The Gym Isn’t Usually A Safe Space For Fat Women, But It’s Become My Sanctuary

After a lifetime of assuming I would never excel in a sport, my body is proving me wrong.

I am a fat woman and I am an athlete. I’ve been lifting weights for three years now. And when I started, entering the weight room meant setting foot in an area of the gym notorious for being a boys’ club, and an unfriendly, intimidating space for most people, especially women, to navigate. Three years in, it can still earn its reputation. But it’s also become one of my sanctuaries. After a lifetime of assuming I would never excel in a sport, my body is proving me wrong.

Our culture has gendered feelings about the gym, who works out where and why. While this isn’t true across the board, cardio machines tend to be the domain of women — women seeking to be fit, but also lithe and tight, smaller, striving to literally take up less space. The weight room is coded to be comfortable for men, a place for those seeking to be stronger, bigger, in search of “gains,” to take up more space. There have always been athletes of all genders who occupy the different sections of the gym, and I’m not alone as a woman getting into weightlifting; more and more are, in recent years. But speaking broadly here: How often do you see a majority of women in the weight room, slamming bars around? (And if you do see that often, please tell me where you work out.)

For me, the emotional trauma of being the fat kid in gym class was enough to rule out future interest in most sports. I wasn’t bullied, but I didn’t have to be. Being last to finish the mile run, being chosen last for dodgeball, not fitting into child sizes for my school uniform — all of made it easy for me to absorb the message coming in: None of this was designed for me, exercise was a form of punishment, and I would be less of an inconvenience if I would just shrink myself.

I never stopped exercising. I just starting hating it, dreading it. I took dance classes instead. I spent uninspired hours on the elliptical, treadmill, rowing machine, trying to escape my body, trying to pass the time, to go somewhere else in my mind so I didn’t need to be present with my sweat, my breath, the ticking minutes and my dissatisfaction with myself.

If I fell short, even once, I thought I would be letting down myself and all of womankind.

My college gym had a weight room. I only ever went in to stretch. Nobody in that room looked like me, so I stayed away. With no one to show me what to do, how would I have even begun in a safe way? And worse, what if I did something to make myself look stupid or weak? What if I struggled? Failed? By then I had internalized that I, as a woman, was not permitted to fail even once, to do subpar work, because I was a representative of my gender and all of its members and their future chances in the field. If I fell short, even once, I thought I would be letting down myself and all of womankind by making it that much harder for them to be taken seriously. So I never tried. I never even thought to try.

Well into my twenties, I started meeting strong women: women who bench-pressed, women who rode motorcycles, queer women who wore rainbow booty shorts to the gym, women who proudly posted photos of their muscles, women with appetites and attitude, who were unselfconscious. They were creating a digital archive of other ways to be women, to experience strength and femininity on their own terms. I wanted so desperately to join them.

So I started working out in earnest, first with a plus-size fitness guru named Roz, the first person to tell me that I could be strong. She was extraordinary, supportive, and creative. I mostly felt vulnerable, flayed open, inept. I would start crying the second I stepped out of the gym, and cry all the way to the bus stop and for half the ride home. I was so sure I would never improve.

Until, a couple of months in, I did. And then I started to wonder what else had been kept out of my reach because someone never told me I could do it. What other assumptions had I woven into my story about my body? What would it change for me to take weight loss off the table as my ultimate goal in exercise, and what could possibly take its place? That’s when I started lifting.

My first few months as a new lifter were humbling. In the starkly lit gym basement weight room, I was surrounded by beefy dudes loading plates onto their bar with Supermarket Sweep–like gusto, while I struggled with plates the size of silver dollar pancakes. I worked with a trainer who listened to me, who was a stickler for form, who celebrated my small incremental accomplishments.

“How could it be that in the entire world, you are the only person who will never get stronger the more you work out?” she asked me. And yet, I remained confident that my body would somehow defy nature.

I had never been so excited to be wrong. In the chaos of my late twenties, I found solace in a set of simple tasks, hours where my hands could not grip my phone, where I couldn’t do five things at once. I felt no immediate gratification, but over time I developed a sense of joy in my practice. For months after the 2016 election, I could only sleep well on the nights I lifted, where I experienced control over a single thing in an uncertain universe. And slowly, I began to experience triumphs. I started lifting amounts of weight I had previously thought inconceivable. My first stretch goal was to deadlift the equivalent of my dad, and when I did, I called him to celebrate. The shape of my body didn’t change, but I could sling around groceries with ease, kayak for hours without feeling fatigued, lift luggage above my head without giving it a thought.

We don’t really want fat people to work out more; we want them to disappear.

