elliptical machine

Credit: Joint Base Lewis McChord/ JBLM PAO on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–In my pre-fat acceptance life, I felt caught in the paradox of being fat at the gym: the fear that I didn’t belong in its hallowed, sweaty halls, but if I didn’t go, I would never become un-fat and finally worthy.

My journey to fat acceptance is full of sad nights, drunk crying that I wasn’t beautiful, with an implied belief that my worth was tied to being seen as sexually desirable and conquerable to the average equally drunk male at the bar. My journey frequently mirrored traditional tales of dieting and gaining and dieting again, being praised for “looking so good” when I lost weight and feeling hateful toward my body when it returned to its natural form.

And it ended–or began, truly–when I realized I was valuable as a person, not despite my body, but for my body and my personhood and my laughter and for all of me.

So with newfound courage and bravery I walked into a gym again, this time as a fatty who loved her fat and wasn’t trying to undo her body, or to become un-fat.

Being a fat woman at the gym is in itself an act of social disobedience. I shouldn’t be in there, taking up the space of the lithe-bodied, unless it’s with a face of sincere penance and shame. But I have claimed the gym as my own. I celebrate being visible and fat all over the gym–running and sweating and sometimes breaking into song, lifting dumbbells alongside muscle-laden men with uncompleted tribal band bicep tattoos, flinging my weight around in aerobics and finally cooling it poolside in my bright, non-apple-body-shape flattering tankini.

I smile and chat with women before yoga and mention how hungry I always am after class and can’t wait to eat. I want to be seen. I am fat and happy in places where I should be fat and shameful, and denying this stereotype is a political action in my eyes.

Most Transgressive Act

But my most transgressive and transformative action came simply and without expectations of the ramifications it would have for my fat acceptance. I was running on the elliptical machine, absorbed in my breathing, music filling my ears, when the act occurred. Until this very moment on a Friday afternoon, if sweat was coating my face I would pull up on the neck of my shirt. But then, recklessly, I did it. I lifted the hem of my T-shirt, exposing my round belly, complete with the light pink trails of stretch marks across its nearly fluorescent white skin, to wipe my sweaty face while running.

A simple, common action for the typical gym goer, at least the one who doesn’t pack a travel bag complete with face towel. Something so natural as to bring that cotton fabric up to my face–I’m wearing my own towel. But years and years of experience had trained me to keep that hem a few inches below the waist of my shorts. This hem-to-waist observation followed me from being a mini-fat in pre-adolescence dance classes, to a teenage fat careful of stretching too far back during school, to a college fat who worked out at the gym in a haze of apology for forcing others to watch me attempt to become un-fat.

I wiped my face with the hem of my shirt and the floodgates of visible fat pride were opened. The feeling of cool air on my belly, hanging over my gym shorts for the world to see was intoxicating. Here, T-shirts were the first to be sacrificed. They quickly lost their arms, their sides and ribbed necks to become breezy, cut-away tank tops. My side fat, my upper arms, the indentations my sports bra presses into my pillowy ribcage, on display. Shirts I lift and lower like fat pride flags.

Then came the tiny shorts. These tiny shorts, which appeared to be a pair of boy-short underwear with a bedazzled waistband sewn to the top, were absorbed into my wardrobe until they replaced all the baggy netted basketball shorts with smooth spandex. They became my flag of fat-ass pride. The first time I wore them through the lobby of the gym, I was overwhelmed by the sheer deviant pleasure of it.

Spreading the Happiness

There is, to the best of my knowledge, no secret handshake for happy fats at the gym. I often gaze sideways at other fat people in the gym, sweating over the cross-trainers or curling their dimply knees toward their chests, and wonder who else isn’t trying to join the ranks of un-fattening. Short of wearing an “ask me about my fat acceptance” button on the front of my sports bra, I am unsure how to convey this to others around me.

Self-identified fat activist and author Virgie Tovar.
Self-identified fat activist and author Virgie Tovar.

Because I want to talk about it with everyone–the older woman I consider my fat-at-the-gym hero, who does so many shoulder presses that she blazes with strength, and the fat man who arrives at the exact same time as me at the elliptical machines every afternoon with such regularity that I internally refer to him as my gym boyfriend.

But most of all, the quiet, timid fat teen girls who slink up to the machines like they want to disappear. I know what it’s like to think you don’t belong in the gym, to look around and see bodies that are so different than yours, bodies you are supposed to aspire toward. For those girls, I wear tiny shorts and wipe my sweat with the bottom of my shirt. I run and I breathe so loudly, big noisy gulps of air. I dance a little on the elliptical and break into song and can’t always contain my fist pumps.

I expose my body to expose the fears of others–the fear of claiming space as a fat person, the fear of calling attention to a body outside the bounds of accepted perfection. The other day, I saw another fat woman in tiny shorts on the treadmill ahead of me–tiny shorts, the secret handshake of happy fats.

Together, we’re accomplishing so much more than burning calories.

Excerpted from “Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion” edited by Virgie Tovar. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.

Born fat and raised fat in Annapolis, Md., Emily Anderson is a high femme feminist and fat activist and recent graduate of Grove City College. She currently lives in Indonesia teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer. Virgie Tovar is a body image expert/coach and the editor of “Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion.” Find her online at www.virgietovar.com

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