On a bright spring day last month, I completed the 5K Color Run in Baltimore. In just over an hour, I walked the entire course while my friend, a longtime pal from college, joined the runners. She waited for me at the finish line with a smile. We took pictures of ourselves covered in glitter and a veritable rainbow of chalk dust.
“I’m proud of you!” she said. And I grinned.
But then she kept saying it. Over and over and over: “I’m so proud of you for doing this.”
I flinched with each of her cheery repetitions because I knew what she was getting at, even if she didn’t say it explicitly: “I’m proud of you for exercising while fat.”
My sense of unease only worsened as the afternoon wore on. We spent almost a half-hour wandering through the city, looking for her car. I grew frustrated, but she waved aside my annoyance by claiming that our search for the parking garage counted as “extra exercise.”
I don’t think my friend set out to hurt my feelings with her comments. But her words hit at my most fundamental insecurities — my fear that when people look at me, they see a problem body in need of solutions, someone who requires all of the extra exercise she can get. After we parted ways, I drove home alone, feeling self-conscious and hypervisible in my own skin.
This reaction is a common experience for plus-size women who go to the gym, swim in a pool or even take a walk around the neighborhood — other, thinner people feel the need to assert their “pride” in us for exercising in public. But is it really pride or yet another condescending reminder from the world that one can only be a virtuous fat person when visibly athletic?
Most of us know that fat women are hardly a minority in the global population. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported last year that approximately 40 percent of adult women across the globe are overweight — defined as maintaining a body mass index of 25 to 29. And the reality is that a lot of overweight women may have a daily exercise routine while never losing all of their excess body fat. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research claimed that “aerobic exercise training in women typically results in minimal fat loss, with considerable individual variability.” My own weight fluctuates and, at times, plateaus — it’s a challenge to fully accept the ups and downs of weight gain and loss without succumbing to frustration.
For plus-size women, the correlation between weight and internalized shame continues to wreak havoc on our bodies. A recent study in the Journal of Health Psychology assessed the stigmatizing comments reported by 50 overweight women: On average, these women experienced three fat-shaming moments per day. In her coverage of the study, Melissa Dahl argues that shame “is detrimental from a psychological standpoint for obvious reasons — no one wants to feel bad about their bodies.”
I can vouch for Dahl’s claims from personal experience. My body seems to be a constant source of commentary from those around me, and it makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Total strangers have approached me to comment on my fluctuating weight loss. Even though we’d never exchanged pleasantries, random elevator passersby felt it important to note their approval of my slimming figure. The observations aren’t always limited to awkward, would-be compliments: In the span of six months, one woman at work asked me twice how my pregnancy was going. (My answer both times carried the full force of my indignation: “I’m not pregnant.”)
Erika Nicole Kendall, a certified personal trainer and author of the popular blog A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, believes that a person’s relationship to their own fitness level comes across in these types of conversations — and more often than not, what they’re saying is less about you and more about them. “I think so many people believe that fat people are always these self-loathing, very shamed into silence kind of people who need that support to pull themselves out,” she says. “But the reality I’ve found — and what I’ve learned from interacting with my readership — is that doesn’t serve as motivation, and people need to develop on their own.” Kendall also warns that regardless of size, “as a woman in public, they will never leave you alone. It will always be something.”
Nomy Lamm is a San Francisco-based writer, performer and activist who similarly doesn’t appreciate commentary on her body or exercise routine. “Just because a fat person does something with their body in public doesn’t mean we want your feedback,” Lamm says. “Bodies are not public property. If you have thoughts about someone else’s body and what you believe their motivations are, check yourself.”
If “I’m proud of you” comes across as patronizing — an updated version of the backhanded “But you have such a pretty face” compliment larger women have heard for years — what might friends or family members say instead? Sonya Renee Taylor, founder and CEO of The Body is Not an Apology, says that those who want to express their support can pose questions without making assumptions about other people’s bodies: “‘How was that 5K for you?’ ‘That was a great job, how do you feel?’ These questions make the experience of the person the primary focus.”
Even though I was more than a little nervous about approaching the topic, I spoke with my friend about the 5K and her comments. She understood, and she apologized for hurting me. As we talked, we both spoke candidly about our struggles with body image. Putting these struggles into words wasn’t easy for either of us, but that conversation produced a significant shift: from superficial support to genuine connection. My intention moving forward is to be the kind of person who challenges other people’s perceptions of my body — and the kind of friend who models self-acceptance through word and deed. That’s something to be proud of.