We say as a culture that we want fat people to work out more, but in my experience, that’s not actually true. Affordable, high-quality activewear in plus sizes remains hard to find, nearly impossible to purchase in most stores. Gym memberships are marketed using the language of melting one’s fat, banishing one’s belly. To many people, I am a “before” picture, an image of what they could look like in their worst nightmares. I am still getting congratulated for “trying out the gym for the first time,” even at facilities I’ve attended for years. Unsolicited strangers pepper me with weight loss advice or attempt to encourage me without my invitation. We don’t really want fat people to work out more; we want them to disappear.

Recently, my friend and I decided to become gym buddies at a new place. It’s charmingly shabby, usually half empty, with the kind of meathead equipment we need for our workouts. More often than not, we are the only women in the weight room. Our haunt is a squat rack and mat facing a wall, away from the fray. Once, during a set of deadlifts, my friend observed a man struggling to get our attention. He indicated to her that I should change my form, that she should interrupt my set to correct me (a change, by the way, that was not necessary or physiologically beneficial for what I was doing). She stared through him for a moment and then back down at her phone. When I was finished with my set, she whispered to me not to look at him. Several feet away, a man was freestyling a workout using a leg press machine, and wheeling around precariously with a heavy plate pressed to the back of his neck. As you might imagine, nobody commented on his form.

I have spent my life being observed by men, conscious of their presence, their wills, their desires. I have been watched for 20 years when I am in public, the daily recipient of comments and assessments. I have been threatened with rape so many times I have lost count. Wherever I exist, wherever I move, I am reminded of my infraction; that I am to be no more than a visitor, passing through, not permitted to claim space as my own.

For me, being fat and being a woman has meant that my body does not belong to me. It is a public, consumable good. When I work out, my body is observable in motion to the panopticon of the male gaze. My presence in fitness spaces still pings as a transgression, a curiosity or anomaly. I am expected to be grateful for the permission to exist. And there are still too many people — almost always men, and never trainers — who see it as their job to keep me in line, to remind me whose house I am really in.

As a strength athlete, I continue to experience those gatekeepers all the time. I get sized up, appraised, critiqued. I get hit on. When all the racks are occupied, I am generally approached first to be asked when I’ll be vacating the equipment. Men pull plates off of my rack without asking while I’m in the middle of my set, even if there are available plates elsewhere. I have been counseled not to “get too bulky,” or else “start looking mannish.” I am practicing asserting my boundaries, telling people that I do not want their advice, that I am not interested in what strangers think of my body. I am also practicing loving kindness, when I can, for people who have bought into toxic messages about body size and gender performance. Time and experience have taught me that these people’s quibbles are so rarely actually about me. Rather, I have become a vessel for their fear and anxieties.

These people’s quibbles are so rarely actually about me. Rather, I have become a vessel for their fear and anxieties.

Nowadays, when I think about weight, I mostly think about gain instead of loss: adding plates to the bar I lift, squat, press. Based on my genes, based on my hormones, I will never be skinny. But I can be strong, and when I can help people move apartments, when overdue trips to the laundromat with heavy bags feel inconsequential, when my boyfriend squeezes my bicep, I feel profound love for my body. I still don’t have the kind of body that looks like I log regular hours in the gym. I don’t care anymore. That just makes it more surprising when I do my thing.

“But what about your health?!” the choir of internet experts crow, as they presume to know my medical history, my physical status, my level of care, my daily habits. Nowadays, for those “worried” about my health, I link them to a cash app where they can donate money to fund my gym memberships, medical appointments, and groceries (if they’re so damn worried). Health is not a metric best assessed by glancing at someone, nor is it something I must prove to others to justify or quantify my worth. Attaining perfect health is not a permission slip to take up space on the planet. What did our teachers hammer home in grade school? Keep your eyes on your own work.

When I prep for heavy deadlifts, I use straps to tighten my grip around the bar. I breathe, maybe the first conscious inhalation and exhalation of the day. I squat down, tighten my abdominals, and, gloriously, find a patch of blankness in front of me that spreads like an eclipse, blotting out the noise of the gym, obscuring the voices without and within, quieting my multitasking brain and making me an instrument of a single function; to stand up, to pull the bar off the ground, to make airborne hundreds of pounds of iron and rubber, to defy three decades of naysayers, to defy myself, to defy thermodynamics, to set in motion an object at rest. It is perfect and simple.

My mother texted me last week with the exciting news that she had completed her first deadlift. I get messages from acquaintances that the sporadic gym videos I post on social media inspired them to start working out again. A woman ran up to me at the gym to ask me for tips on how to start lifting heavy. The enthusiasm is contagious, and I am honored to be a conduit for it. I caught it from the women who were weight room pioneers before me.

I have spent many years diminishing myself for the comfort of others. I have feared, in equal measures, my ineptitude and my expertise. The weight room is a place to begin unlearning that which does not serve me. And I hope that more and more women will claim the strength that for so many of us is a birthright withheld by a society obsessed with our bodies, but afraid of our power. ●

Fancy Feast is a professional burlesque performer, a sex educator, and Miss Coney Island 2016. She is currently working on her first book. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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