“They’re looking at me.”
As soon as I stepped onto the treadmill my eyes cast around the room, searching for—almost daring—people to look at me. Next to me, my personal trainer managed to not roll her eyes.
“They’re not looking at you,” she said.
But they were.
Every person who looks a little bit different than the norm knows when they’re being stared at. Even a glance of disgust hits me with full force. Maybe some of it is in my head, but we all know what it’s like to be judged, and a size 16 woman getting on the treadmill is something that, sadly, draws some stares.
The thing is, I wasn’t in the gym to lose weight. After being diagnosed with fibromyalgia last year, I’ve been on a fitness journey, trying—and, for the most part, succeeding—to get fitter, stronger, and healthier. My size doesn’t bother me—usually. But it certainly bothers other people.
“How much weight have you lost?”
“You look like you’ve lost weight!”
“Aren’t you self-conscious going to a gym?”
Almost every time someone asks me about my journey, it’s focused on weight loss. Their eyebrows go up when I explain the real purpose: health. They almost can’t believe I’m not trying to lose weight.
Body confidence takes work.
It’s not easy, especially not in a world that doesn’t believe you should be happy as you are.
We’re going on holiday in a couple of weeks, and I mentioned getting my legs waxed before we go. If I decide to paddle in the sea, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have to worry about having hairy legs. Then I stopped.
I’m going with two men—one of whom is my partner—who wouldn’t think twice about having hairy legs before rolling up the trousers and paddling in the sea. So why should I? I hate shaving and only do it maybe once a month. But I never get my legs out for the world to see, unless they’re smooth. What nonsense, I thought, and resolved to remain hairy.
It’s the same when faced with bemused colleagues or friends when I declare that losing weight isn’t my priority. Staying strong and confident as they flail about for a response can be difficult. I’m fully aware of my size—believe me, I buy my own clothes! And it doesn’t bother me, except when people are making a big deal out of it.
So I’m overweight, but I can now walk three miles, where last year I couldn’t walk for three minutes. So I’m overweight, but I attend a weekly Pilates class and throw myself into Zumba and aerobics classes with zeal. My sister, who is clearly having thyroid issues but hasn’t yet managed to get a diagnosis, has lost half her body weight, and now sits at a size eight, but her hypermobility is so much worse as a result.
Her doctors aren’t overly concerned—she’s lost weight, so she must be fine. This is not only frustrating and untrue, it’s also a potentially dangerous line of thinking. Thin doesn’t always equal healthy, and you can be both fat and happy.
Since starting my fitness journey, I’ve spoken to a wide range of people—from new mums looking to “lose their tummy,” to young men seeking to bulk up, to older women trying to “stay young.” Each and every one of them has their own body issues to contend with, but what we should all remember is that we’re in this together.
Tearing people down is easy, so building each other up is what we should focus on. When I was younger, I struggled with body confidence, in the face of my abusive and nasty father. I was much slimmer than I am today, yet I felt huge, ugly, and worthless.
Now I’m free from that, and I’m so much happier. My body confidence comes from within, but it also comes from the love of others around me. And it comes from acceptance.
When I started going to the gym, I was nervous, worried that I wouldn’t be able to do anything. My personal trainer pushed me, and showed me just what I’m capable of, despite my weight. Support and acceptance mean that I don’t focus on my weight; I focus on my health and my fitness level.
I focus on how I feel when I hit my steps goal, when I complete a sweaty aerobics class, and when I manage to keep up on a day out. You might see me at the back of a class, red-faced and exhausted, but you’ll also see my exhilaration. Look past my size, and you’ll see me for who I truly am.
Fitness classes and gyms can be some of the hardest places to go when you’re bigger, which almost defeats the purpose of them. They’re meant to be hard, but they’re also meant to be fun.
Being active, if you’re able, can be amazing. And for someone who always struggled with pain and mobility, it’s an incredible novelty for me to actually get to a class, never mind last all the way through.
Remaining confident throughout can be tough, but why shouldn’t we love ourselves? Who says we’re not allowed to feel strong and fierce and beautiful, just because we’re bigger?
Exercise for health, do what makes you feel good, and stand tall in the sea of people who want to bring you down. Starting is just the first step, but it’s also an achievement in itself.
Author: Vikki Patis
Editor: Taia Butler
Copy Editor: Leah Sugerman
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman