Thursday, January 29, 2015

Little Things Matter to Big People

Dear Fitness Center:

When we joined your gym a few months ago, my partner mentioned that he'd been a member previously.  He was asked, "Why did you quit last time?"  I understand the purpose of this question, to try and help someone tailor their experience differently in a way that retains customers.  The answer, as it is for many people who join gyms and quit them, was a complex muddle of "It cost more in time and money than I was willing/able to spend to get the benefits I wanted."

But if I ever have to answer that question, here's what I'll say:

It's your towels.

Not specifically the towels themselves, you see, but what they represent in the context of your gym and how you manage it.

The best time for me to work out is at lunch, which means I drive over, hit the elliptical for 20-25 minutes, shower, and drive back to work for the afternoon.  This is, for me, a workout routine I can establish as a habit, meaning that regular activity 3-5 times a week becomes a set part of my life.  All the studies I've read say that, whatever my size, that is an improvement and a positive thing over spending the same lunch hour working, or sitting at my desk and reading.

But here we find...the towels.  I am not particularly body-shy.  I have used communal showers for almost two decades now, so being unclothed around a bunch of other women in the locker room isn't really a thing with me.  But I'd like to wrap a towel around me as I walk from the shower to the locker, in part because it's a bit chilly in there, and in part because that seems to be the standard of behaviour everyone else is engaging in, and I'd like to respect others' comfort levels.

The towel won't wrap, though.  Each time I work out, each time I shower, I attempt to squish my body into one of your towels, unable to even convince it to tuck neatly around my chest, and it simply gapes below.  My hips and stomach are completely exposed, in all their rounded glory, as I scurry to my locker, trying to juggle my workout clothes and shoes and my glasses and my conditioner, and keep the towel from falling off.  I have yet to succeed; every day or two I hold my head up defiantly as that inadequate towel pools around my feet.  I can't go back to work unshowered, and packing a towel for my own use adds a load of laundry each week to an already-full domestic schedule, so I face the towel every day, and it demoralizes me, removing some of that endorphin high from my workout.

I look around at all the pictures you have, of people enjoying their workouts, happily swimming and biking and practicing yoga, and every last one of those people is thin.  Not just an average-weight person, but a deliberately thin one, one who fits in the towel with ease.  There are no pictures of happy fat people working out in your gym, not anywhere.  I have never, in fact, worked out in a gym where there were pictures of happy healthy fat people, despite the fact that I know a lot of happy healthy fat people who enjoy working out.

When I came in for my 'free consultation', I explained "I am trying to rebuild healthy habits, so what I plan to do is get in the habit of coming in, just to hit the elliptical, or the treadmill or the stairmaster, several times a week.  I have about 25 minutes.  Eventually I will want to put together a weights routine that I can switch out with that, even though I know it'll have to be limited."  The trainer explained patiently that 25 minutes of weight lifting just wasn't even worth doing, and if I wasn't willing to commit to more time than that, then probably I should just stick to the elliptical, because that would have to be enough and it was 'better than nothing'.  I was pushed and pushed and pushed to weigh myself and lay out a 'goal weight' and a 'target weight loss rate' no matter how many times I said it wasn't about getting skinny.

All of this, over and together, tells me that the story you're selling is this one:  thin people go to the gym.  Thin, happy people are people who work out.  People who work out are thin, happy people.  There is no space for the fat fit.  They do not exist, they do not belong here, this is a place where inadequate people come and they get thin, because thin is how you win when you commit to fitness as a lifestyle.

I will never be thin.  Even at my 'goal weight', five or ten pounds above where my face starts to look a little uncanny-angular, I am a 36DDD.  As for the bottom half of my body, this train is an express to Callipygia and it is equipped with a full caboose.  There is no changing that, and I do not want there to be.

My 'ideal body' is measured in my functionality.  At my peak of fitness, I can't tell you my waist size, but I can tell you that I can hike 8 desert miles with ease, and manage Hill Country hikes with hundreds of feet of change in elevation.  I can run five back-to-back 20-hour active days without exhaustion.  I can lift, carry, and push almost anything I'm likely to need to.  My long-term goal is a solo overnight 20 or 30 mile hike.  But when I explain to people at your gym these functional goals I have, I hear "Ok, so at what weight do you think you'd be able to do all that?"

So, I get that this is a gym and selling fitness is your job.  I get that your job is easiest when I'm satisfied with easy metrics like weight and body fat percentage, and when I'm willing to simply do what I'm told, make getting to the gym on your terms a priority in my life, and live out a 'success story' for your ads.  Joe Sixpack who lost 60 pounds and umpty inches makes a much better photo op than the woman who hauls her size fourteen fluffy ass up 15 miles of Big Bend trails.

And I get that you're telling the story larger culture taught you:  There is no room in fitness for fat people.  A fat person in the gym can't possibly be working on any goal beyond self-erasure.  I cannot possibly have a workout goal that includes expanding anything about myself, not even my capacity for physical endurance, because expanse should be my enemy.

I also get that you can't change that larger culture.  That asking a business to change its entire philosophy when most of us can't even find pants in our size or doctors who'll consider non-weight-related causes is not so realistic.  You can't change how the world views me, you can't change the American perception of fitness to include the fact that it is a thing personally defined, by each and every one of us, that it is a constantly-changing idea based on the capacity of the body you inhabit, not a cookie-cutter image of fat-free triathletes smiling past their water bottles.

You can't singlehandedly end shaming and misinformation about weight, you can't singlehandedly make people understand that the entire idea of 'extreme diet and workout program to get to the right size' is a path to failure every single time because it can never be sustainable, you cannot completely revolutionize the world so that fat people feel welcome, so that we feel we have a right to exist in this world.

But you know what you can do?

Get bigger towels.


  1. This is really well written. Like all of your entries. And I would say that you're letting them off easy. Going to the gym does absolutely exist in the larger context of bodyshaming culture, but you know what another culture that gym exists in? Customer service. That person is supposed to be helping you get what you need. That includes listening to you when you say what you want, and working within the framework to see how they can best assist you. It doesn't mean changing your goals into something that is easier for them to put on an excel spreadsheet. You are not their to make their lives easier, its the other way around. If you haven't already given it to them, I think that it would be really beneficial for the gym that you patronize to hear this feedback.

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