An Open Letter to Fitness Professionals

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Lindley Ashline

Encountering weight-based discrimination and internalized weight bias can be particularly challenging in spaces designed to highlight fitness and body movement. In this piece, Lindley Ashline writes a letter to fitness professionals about the challenges faced by fat persons in fitness spaces and encourages fitness professionals to be more intentional and inclusive of fat bodies. 

The Happy Place

Recently I saw a comment from a fitness professional that got me thinking. She said that she wants to help people in bodies of all sizes get to the “happy place” of exercise. 

First off, that’s an admirable goal for any fitness pro, and I applaud that and wish her well in a very non-sarcastic way.

But it got me thinking. There are of course people who simply don’t get that kind of happy-making charge from body movement. (An unscientific survey of my Facebook friends list resulted in dozens of stories of people who get no emotional or physical lift from exercise.) 

And there are lots of people for whom getting to that happy place from exercise — especially the kind of formal “exercise” that comes from gyms and yoga and pilates and running and so on — simply isn’t a possibility due to the limitations of their bodies, abilities or brain chemistry.

So today I want to ask people in the fitness world to put themselves in the shoes — and yoga pants — of people who live in fat bodies.

Mary and Movement

Hello! I’m Mary, and I’m a fictional fat person, based on research and anecdotes from real-world fat folks. Historically, I haven’t gotten a lot of movement in my life, partly because of the challenges presented to people in large bodies regarding movement, and partly because of middle-school gym class. You know the one. 

Recently, I’ve seen a lot more movement targeted at and intended for people who look like me, though. The body positive movement is telling me that my body is worthy at any size, and the fat acceptance movement is telling me that a fat body isn’t a shameful body. Fitness pros are even popping up around the world who say they’re body positive and want all kinds of bodies in their classes, gyms and client lists. 

I’m feeling a bit better about the body I have right now, and I want to get that lovely endorphin rush I’ve heard about that happens from exercise, particularly mainstream, cool movement like yoga or “couch to 5K” or cycling. 

I’m ready to take on the world of fitness, but I know I need to start slow, so I’m going to take up walking first to build up stamina. 

Since I’m statistically more likely to be poor, do I have access to clothes that won’t chafe? To supportive shoes? To a walkable neighborhood with sidewalks, or a nearby park? To transportation that will get me somewhere I can safely walk? 

I can’t afford expensive workout clothing online, or maybe athletic apparel isn’t even made in my size, so I try walking in jeans or loose sweatpants. Ouch. Three different cars yell insults at me as they whiz by, and one veers dangerously toward me as I walk on the shoulder of the road outside my house. Ouch. I come home chafed, embarrassed and frustrated. 

Hmm. Maybe I should try cycling. I look up the weight limit on cheap bicycles, and I’m over the weight limit. So much for that. 

I try going to a yoga class. I stick out like a sore thumb in my T-shirt and sweatpants, and I’m by far the fattest person in the class. The instructor doesn’t know how to modify poses for fat bodies and I’m forced to simply sit out half the poses. 

I look online at couch-to-5K programs. I bet I could build up some stamina that way; the first few rounds seem pretty easy. 

When I try to run, not only do my breasts flap painfully, and so do my stomach and even the fronts of my thighs. $150 in useless sports bras later, I realize two things: There’s no apparel that works for my body for this activity, and it’s not worth the public exposure. 

In desperation, I try signing up for a gym. On my first visit — still in those sweatpants, since the few athletic options available in my size are far too expensive to bother with for any more activities I’m going to try once and leave in tears — two men lifting weights snicker audibly as I walk past. Worse, two people approach me while I’m on the treadmill and say things they think are helpful but come across as horribly condescending. (“Good for you!”) 

Defeated, I go back home and read on Facebook about how my thin friends are all getting happy over at the gym. 

Real-World Stories

Mary’s story is more common than you think. Here are a few of the comments from my unscientific Facebook survey: 

  • “I just feel exhausted after exercising.” 
  • “I got an endorphin rush when I was younger, but not any more.”
  •  “I had a runner’s high once and I’ve never been able to repeat it.”
  •  “Regular exercise did nothing but increase my chronic pain.”
  •  “All exercise gives me is migraines.”
  •  “Moving my body feels good in itself, but I don’t get any other kind of lift or feel-good emotions out of it.”
  •  “I often feel worse mentally during and after exercise, especially if it’s something I’ve scheduled or am doing intentionally to exercise, because of all the shame associated with my body.”

A Call to Fitness Professionals

Since our wider culture has told us for decades that fat bodies are lazy, uncompliant and untrustworthy, I ask you to dig deep and analyze your feelings and reactions as you consider making fitness more accessible to fat, superfat (generally above a size 28/30) and infinifat (generally above a size 32) people.

As you find roots and remnants of size bias (and you will, since we’ve all been steeped in a fat-hating culture), pull them out and throw them away.

First, eliminate the little voice that says, “Well, once they adopt a healthier lifestyle, they’ll be thinner and able to exercise just like everyone else.” Even if diets worked (they don’t, and our hypothetical person would end up gaining the weight back), that doesn’t get our hypothetical person moving today. Let’s focus on right now.

I’d also ask you to discard any suggestions or helpful advice that built up in the back of your mind as you read this. Assuming that Mary (or her real-world counterparts) simply doesn’t understand how to exercise properly, or just aren’t working hard enough to get an endorphin rush, is infantilizing and invalidating.

Hear me. I, and other people with stories like Mary’s, don’t want you to feel defeated. Of course it’s possible to exercise in most fat bodies! And yes, of course it’s possible to do any of the activities we discussed above in some fat bodies, *given enough time, effort, money and resources.*

(Other fat bodies won’t be able to do those activities for the same ability and health constraints that prevent some thin bodies from moving in those ways.)

I know that you, dear fitness professional, can’t change systemic factors all by yourself. But you can make your space, your classes, and your personality welcoming to fat and disabled bodies. You can listen when fat people talk about their experiences.

You can have props and modifications ready. You can stop fat shaming, snickering behind backs, and making derogatory comments wherever you encounter them in your students, clients or colleagues. You can advocate to companies that make activewear and sports equipment to offer larger sizes.

You can use images of fat bodies (and people of color, and people with visible disabilities) on your website and social media channels.

You can be an ally and create an environment where people in fat bodies have as much chance as possible to get to that happy place, too.

Lindley Ashline is a professional photographer based in Seattle, WA. She runs Representation Matters, which provides stock photos, images and illustrations based in body acceptance and health at every size principles. All images on the site are available for commercial use, and contributors are paid a living wage for their work. Lindley is also the creator of Body Liberation Photography and the Body Love Box.

This piece originally appeared on the Association for Size Diversity and Health’s and was republished with permission.

Banner photo by Lindley Ashline.