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It started as it always had.
“Don’t forget to breathe,” my trainer says.
And then, “Breathe in on the stretch…That’s it. Good girl.”
I don’t gasp for air these days, but even now, I still need to be reminded just to breathe.
I have been dating since I was 15, and every single young man I dated had the same complaint, though they’d always choose their words differently.
“My mum says if you lost weight, you’d be a real stunner.”
“We need to start walking after dinner. I could do with losing weight, and, no offense, but so could you.”
“It’s just…you’re a big girl, you know. If you go to the gym, you need to do it for yourself, and not for me.”
And I lied and said it wasn’t for him, or the others, and I’d pay a premium to go and walk on a treadmill for half an hour and muck around with some dumbbells, and then the relationship would end—not because I was big, or fluffy, or god-forbid f-a-t, but because he would find another option, a better option with less hang-ups than I had.
The truth of the matter is this: I’d always been a little bit bigger, a little less fit, a little more likely to try a squeeze into clothes that didn’t quite fit. Whenever I was smaller, I would receive praise for it, although usually it had nothing to do with intention. When I worked physically demanding jobs and skipped a meal or two, I would be smaller. When I started at desk jobs, or teaching, I’d be bigger.
Bigger, smaller, bigger, smaller.
In comparison to what, though?
“She’s big. I mean, she’s bigger than you.”
“She’s probably a bit smaller than you. What size are you again? Well…maybe get her the jacket one size down from what you wear, okay?”
The first time I intentionally changed my physique, I was 24 years old and shed almost 20 kilograms in under a year. Then I got to a set point, hung out there for a while, and stopped the gym, training, and everything else.
Gym was a luxury. Cost-wise, affordable, but time-wise and mental-health wise, a luxury that I could not afford, and eventually, could not condone. No pain, no gain, and no excuses, and earning your food became really old really fast. No longer the good girl, or the “before and after” pinup girl, eventually it became easier not to go anymore.
Instead I replaced my gym obsession with body positivity messages. I rapidly consumed Health At Any Size and followed a bunch of plus-size models on social media. Still obsessed by healthy eating, I engaged a dietician who, after suggesting weight loss surgery, then recommended intuitive eating instead, which I embraced wholeheartedly.
Then, of course, I threw out the whole lot of paraphernalia when I became pregnant and started nesting.
It started as it always had. I’d survived divorce and single parenting, and finally reconnected with The One Who Got Away. Him: plant-based, fit, out-of-work personal trainer. Me: overweight, unfit, research student. Our conversation about whether we would reestablish a relationship had one central theme—not weight loss specific but a healthy lifestyle mindset that I must embrace.
I really wanted this relationship, and so I agreed. I would lose weight. I would be a good girl in the ways that mattered. I’d even try veganism, despite my adoration for cheese. I would change for him, just as I always had every time I’d started a gym, or a diet, or a new mindset. I would fit into the ideal shape of someone else’s creation.
I went to his gym. Purpose-built and intentionally full of neon signage and the newest of weights machines, my breathing would speed up, and more than twice, I’d hide out in a bathroom stall, waiting for an anxiety attack to pass. My boyfriend would coach me, but years of training with fitness professionals had ruined me for a newbie trainer, and I knew my technique could be, at times, better than his. I attended Zumba classes, and although I was a Zumba trainer many years ago, the unnecessary oversexualisation of the moves creeped me out, and eventually I made excuses not to go.
My relationship ended. Not because I was still fat, despite all of the classes and coaching. It ended because I decided that he could not accept some of the boundaries I had set, and after some hindsight, maybe it also ended because of the unreasonable boundary he had set of my healthy mindset requirement. Thankfully, we then had a pandemic. Everyone embraced sourdough and banana bread. Carbs were no longer the enemy. Gyms were closed indefinitely.
I was free.
During the lockdowns, I did not miss the gym, the overenthusiastic group fitness trainers, the cardio queens, the constant challenges, the upselling to a better membership. But somewhere between baking banana breads and navigating remote learning, I missed something else.
I had a stash of fitness equipment—kettlebells, a battle rope, tiny dumbbells. But I could not get a barbell, even though I longed for one. All of the chain stores and sports shops had sold out of them at the start of the pandemic. I wanted to lift something heavier than my toddler, and more challenging than my preschooler. I needed some cold, hard metal resting in my palms, and so I did something I hated doing. I conceded and sent a text message about joining a gym that my former trainer opened before the pandemic started.
I want to get serious about training again.
Had I ever even been serious about fitness, or was I only obsessed with fatness the whole time?
Before that initial appointment, I fell into rabbit holes—intentional weight loss was fatphobic, but what if I only intended to get fit, and being smaller was just a by-product? Despite the eff-your-beauty-standards attitude of the bo-po community, I still didn’t fit the mould. With my offbeat fashion and current orthodontist appliance, I was more Ugly Betty than Tess Holliday. Big or small, fat or thin, there are still beauty standards to uphold.
When I picked up the barbell, none of this mattered.
“Don’t forget to breathe,” my trainer said. “Breathe in.”
I set the bar down, my first set completed. “That’s it,” she said. “Rest and recover for a minute, and we’ll do another set.”
I finish three more sets and then find a spot to stretch on my own. I pull myself into a twist in which my head goes one way and my knees go the other. I extend my arms to shoulder height and hold the stretch as long as I can.
I breathe deeper and feel my body sink into the floor. The comments and off-handed suggestions that young men made are pushed aside. This is self-love.
Selfish, self-love—the way it should be.
I twist my body to the opposite side, and smile at no one in particular. This isn’t some kind of revenge for an ex, I’m doing it for myself.
For. My. Self.