of neo-puritanical self-flagellation and barely-disguised eating disorders.  I want my world of fitness to be a no-shame, no-judgment zone. I want people to come into a life of fitness feeling like the possibilities are limitless, not like they have to attain some imaginary level of acceptability before they can show themselves to the world.

Because all of this – getting sweaty and sore, building callouses on your feet and hands, seeing muscles surface where none existed before, finding yourself capable of lifting really heavy things and covering more distance with little more than the power of your own body – all of this is nothing short of amazing, and I want everyone to feel as though they can take part without having to endure the gimlet-eyed sniping of someone who, in all likelihood, doesn’t much like themselves either.

And if you are the kind of person who thinks it’s acceptable to shame people in the name of fitness and health, knock that shit off – you’re making the rest of us look bad.

23 responses to “Stop using fitness as a weapon of hate and shame!

  1. A friend of mine made a blog post the other day about being at the gym and how, despite having her headphones in, she still overheard a girl nearby tell her boyfriend, “It’s weird to see fat people at the gym. But like, it really makes me exercise harder.” Do you want us to work out or do you not, because a lot of us receive a lot of really contrary opinions from people when it comes to fat and exercise. Argh! Makes it tough to go to the gym.

    • What in the actual fuck! And yeah, word on the conflicting messages! It’s like when fat women are riding their bikes or running outside and people harass them for being fat and daring to be outside. Like, seriously, get your fucking messages straight (unless really it’s just all about being an asshole, which I think it is for a lot of people).

    • Reading this it makes me really happy to be a member of a gym where people are nice. The staff encourage people to work out instead of shaming them into doing the exercises and other members actually help less advanced members with stuff. It is a very supportive environment unless you walk into a hot yoga class where it seems people have forgotten that they once started out too, but that’s a whole other story.
      I don’t understand how fitness turns into “looking-good” for some people and it’s all they every think about. They don’t feel good about improvement unless they look good doing it. I’ve tried several times talking to people finding out how shame and resentment for your own body can motivate them but I’ve never been able to get a straight answer.
      So I’ll avoid the hot yoga classes and stick to the rest of the folks at the gym.

    • That comment, right there – the woman to her BF – is EXACTLY why I paid for and never used, a fancy gym membership for over a year. Yep, I threw a boatload of money away every month because I was too nervous to go and claim my place. I’ve since quit that gym and joined a local community gym where I walk on the treadmill between super fit folks, and elderly folks keeping their bodies in the game. It’s made such a difference for me. I want to kick people who judge like that in the teeth. Assholes.

      • I’m glad you canceled the gym membership, because seriously! I also love the place I go, which is not a gym as much as it is a wellness center attached to a hospital. We’ve got some gym rats (like, er, me) that go there, but there’s also a lot of people who are just trying to get/stay healthy, which is actually inspiring to me on a different level.

  2. What I don’t understand about this whole fitspo thing is the assumption that everyone wants to be to look ripped. The implication that everyone wants that body or even be capable of running a marathon excludes those who have to exercise to manage their health and sometimes dislike the competitive element of sports and exercise. For some people, the act of even getting out in all sorts of weather and doing something is an achievement.

    • I will admit that I find the ripped look appealing to a certain extent, but it’s also not something I am choosing to pursue for myself, as I’m not prepared to make the kind of sacrifice and effort required for that. (I mean, really, you want me to give up beer? Bish pls.) And I also know that while I write a lot about endurance sports and how I love to train and how I happily spend several hours a week doing so, I recognize that this makes me an outlier and that what I do is about more than just wanting to be healthy. But I also think that a lot of people lose sight of the fact that we all have different goals in life for all kinds of things, and that it’s totally okay. What’s important is that we actually HAVE goals and that we work towards acheiving them, whether it’s running a marathon or just making a point to ride your bike five days a week.

  3. Yes! This. I am one of those fat-and-fit people. I’m built like an Olympic heavy lifter, 300lbs and powerful. Between lifting, cycling, hiking, pick up games of b-ball, jogging with my dog, or whatever other activity I can join in with friends, I exercise 10-12 hours a week. I’ve even won a local weightlifting competition. And I *still* struggle to actually think of myself as capable and fit. I’m *still* shy, self-conscious, and afraid of being judged. I have to remind myself, “I belong here.”.

    And, since I’ve been a lurker for a while, thank you for writing this blog. You help me remember I belong here. 🙂

  4. Thank you. I am one of those people who won’t work out in front of others (roller derby excepted) because I don’t want people to see my fat jiggling or hear the slap of body parts. I hate how I let that affect me – and am making more of an effort to move past my anxiety about it and enjoy being an athlete.

  5. I’m training for my first half-marathon and trying desperately to get over the fact that my brain is trained to think that people don’t want to see fat people running. I run three days a week now, and have finally stopped obsessing over how I look when I walk out the door (you don’t like the fact that this shirt is skin-tight? Too fucking bad.) And even though I am TRAINING FOR A HALF-MARATHON, my mother still found twelve different ways to tell me I was fat last weekend.

    The team I’m training with is fantastic: there are people of all sizes and shapes, and not once have I ever heard anything negative about the way someone looks. I’d rather spend time with them encouraging me to run than with my mother wondering why I haven’t lost any weight yet.

    • Ugh, I am so sorry you have to deal with that, and from your mother of all people! I’m glad you’ve got a supportive team to run with, though, and good for you for training for your first half-marathon! When you finish, I swear you’ll feel like the biggest stud to ever walk the planet. 🙂

  6. For a book about the coolest fat athlete ever, who does shit that would kill you and I in minutes, may I recommend Swimming to Antarctica.

    • PaperbackSwap has a copy so I ordered it! Thank you! Plus this dovetails nicely with my new obsession with swimming. 🙂

  7. Thank you for this post. I love hearing about your love for exercise and physical activity and I agree that it’s the most effective motivation for being active.

    It’s something I’ve taken a long time to develop myself and, sorry if this is too OT, but a lot of my issues weren’t specifically about appearance shaming (although there was a bit of that) but rather about abilities shaming.

    I think fitness has been used as a weapon for a lot of people starting in school gym classes. I know there are lots of people who had terrific phys ed teachers and a great time but I often wonder if those of us who don’t develop a love of physical activity in our youths can trace it back to being shamed in gym class for not having the natural talent for the sports and activities done there.

    When the classes are about how good you are at a particular activity, rather than about just making activity part of your life, it’s really easy to decide at a remarkably young age that none of this exercise stuff is for you and cut it all out as soon as possible – possibly even before you go through puberty and get a better grip on your body.

    As an adult I had to go back and re-try the stuff I did in class. I had to teach myself things that some of my more active friends would credit to their gym teachers’ instruction. I still spend a lot of time reminding myself that it’s not about how good I am at running or jumping or swimming but rather about how good it makes me feel to do it. I ran a 10k last summer and I know my school gym teacher would have sneered at the very idea that I could do it.

    When I’m running and it’s going well, I don’t care if I’m faster than other people, I just love the feel of my heart pounding and my lungs working, my legs carrying me and the endorphins racing through my body.

    And I think that making it about appearance or about ability can take that feeling of well-being away from someone.

    • Hey Sarah, thanks for the comment! I’ve heard so many similar stories about people who were turned off to physical activity by horrible gym teachers who made them feel as though their inability to throw a perfect spiral football the second they drop out of the womb means they should never do anything athletic, ever. I find that so problematic and upsetting.

      Your comment touches on something that I have been thinking about for a while, which is how sad it is that so many of us – myself included – form these ideas about our abilities and our talents based on feedback we received and events that happened when we were kids, or even teenagers. We weren’t even done being formed as human beings yet and yet a lot of us decided that this was it for us, however we were when we were 13 is how we were going to be for the rest of my life. Like, when I was 13, I thought I was bad at math, bad at sports, bad at cooking, bad at public speaking. It took until I was in my late 20s and early 30s to undo all of that crap and to really be okay with redefining my abilities as I am now and not as I was when I was half-formed.

      • Exactly! It’s really rather disturbing that a class that supposed to be all about “practice” can put people off for not being instantly good at something. It’s something I try to keep in mind in case I have children. I’d want to work to counteract that message that if you aren’t good at it when you’re 8, you may as well not bother.

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  9. First off, I want to acknowledge that I know that in the world ” in general,” the bulk of disabilitating, shaming criticism is directed towards people who are on the heavier end of the spectrum. “Too thin” girls (like I used to be, or think of myself) get body shaming for needing a sandwich, being anorexic, or looking like death warmed over… but let’s be honest, not half as much as someone “too fat” will get for their own non-conforming to the judger’s standards.

    Now this being said, after having been ” skinny-fat” for most of my life, I started working out, mostly because I want to do more stuff and because I am trying to give my body its due, finally. I am trying to take this seriously, but it’s hard – like Sarah, I was shamed repeatedly in gym class (I was a year younger than everyone else and built like a twig, but apparently no one thought to tell me these two factors might make it difficult for me to perform like everyone else, and I didn’t think of this myself before reading Gladwell’s Outliers on the early selection of athletes).

    I still think of myself as an uncoordinated weakling with no discernable talent for physical activities, which is why I’ve searched companionship on Internet fitness communities: less embarassing than actually showing myself exercising to people! 🙂 For the most part these communities have been amazingly supportive, but in this specific subsection of the world, especially with people really into lifting and cross-fit, I hear a lot of the opposite comments, negative comments aimed specifically at being too petite, too thin, i.e. “too weak.” On a forum, someone recently slammed an actress who is reported to have done a lot of physical training for a role by saying “well let’s be serious here for a second, she was 117 lb for 5’5 in this role, there is no way in hell she was actually healthy – trained to look healthy perhaps, but in no way could she be fit at that weight.” I probably butchered tje comment, but I mention the proportions because they are mine to the exact pound; this comment, for some reason, really punched me right in the gut. However it is not an isolated remark.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that while your points about fat-shaming are very well taken for the world in general, I just wanted to point that the “fit” community in particular has its own shaming rhetoric for the non-muscular or the non-powerful… But we want to learn too! 🙂

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  11. Thank you for this blog and the link you provided. I read and appreciated them both.

    I’m here because I was looking at this . I really hated many of the body shaming or degrading comments.

    I left this comment in reply,”Why are we criticizing and tearing down women on Mother’s Day of all days? You don’t like the way she looks? Who asked you? Do you think they do this for you? It’s really sad on today of all days, that women are being shamed for their appearance. Our mothers are women who love us, who nurture us, who sacrifice for us and want the best for us. How about we do other people’s mothers the respect of not treating them like a piece of meat?

    These women obviously spent a lot of time and effort to get this way. You’re not making yourself any better by tearing them down– either by saying they didn’t build themselves to what you think is a right kind of proportion, or acting all sour grapes because they did something you can’t.

    What’s the point of trying to become as ideally healthy as we can, if we just act like petty, shallow assholes?”

    I just can’t let these things go anymore. I love fitness, I love exercise and seeing my body change and grow stronger, but I really dislike what is a very reactionary, toxic amount of body shaming I see in many fitness forums.

    Even the women who are considered “hot” are still treated like livestock, being judged before going to market. I’m a guy and it bothers me profoundly, I can’t imagine how utterly degrading it must be to be a woman who observes/is subject to those kind of criticisms.

    I’m glad that there are people like you who are trying to take the best aspects of fitness, but not turn it into a private club for only the aesthetic elites.

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