What It’s Really Like to Be a Plus-Size Woman at the Gym—and Why Losing Weight Isn’t My Goal
How one writer got past gym intimidation and backhanded comments—and feels better than ever.
Before the confetti is even swept up and as hangovers are still being nursed, many of us solemnly resolve to do things differently in the new year—which often means spending more time at the gym. Trying anything new is intimidating, but when you walk through the world in a larger body, stepping out of your comfort zone can make you feel especially self-conscious.
That's even more true at the gym, where plus-size people often face self-imposed shame about working out. The reality of gym culture is rarely one of self-acceptance; going to the gym implies a need to change.
Over the years, I’ve made what feels like a million promises to myself to get off the couch. When I do finally get in the groove of working up a sweat on a regular basis, it’s always great for me and I get easily addicted. But as I’ve gained weight and gotten older, I’ve found myself in a familiar shame spiral that prevents me from starting something new.
Like so many plus-size women, I convince myself that it somehow makes sense to lose weight and get in shape before I start working out. It’s like cleaning for the housekeeper (which for the record, I do not do). But I know I’m not alone in getting a familiar sinking feeling of entering a new exercise space, then feeling judged, or worse, pitied.
What 'fit-shaming' sounds like
When it first became trendy in New York, I did a lot of Bikram yoga. I fell in love with it. As with most of my obsessive phases, I eventually moved on. Years later—and considerably heavier—I dropped into a class. I hadn’t done any exercise in years and the heat really got to me, so I sat down during a standing pose to catch my breath.
The teacher asked if me if I was okay, but it was clear he was annoyed. At the end of class in front of everyone he said, “If you’re not able to stand for even one full class you should really see a doctor.” Ouch. The irony is that when I had been thinner I also had to sit down—and even left the room when I first started—but no one ever commented that there might be something wrong with me. Needless to say I was mortified and felt too ashamed to return.
During one particularly sedentary phase of my life, I talked to my therapist about how I really needed to start working out again. About a year before, I had done a series of cross-training sessions. Of all the workouts I’ve tried, it was the most effective for losing weight quickly. I told her how I was thinking of going back to it, how I knew I “should.”
She questioned why I ever left. I knew exactly why—I hated it! So she pushed me, asking why I would pay money (so much money) for something I hated and couldn’t sustain the last time in the hopes that I would lose weight. What kind of success model is that? Her words sunk in. I stopped thinking about working out in terms of weight loss and more about self-care.
Now one of my biggest frustrations is the immediate assumption that gym-goers are working out just to lose weight. People have a myriad of reasons for getting fit and strong, and it’s demeaning that the main way we measure success is by losing inches. Recently when discussing a workout, I actually had someone put her hand on my hip and say “you’ll get there.” The message I wanted to send was that I’m already there—that working out at all and participating in self care is an accomplishment.
People often see me in workout clothes and tell me that they are so “proud of me,” and one woman cheerfully remarked, “You’re disappearing!” I understand that being thinner is the assumed goal. We congratulate each other on body alterations all the time, wanted or not. While we profess that women’s bodies are off limits to judgment (ha!), all any woman has to do is lose 10 pounds to know that her body is fair game to be discussed openly at cocktail parties and in conference rooms.
Until recently, losing weight had always been my primary motivation for exercise, but my objective has shifted to trying to make peace with my body. Ironically, exercise has helped me achieve that more than it ever helped me to lose weight. Feeling stronger and setting physical goals—and then crushing them—has given me a new found confidence and respect for myself.
The workout that helped me find body peace
When I was at my highest weight ever I discovered SoulCycle. I know people have their criticisms of this expensive workout, during which instructors shout out spiritual encouragement. But I connect to it in the most major way. I feel stronger and more fit than ever. People are so welcoming, and there is a real plus-size community of support. Never does an instructor spout encouragement that has anything to do with getting smaller. Most of the talk is pushing yourself to make goals happen off the bike.
When I work out, I want people to look at me at my weight and think that if I can do it, they can too. One of the advantages to being older is that I can more easily check my ego at the door than I could 15 years ago. When I started spinning, it was back row only, and I sat down for most of the class. I don’t think I would have kept up with it if I hadn’t allowed myself to start so slowly. But pushing myself in class and ultimately sticking with it has brought success to my life off the bike.
How to love the gym no matter your size
If your resolution is to get more exercise, I applaud you, but consider doing it for reasons other than losing a few dress sizes. Try not to be intimidated at the gym and offer the same compassion to yourself as you would to a friend starting something new. Don’t be afraid to make modifications, and while you should give every new venture a chance, if you don’t love it, seek out an activity you do love. Find a place where you are supported and encouraged, and once you become a regular, pass that support onto someone else.