Covered in sweat, arms overflowing with costumes and shoes, sick with a cold, and feeling, as always, that I could have danced better in the competition, I headed from the ballroom to the elevator with thoughts of hot showers and comfortable shoes drifting through my head. “RAGEN!” I turned to see a judge barreling toward me. Instinctively I retreated until my back was literally against the wall. “I couldn’t stand to look at you.”
Recoiling slightly, she looked me up and down like I had Ebola and, voice dripping with disdain, repeated,“I. Couldn’t. Stand. To. Look. At. You.”
We repeated this four times, she louder and angrier each time, me looking her in the eye, emotionlessly repeating, “ok.”
Had I forgotten my dance panties? Blatantly ignored the costume rules? Nope, I had committed a far greater sin: dancing while fat. And—an even greater atrocity—being good at it.
I had won the competition, no thanks to this judge who penalized me for “appearance,” a penalty intended for people who did forget their dance panties or ignore costume rules.
Finally, I said, “I probably won’t choose to change my dress, but I appreciate you taking the time to tell me it’s such a problem for you.” The conversation was over, but the truth was clear—if I wanted to be a fat dancer, I had to be a fat activist to get it done.
Such is the life of a fathlete. First we must overcome the stereotyping, bullying, concern trolling, silencing, disbelief, prejudice, and hostility that start the instant we have the audacity to pursue fitness in a fat body. If we somehow claw our way through that to succeed at our sport, we are often rewarded by an escalation of poor treatment and such fervent denial of our existence that many people think they’re more likely to see a rainbow pooping unicorn than a fat athlete.
Criticism comes swiftest from those whose self-esteem is rooted in having the “right” body, and those who insist that “successful” athleticism always leads to a thin body. We are silenced at every turn, often aggressively.
Sabrina, a member of the Fit Fatties Forum from San Diego, played three seasons of women’s semi-professional tackle football, all marred by size bigotry. Sabrina told me: “I often tried to approach the conversations with my different, usually new, point of view on fat bodies’ contribution to the sport and the general unfair misconception that fat bodies can’t be athletic.
However, the spectrum of reaction ranged from uncomfortable resistance to the idea to the outright dismissal of my opinion—often in aggressive or confrontational ways.” Eventually Sabrina left the sport because “the space was not emotionally safe or healthy for [her] to thrive in.”
When 400-pound sumo wrestler Kelly Gneiting finished his second marathon, he had improved his time by over 2 hours and set the Guinness World Record for largest person to finish a marathon. Many were quick to suggest that his achievement shouldn’t be publicized because it would “promote obesity.” As if people would think the key to finishing a marathon was weighing 400 pounds. As if fat people should actively avoid celebrating our athletic achievement because we live in a society that stigmatizes our bodies.
This vicious cycle shames fat people for not pursuing fitness, then stigmatizes us when we do pursue fitness, then conceals any success we have pursuing fitness. One issue with this is that fat people who are interested in athletics don’t have role models. Jeanette DePatie—a “teaching fathlete—helps other budding athletes of all ages, shapes, sizes, and abilities learn to love their bodies and love exercise again.”
She has completed events from 5Ks to a marathon, but her fitness career almost never happened because “notions of how an athlete is supposed to look nearly derailed [her] fitness efforts on a permanent basis.” E-mails pile up from my blog readers who want to try various athletic endeavors but thought they were impossible because they had never seen a fat person do them.
In addition to encouraging the stereotyping of fat people as un-athletic and unhealthy, the misguided approach of using body size as a proxy for health ignores the research. Matheson, Wei et. al, and the Cooper Institute Longitudinal Studies show that habits are a much better determinant of health than size. It also ignores the fact that health is never completely within anyone’s control. Say any of that out loud and you’ll find yourself shouted down faster than they told Galileo to sit down and shut up.
This misinforms fat people that healthy habits won’t make us healthier unless they make us thinner, and misinforms thin people that they are healthy by virtue of their body size and regardless of their habits. It also means that, unfortunately public health becomes about making fat people’s bodies the public’s business. All you can tell from someone’s body size is their size, and your beliefs about bodies that size. That doesn’t stop people from making comments ranging from misinformed to wildly inappropriate.
I was pushing 850 pounds on a leg press when someone said “good for you for starting an exercise program!” What the hell?
Even fitness professionals get in on the action. Tristy is a 5’11, 300 pound Olympic-style weight lifter I first met at a dinner for people interested in Fat Acceptance in San Francisco. Despite her husband’s promises that his gym was a safe space, it took her over a year to walk through the door because “as a fat woman, [she] had so many horror stories of being treated as less than human by coaches and personal trainers.” Jeanette also experienced the most bullying and negative attitudes from organizations that certify fitness instructors.
Last year Jeanette and I founded the Fit Fatties Forum (www.fitfatties.com) to create a space for weight neutral fitness discussions. We welcome people of all sizes and fitness levels, but included the word fat in the name to help give fat people a voice in the fitness discussion. A year later we have an active community of almost 2,000 members, with discussions, groups, and photo and video galleries.
The forum members are welcoming and encouraging to people of every size and fitness level, and happy to allow people to self-identify as athletes—fathletes—or not. Perhaps the most common sentiment among members is the desire for body size to be removed from fitness discussions.
The confusion of body size and fitness doesn’t just affect fat people, it creates a barrier to fitness for anyone who fears they might not look the part. Fitness isn’t a body size, a look, or an obligation.
Nobody is required to pursue fitness or athletics, nobody should be judged for their choice to be involved in athletics or not, but everyone should have the opportunity to get involved. I think those already in the fitness world should be the first to welcome people of all sizes, shapes, abilities, and activities, and the last to try to silence peoples’ physical voices for any reason.
Get in touch:
Ragen Chastain: www.danceswithfat.org
Jeanette DePatie: www.thefatchick.com
Tristy: Watch her video “Strong Fat Lady” at http://youtu.be/YVVzgtp0_to and find her on Twitter @RevTristy
The Fit Fatties Forum: www.fitfatties.com
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