I was out of town this week at a professional conference. Instead of my usual — running through my neighborhood with my partner and practicing yoga in my living room — my away workouts consisted of using the hotel’s fitness center with approximately one kajillion other people. Fortunately, most of us are teachers, so we had the “share” and “take turns” business well under control.
Not so fortunately, I’d forgotten that exercising in public — particularly exercising alone (sans immediate workout buddy) in a relatively crowded public — is apparently grounds for people voicing inaccurate and sometimes hurtful assumptions about my body and level of fitness.
The first I heard this week was actually from someone I know, someone who’s recently lost a lot of weight by adding daily exercise to her routine and who describes this as a positive change in her life. That’s awesome, and I’m happy that her choices have brought about her desired results and satisfaction. But even if our actions are similar, that doesn’t mean her goals are my goals or that her results will be my results
She asks, “How long have you been working out?”
“Regularly?” I reply. “About 5 years, give or take.”
“That’s really good,” she says. “I hope I can stick with it that long. How much weight have you lost?”
Ah, yes, the weight loss question.
In reality, I’ve put on just shy of 50 pounds in that time period, but I don’t really feel like getting into that. Because my colleague is looking perplexed, like the possibility of someone exercising for so long and not losing weight is a possibility she’d never before considered and that she views as genuinely troubling.
I didn’t get into it because I’ve been there before. I’ve mentioned to people that I haven’t lost weight, which apparently opened me up to criticism of what I was doing “wrong” — counting calories; not counting calories; eating fat; eating carbs; working out too heavily; not working out enough; not finding the Magic Combination of cardio and strength; and, my favorite, lying to myself about how much I’m actually eating or moving. To be fair, I had no specific reason to believe that my colleague would have argued any of the above to me. From the surprised look on her face, however, I suspected that she was not immediately comfortable with and accepting of my experience.
I simply didn’t want to chance opening myself up like that emotionally, not when I’ve had such judgmental past experiences, not when I must have a continuing professional relationship with this person.
Which is maybe why, the next time it happened — in a way I can’t think was well-intentioned — I was not in a mental state to be nice.
It’s early morning, and the gym is crowded. I grab the last open treadmill, and by the time I finish my first mile, there’s a line, though mostly for the ellipticals. I decide that I probably have just enough time to get in my 5 kilometers before it’s someone else’s turn, just in case it’s a treadmill someone wants. I figure that both lets me work out and gives someone else access to the equipment within a reasonable time frame.
In light of the people in the fitness center, my workout is decidedly nondescript, neither particularly long nor short nor fast nor slow. So I am surprised when a man taps me on the shoulder and asks if he can use my treadmill.
I glance around. “I haven’t been on it too long, have I?” In fact, of the people on the 5 treadmills, 2 have gotten on before me and 2 after.
“Not at all,” he assures me. “But let’s face it, you’re not really working out, are you?”
I glance around again, mostly because it keeps me from looking at his face. Of the 5 people on treadmills, all appear to be women. One person is walking (perhaps in warm-up), one person is running quite fast (by my standards), and the other two appear to be going at approximately the same pace I am. I am, however, decidedly the largest person on a treadmill at that time.
“Why would you assume that?” I ask.
Now he backpedals. “It’s just that you’re… you know…” He draws a wide hourglass shape with his hands.
I shrug in faux apology, “Sorry, I really am working out, which you might have guessed on account of the whole ‘running’ thing. You can have my treadmill when I’m through with it, though, if no one grabs it first.”
And just because there was no one else in line, damned if I didn’t run 6k that day out of spite.
What interests me most about this experience is whether this guy was being deliberately manipulative — in other words, hoping to embarrass or anger me into leaving the treadmill — or whether he genuinely saw my effort as “less than” on account of my size. Because I know what to do with assholes, but I don’t know how to address folks who believe they truly see a difference.
Like this woman.
I’ve switched to working out in the afternoon. It’s quieter; it’s safer.
When I arrived, I was alone. Right now, it’s just me and another woman, each running on our own treadmill. She asks if I’m in town for the conference; I reply that I am.
“It’s nice to have some time to unwind at the end of the day,” I say. “I feel like I’ve had too much teacher togetherness or something.”
“I know what you mean,” she agrees, slowing down. “I’m glad you’re running,” she confides during her cool down. “I know it’s tough at the beginning, but you’ll learn to love it once you get good at it.”
She stops her treadmill and leaves the room.
I run two more miles and do the same.
It’s not about who runs faster or for longer time or greater distance. It is about maybe not assuming that running is “tough” for me or that I don’t “love” it right now, particularly when I’ve not said anything of the sort. It is about understanding that the reason I might seem to need to “get good at” running is because I might be running for a different goal — i.e., a slower pace for a longer distance.
Mostly, though, I think it’s about not assuming that I’m dissatisfied with or disrespecting my body because of… whatever reason, size among them. I work out because I like it now, at my current weight. I’m not waiting until I “get good at it” to enjoy my body and my life. And I think for some people, that is revolutionary.