Walking into SoulCycle as a fat woman was one of the most alienating experiences of my life. Despite the lovely lemon-scented candles and peppy people, my friend and I found ourselves to be not only the largest bodied people in the class (this was about plus-100 pounds ago for me), but certainly the two who looked the most lost.
We were barely acknowledged at the desk, and left to fend for ourselves as we clipped in. When the lights dimmed and the slender instructor screamed, “THIS IS YOUR FAMILY” into a darkened, techno-laden room, we were utterly left behind. No one defined hand positions, acclimated us to the levers that change gears, or offered assistance in setting up our bikes. It was unwelcoming, and unkind. It took years and a lot of coaxing before I tried another cycle class. (I now have a love for it, thanks to friends who showed me a different way.)
If I’m not being ignored in a fat body when I enter a fitness studio, I’m being patronized or ridiculed. I’ve heard it all; a whisper at the front desk of “this is a challenging class so feel free to stay in child’s pose,” or an instructor declaring loudly from the podium “you are so inspiring for coming today” with a laser focus on my tummy.
And no, they don’t say that to everyone. It is abundantly clear to me that the size of my body often makes fitness professionals uncomfortable. Their industry has been built on “looking good” according to some ideal, so why wouldn’t it?
It is abundantly clear to me that the size of my body often makes fitness professionals uncomfortable.
Even studios touting inclusion often celebrate a specific type of aesthetic. I was once a dance fitness instructor at a company built on inclusion. It was my favorite thing I’ve done to date. Yet the CEO once told me not to make being a big girl “my brand” so I wouldn’t be pigeonholed into one type of thing. Meanwhile, every other instructor was told to find their unique voice and encouraged to develop that via social media.
Fat bodies are seen as the enemy in fitness—something to be solved. Food is fuel or evil or to be carefully controlled, not enjoyable or full of culture. How sad is that? What might happen in our studios and gyms if we embraced the idea of moving our bodies for joy, endorphins, health, and fun?
I love to dance. I love good music in a spin studio. I have even come to enjoy a hot yoga class (but please give me more yin for these aching bones). I am a runner. I love to pick up and put down heavy things. When a fitness community is good, it’s so, so good, full of people lifting each other up and challenging one another to do hard things.
Recently, I ran/walked my first 5K. It was the weekend of my 37th birthday and I’d been training for what felt like forever. I hired an incredible coach who gave me a training plan and accountability, but who also reminded me that injury, and life, was gonna happen. I have a run crew (check us out on Tuesday nights—Unnamed is the first ever Black-led run group in Boston) that was a consistent group of cheerleaders. My friend and ultra-trail marathoner Julia drove 50+ miles to be my hypewoman while I ran the streets of Ipswich, Massachusetts. This is the fitness community we all deserve.
So, how could the rest of the industry be more like it?
Start by offering variations for people in all sized bodies. Encourage people to do what feels good for them. Sure, we go to a workout for a challenge, but everyone gets injured—thin or fat—and guiding us to push ourselves safely is a great way to make sure you’re taking care of your clients.
And when you do a run of merch, don’t work with brands that are exclusive (spoiler alert, XL is not expanded sizing). Consider that some brands have a serious history of fatphobia, and are only now coming around to broadening their sizes because it’s trendy. Also consider the stability of your equipment for larger bodies.
No, you don’t know what my body can do by looking at it. When I walk into your studio, greet me like you would any paying customer. A smile and a welcome is great. If it’s my first time, ask if I’d like help finding the bathrooms or getting set up. Don’t make any assumptions about what I can or cannot do, or try to inform me. Sounds like what you’d do for anyone, right?
I love to move. My fat friends do, too. We deserve studios where we can feel accepted, included, even celebrated. It is a joy to watch the long-standing alienation of big bodies from fitness cracking open a bit, with the rise of amazing women like Jessamyn Stanley, Ash Pryor, and Lizzo’s Big Grrls—watch these athletes move! Notice that they are confident in their abilities, just like you. Support us, hire us, let us represent all types of bodies for your brands. Let us find our joy, and you’ll see what we can do.