At 9 am on a Saturday morning in Melbourne’s leafy bayside suburbs you will see neatly coiffed, retired women in golf shoes taking a brisk walk with the corgis. You’ll see rangy tweens on bikes, families heading out to soccer matches, and sleek young things barely busting a sweat as they train for their next 10k fun run. And you’ll see me, in my rainbow fluoro size 22 leggings, jiggling my fat belly and un-strap-downable boobs around in an outdoor group fitness class.
If you’re feeling that impulse to congratulate me for getting out there and doing something about my weight, stop that thought right there. When I choose to engage in exercise, I don’t do it to change what the scales say or the size of my butt (because I know from decades of sometimes bitter experience that that’s not a productive path to go down). Instead, I choose to treat my body as the precious and indispensable machine it is; in need of maintenance and care rather than moral judgement and harsh punishment. When I exercise I want to feel built up, not shrunk down. With the growth of the body positivity movement, a lot of fat people are starting to feel the same way -- which is why the tentative growth of weight neutral exercise options is so promising.
When I exercise I want to feel built up, not shrunk down.
Many fat people have a fraught history with the exercise industry: from traumatic memories of PE teachers barking at us to having people in cars yell ‘moo!’ at us when we’re out walking, to developing eating disorders from crash diets and burning out from over-prescriptive and unsustainable gym regimes. Unfortunately, even though most fitness trainers set out to help people with their health, a lack of education about the low success rate of weight loss diets and the damaging effects of weight stigma can mean that it is hard to find professionals to help get your body moving. In a world where ‘The Biggest Loser’ trainers are lauded for making people suffer and cry, it’s hard to imagine fat people exercising simply because it makes them feel good. Shelley Lask, who runs Body Positive Health and Fitness explains: “the fitness industry excludes a lot of people because it promotes a very narrow idea of how ‘fit’ looks, which simply doesn't represent the reality of our community.”
There have always been fat people and, thanks to the internet, there are more opportunities than ever before for people of size to learn about how to nurture their bodies without feeling like they have to punish themselves. No one should be shamed for their health status, or pushed into striving for some ideal of perfect wellbeing. But for those who do want to increase their fitness, it can help to aim for the joyful movement promoted by the research-based approach Health At Every Size - a way to increase wellbeing without worrying about the scales. That’s why Sarah Harry decided to start Fat Yoga, “to provide spaces which are free from stigma and bias, where people can move without any comment on their bodies - in essence a safe space.”
In a world where ‘The Biggest Loser’ trainers are lauded for making people suffer and cry, it’s hard to imagine fat people exercising simply because it makes them feel good.
Interestingly, it is the very fact that some classes are tailored especially for fat bodies that can cause controversy: Sarah reports that she’s “been criticised for ‘discrimination’ by offering classes just aimed at fat bodies. I don’t believe catering to the needs of a particular body is discrimination.” Certainly, having instructors who are aware of the particular needs of diverse bodies is a good thing for many groups in the community. The notion of a safe space for bodies can also extend to those who are queer, trans or gender diverse who, as Emily Dunstan from Chunky Yoga says “can also suffer from societal influenced body dysphoria, which is body loathing and depression based on the conditioning and pressures from society.” Surely, providing all marginalised people with safe exercise options is something we should all support. Sarah says, “fat bodies work a little differently to smaller bodies, and we need to make the practice safe and tailored for those differences.” Which means that fat people who want to engage in exercise, fitness or sport, might need fat-friendly instructors with appropriate training.
The notion of a safe space for bodies can also extend to those who are queer, trans or gender diverse.
Whilst the evidence that regular exercise is good for your health, regardless of whether it has an effect on your weight, is convincing, it can be hard to know where to start when the only options available seem to demand that you shame your body and hate yourself. Shelley Lask would like to see that change. She said that fitness providers such as gyms and trainers “have to recognise that weight stigma is harmful to health, that the literature shows that weight loss dieting not only doesn't work beyond the short term, but is the number one risk factor for the development of eating disorders, and focus on the aspect of health we are qualified to help people with the most, which is enjoying exercise safely and consistently.”
The demand is there for the fitness industry to embrace body positivity and diversity. The more professionals who can ditch the diet talk, the more plus-sized fluoro exercise gear we’ll see flaunted in the park. In my book, that can only be a good thing.