Rather than writing a “here’s how to do something” post, which was my original intent; instead, I will tell you about the situation I was in, and how I dealt with it. As reconciling Fat Acceptance with a desire to work out is a complicated issue for many people, I hope my narrative will prove useful to other people in my position. Also, there is extensive exercise-related talk going on below, so if that sort of thing is upsetting, please consider yourself warned.
About two months ago, I joined a gym. This was kind of a big deal. Without turning this post into a mini-biography about my self-image, weight, relationship with food, and exercise, let me just say this: I am quite fat. I have always been fat. There have been long expanses of my life where I’ve been super active, and I was fat then too. Over the past few years, thanks to the glory of the internet, I’ve learned about Fat Acceptance and Health At Every Size (HAES), and have become a much happier, more confident person because of these new philosophies. At the same time (but unrelated) I was spending all day sitting still at a desk, and it was as if I could feel myself growing more sedentary as the hours ticked by, and I didn’t like how that felt. I was also in dire need of some positive chemicals for my brain, so I literally summoned up all of my courage, and signed myself up for the closest gym to my apartment.
And kids, this place was swanky. Because I had apparently joined in the middle of some promotion, my membership came with 4 free personal training sessions. I scheduled one for a few weeks in the future, hoping I’d be at least a little more used to physical activity by then.
I loved my first few weeks at the gym! It was the weirdest thing ever. I’ve hated exercising for about as long as I can remember, rolled my eyes at people who told me that they always felt better after working out. And then, like magic, I became one of those people. It was kind of scary, and I kept waiting for the bottom to fall out.
Cue my first meeting with my personal trainer. I’d been nervous all day, but I’d also set some ground rules in my head: Only do what I am comfortable with. Explain to her that weight loss is not a goal for me, and that I don’t care about numbers. Do not. Let her. Weigh me. That is not what this is about. So I sat down with the trainer, and she had a page of notes in front of her. She proceeded to explain what we’re going to do today: “First, we’re going to take your measurements.”
I froze. The “Stand Up For Yourself” part of my brain and the “I Aim To Please” part of my brain engaged in an epic battle for several milliseconds, and I managed to eke out a “Nope” and shake my head a bit.
“No?” She seemed confused.
“No,” I repeated. “That’s not what I’m here for. I want to learn how to use the equipment, and get stronger and more active. Weight loss is neither a goal nor priority, and I’m not comfortable with you taking any measurements.”
She then crossed out half of her notes, which, I realized, were a series of body parts with colons next to them, to put down my sizes ““ how big my arms were, how big my bust was, etc. She said “Okay, well, then we’ll start with measuring BMI and body fat percentage.”
BMI? BMI?! Hasn’t it been commonly accepted for YEARS that BMI was supposed to measure populations, not individual people, and wasn’t really a good indicator of anything? Hadn’t she seen Kate Harding’s BMI Project? Was she going to attempt to balance my humors next? I again, screwed up my courage, and said, “No, I’m not comfortable with that.” Which I said, you know, as smilingly and apologetically as possible. I was a bundle of nerves. She then said that she had nutrition plans and food lists and diet information. I, for the second or third time, said I wasn’t interested, that I’m really not here for weight loss. I suppose, for people who work with personal trainers all the time, these are mostly standard suggestions and questions, and I’m not at all insinuating that she wanted to measure these things because of my size. Rather, this entire industry is so concerned over pounds and inches, and that can be both depressing and dangerous for a lot of us to obsess over. But back to my story:
Having made my stand, and tried, at least a little, to explain where I was coming from, the “aim to please” part of my brain took over, and ““ and this was my own fault ““ I pushed myself too hard during the actual training session. Of course I can do dozens of squats after not doing a single squat in three years! Why wouldn’t I have a problem with doing a ton of lunges after said squats?! Just because I am fat, and haven’t worked out in a long time, doesn’t mean I can’t do rigorous physical activity!
The next day, in debilitating pain, I was incredibly frustrated with myself, but for all the wrong reasons. I told myself that I was an idiot to think that going to the gym would ever be anything other than all about the numbers, that the trainer (and all of the other conventionally attractive people at the gym) probably saw me as lazy and inferior, and most of all, disgusting. I had fallen off of all sorts of mental health wagons, and I never wanted to go to the gym again.
I stayed away for about two weeks. I cancelled my subsequent appointment with her. Then, frustrated with the fact that I was paying for an expensive membership and not using it, I dragged myself back in, started up my previous routine. Still trying to push myself, I went to a dance class. I’d been really worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the group exercise classes, but this class was one of the things I had been incredibly excited about when I first joined the gym. And while I was vaguely horrible at it, I made it through the class ““ thank goodness there were other people there for whom it was their first time in that class, too. I spoke to the instructor after class, and she was incredibly sweet and encouraging and just all-around great ““ I felt more at ease at the gym than I had in weeks.
I went home and, weeks late, responded to my trainer’s email about rescheduling the session I cancelled. I apologized for not responding sooner, and ““ because I am far more brave behind a keyboard than I am in person ““ said that I was very discouraged after our first session. She responded, asking if I’d rather work with someone else (something I’d been contemplating) or if there was anything she could do.
So I went for it. I explained (and, seriously, thank goodness for the written word) that I was incredibly uncomfortable with the focus on size, numbers, and BMI. I tried to explain HAES, knowing full well she could easily dismiss me as some sort of fringe radical. I mean, she works for the weight loss industry. How was I supposed to explain to her that 96 percent of diets fail, and that I’d spent years on that roller coaster and had no interest in getting back on it? But I did. I tried to. And then I held my breath, waiting for a response.
Friends, she absolutely exceeded expectations. Her long response back to me was gracious, apologetic, and exactly what I needed to hear. She pointed out that she bases her program on numbers and size because, well, that’s what most people want. She said she would not treat me as just another weight loss client, and urged me to be more forthcoming when I was feeling uncomfortable with the exercises she set for me.
Our second session was immeasurably better. There was not one word about numbers or size or weight loss from her, and I felt comfortable enough to stop when things became too much. It was a radically different experience from my first session, and I am looking forward to the next one.
So here is the moral of my story: Speak up, when you can, in the manner in which you can. Set guidelines for yourself beforehand, and if you can’t necessarily bring yourself to self-advocate in the heat of the moment, try to do so afterwards, in whatever medium is most comfortable for you. Don’t necessarily assume that people are lost causes, but also don’t assume that everyone’s going to be coming from the same perspective you are. Both your brain and your body will thank you for it!