Here’s my big secret: I work out five days a week.
Not that shocking, right? Are you waiting for me to get to the scandalous part, like where I steal priceless works of art so I can bench-press them? No, that’s actually all of it. I am very, very reluctant to tell people I exercise regularly.
Why? Well, I wear a size 16 and weigh close to 200 pounds. (I don’t weigh myself; the last time I was at the doctor I was about 195 and I still wear the same pant size as I did then.) I’ve been working out five days a week for more than a year, without losing any discernible weight.
This is fine with me, because I’m not trying to lose weight. I exercise because it feels good, because it helps ameliorate my lifelong insomnia, because regular exercise improves overall health and increases life span. I exercise because I like seeing my strength increase and being able to do things I couldn’t do a year ago, and because, as a freelance writer who works from home, it’s nice to have a little bit of structure, not to mention a little bit of getting off the couch and away from my laptop, in my day.
But in the collective imagination of American culture, if a fat person works out, it’s because she’s trying to become a thin person. And I’m not.
Studies consistently show (http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Dieting-Does-Not-Work-UCLA-Researchers-7832) that the majority of people who lose any significant weight gain it back within a few years – often even more than they lost. Even if you stipulate that being thin is linked to fewer health problems than being fat (which is far from inarguable http://www.medicaldaily.com/health-benefits-being-overweight-higher-bmi-linked-longer-life-and-faster-healing-249203), you only get the benefits if you can manage to become thin permanently. Yo-yo dieting is way worse for you than having a high but stable BMI, and there’s some evidence http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v36/n3/abs/ijo2011160a.html that it can actually make people heavier in the long term.
All of those are secondary reasons why weight loss is not my goal, but the main reason is that I’m just not interested. I know that saying “I’m fat and I don’t care at all about getting thin” is in some circles tantamount to saying “My hair is on fire but I’m just going to let it burn,” but acquiring a more socially acceptable body type simply isn’t a priority for me.
This is why I don’t talk about my workout regimen, not even to celebrate when I’ve hit a goal or commiserate when I feel totally burned out. I sometimes see fat people post their after-workout selfies on social media, but they’re usually accompanied by hashtags like “#fitnessjourney” or “#weightlossgoals.” My fitness routine isn’t a journey or a goal. I don’t want people to assume that I’m looking for encouragement in becoming skinnier. I’m not a before picture.
I also hesitate to share my secret fitness life because I know the kind of stereotypes that prevail about my body type. People make assumptions about me all the time, from the friend who pulled me aside at a party to say she was “really concerned about my health” to the anti-feminist dude who trolled me on Twitter, saying I “wouldn’t be such an ugly hag if I had a better lifestyle.” I’m not thrilled about the possibility of someone looking at my workout status and thinking (or, since the Internet exists, saying) “Yeah right, you work out five times a week. Then why are you still a heifer?”
And the fact is, I’m not in superhuman shape, despite my regular workouts. Maybe if I were a star athlete, I’d feel more comfortable saying “I’m fat and I work out and if you don’t like it you can shove it.” But I worry that if I share specifics about my progress, someone will see it as an invitation to compare and compete. I’m hesitant to open myself up to judgment of not only my workouts but also my body.
Working out by myself, the only person who cares whether I beat my personal best, phone it in, or skip it altogether is me – and, counterintuitively, that means I push myself harder. As a former smart-but-lazy kid, I’m an expert in coming up with excuses that will convince other people, but when I’m only accountable to myself, I’m totally honest about how much I can give. Keeping my workouts a secret means I enjoy them more and get more out of them, because I’m not sweating for anyone but myself.
I’m also reluctant to share the fact that I exercise regularly lest it seem like an attempt to justify the way I look. Although the impulse to defend ourselves against unfair allegations is totally understandable, I think the world would be a better place if fat people (especially fat women) didn’t constantly feel pressure to explain our own existence. My body is my business. Whether I climb a fourteener a day or never leave the couch, I’m still a person with intrinsic value who deserves respect.
If exercise were considered morally neutral – something you can do because it’s fun and good for you, but not something you have to do to compensate for not being conventionally attractive – I’d feel a lot more at ease talking about it, and maybe even sharing my little successes and tribulations. It would be nice to have a supportive community at my back, to have someone besides my partner to cheer me on and cheer for them in turn, whether the goal is weight loss, a six-minute mile, or just getting outside in the fresh air each day. But, though I’m sure those like-minded people exist (and hopefully some of them are reading this), I worry that in order to find them I’d have to open myself up to a whole host of assumptions and stereotypes.
For right now, I plan to keep working out at home, avoiding the gym, and setting and achieving goals for my own enjoyment, not to validate myself in the eyes of others. But I think I’m ready to start talking about fitness as it applies to all bodies, not just those that could pose for the cover of Sports Illustrated. I’m not ready to tell all my Facebook friends how many burpees I did this morning, but I am ready to expand the conversation around fitness beyond losing weight to include all the diverse goals and priorities of people who work out. I hope that by beginning to be honest about what that looks like for me, I can open up opportunities for others to do the same.