by Katie Zicarelli
Going to the gym can be intimidating for anyone when it’s new. Going to the gym while fat offers a whole new level of fear. I started going to the gym in March of 2018 as a way to improve my mental health and create a routine that was just for me. I went to the local gym that was open 24/7 and immediately felt like I was in over my head with all the people that were there. I started going early in the morning when the gym was quieter. Fewer people meant it was less likely that people would be staring at me as I floundered around not knowing what I was doing.
When I first started going to the gym, I stuck to the basics of cardio, occasionally making my way over to the free weight machines, but not really having a clue what to do with them. Shortly after that, I began working with an online personal trainer. I didn’t know what I was doing and I was tired of feeling lost. Working with a personal trainer was life-changing. I have never been one to enjoy classes. As I say, I like to “struggle on my own.” So having a personal trainer gave me the perfect balance of having direction in the gym and freedom at the same time. I was then introduced to a different type of work-outs that I hadn’t explored before and learned how to use the machines that previously were intimidating to me. The online program featured lifting weights as well, breaking me into lifting barbells and dumbbells. I slowly started to gain confidence in myself and pay less attention to the other “meat-heads” that occupied the space. For the most part, everyone in the gym was friendly.
When you start going to the gym on a regular basis and around the same time of day, you start to see the same people. For some reason, this became comforting to me. I liked to think that we were all silently cheering each other on while minding our own business. The downside to developing a gym routine is when people in your personal life start to learn that you go to the gym. I have been a fat person my whole life, and with that I have always been told what I should and shouldn’t be doing and praised whenever my weight shifted downward. While in college and my early twenties, I started to spend a lot of time working on my self-image and building my confidence. I saw improvements, but I still struggled with my relationship with my weight. When I started a new gym routine a year ago, this shifted to focusing on how I felt and less on how much I weighed. Like I mentioned, going to the gym was an effort to improve my mental health. I changed my eating habits in an effort to heal my gut as well. That in addition to moving my body more, resulted in a weight loss. I found the flood of compliments to be uncomfortable.
I never know how to respond when someone says to me “You’ve lost weight!” or “You look so good!” I know most would respond with a statement of “thank you” and maybe a quick rundown of what they have been doing. I don’t want praise for my weight loss. I don’t want praise or remarks on my appearance.
The way that I usually offset these comments is with stating a recent personal record that I have beat or how much I can deadlift and squat. When I first started lifting, I could barely squat the barbell, which weighs 45 lbs on its own. Now, a year later, despite some setbacks and inconsistency, I am able to squat upwards of 120 pounds added to the barbell, for a total of 165 pounds. The only way I was able to accomplish this was by practice, adding weight slowly, and listening to my body on what it was able to do. With other exercises, I started with 5-pound dumbbells and now, I am able to use 20 pounds. I used to deadlift just the 45-pound barbell; now, I am able to lift around 95 pounds total. These are some of my proudest accomplishments. When I share these with people in the context of weight loss conversations, it tends to distract and reframe the conversation to how much I can lift and less on what number shows up on a scale.
Sometimes, I get in my head and feel like I don’t belong in the gym. I look around me and I rarely see other bodies that look like mine. Since I work with an online trainer I’ll refer to my phone for the next move only to look up and feel like the guy with big muscles is questioning what I am doing. It’s hard to focus on my form when I squat because my body holds weight in places that other bodies don’t. Am I squatting deep enough? Sometimes it doesn’t look like it, but really it’s just the way my body physically takes up more space than the person whose pictures and videos I view. So I’ll pull a bench over and try to make sure my butt hits it with each rep.
Every now and then I step into a machine that is not accessible for fat bodies. I lose my balance and have to get creative on how to set the machine up. Hip adductors are often spread too far and hip abductors are too close together. Benches are too narrow, resulting in me having to keep my feet planted on the ground when certain moves show them being bent on the edge. I can’t do a burpee to save my life and you can completely forget attempting an assisted pull-up.
I still remember early in my lifting journey, It was resting during a rest between sets and an older gentleman approached me asking if I was at the gym to lose weight. In a panic and being caught off guard, I answered yes. He then proceeded to tell me that if I wanted to lose weight, I should walk around between sets instead of just sitting there. I said okay, put my earbuds back in, and continued with my sets, not following through on his unsolicited advice. I kicked myself later for saying yes when he asked if I was trying to lose weight. The truth was and still is, I’m not trying to lose weight. I am trying to get strong, and increase my stamina, and improve my mental health. Friendly PSA to everyone, unsolicited advice is not desired in any setting and certainly not in the gym.
Just because I am a fat bodied person, it doesn’t mean my sole focus in the gym is to lose weight and adhere to some sort of unachievable societal expectation. Furthermore, even if I WAS trying to lose weight, it’s none of anyone’s business.
Despite all of this, I know I belong. I know I have every right to be there just as much as the next person. Majority of the time, I don’t care about what other people think of me as I’m lifting my weights. Maybe they have never seen a body like mine lifting weights before. All that says to me is more fat bodies need to be accepted and made to feel comfortable going to the gym. There needs to be more acceptance around loving your body and wanting to get healthy at the same time.
I think it’s incredible what bodies are capable of doing. I am amazed with myself when I am able to increase the weight to numbers I would have never thought possible based on where I started.
Weightlifting is not exclusive to only a certain type of body. Fat bodies belong and are capable of being strong and building muscle. Sometimes it takes a little creativity to figure out what works for your individual body type, but at the end of the day, the one thing that remains the same is that fat bodies belong in all spaces and can lift weights too.
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