February 9, 2012

On the First Day of Fitness

Recently I was invited to co author a chapter in a textbook set to be launched next year. The subject matter related to social justice and sport. Our topic related to our own experiences as fitness participants, fitness leaders, and exercise researchers. What came out of it was an amalgam of our experiences told through a story. 

The story I'm sharing is a true one based upon my experiences as a fitness participant and leader. I don't believe I have ever shared this with anyone (especially those I supervised or worked with in the fitness centers). However, I feel it is an important one to share because I don't think I'm alone in this experience. I welcome your feedback should you want to share something..... For the record, and for those in research, this is what you would call an "ethnographic fictional tale". One of the amazing ways researchers can share information while pulling at the heart strings of the reader (versus the cold, heartless "facts" you get from statistics...yuck!).

On the First Day of Fitness

As I drive up to the fitness center, I am already feeling the discomfort of the tight elastic waistband of my workout pants on my fat stomach.  Although I've never been in a fitness club, I am anticipating my embarrassment before I walk in.  I recently turned 20 and, according to my boyfriend, I need to loose a few pounds, get in shape, and acquire the flat stomach ever other young woman seems to have. I have been doing sit ups before bed with the hope of achieving a beautiful torso, but it doesn't work.  As I fumble through the heavy double doors into the expanse of the fitness center, all I hear are clanging weights and the beat of music piping through the overhead sound system.  The smell is a mix of heavy cologne (Polo, I think), and sweat. I feel all eyes on me as I walk up to the front desk. I am here for my first aerobics class.

Needless to say, I was a little nervous.

After being lead through the building by a woman who's butt is the shape of a peach, I find the aerobics studio and, mustering the courage it takes to stand in front of a firing squad, I slowly step into the small, dank, mirrored space.  There is no where I can look without seeing my fat, ugly self looking back at me.  My knees look swollen, my thighs are white and dimply, and my arms look like gigantic meat sticks.  My over sized, shapeless T-shirt makes me look like a white box with legs.  I stand in the very back, in the dark, hoping no one sees me. I watch the beautiful fitness people enter.

Women in tight body suits of varying pastels walk in and place themselves in the front of the room.  Each wearing the same small belt around their teeny tiny waist, they primp and preen in front of the mirror commenting on how fat they are every few minutes.  To me, they are perfection; they are what I hope to be after a few aerobics classes.  I try to avoid my own reflection in the mirror but it's pointless as I'm surrounded by reminders of my gluttony and sloth. Why am I here? I obviously don't belong. I should leave.

Just them, a role model for fitness enters the room like an ocean breeze would if you could see it. Her sun kissed hair is tied back with an electric pink scrunchy, her skin is tanned and shiny illuminating every toned muscle as she leans over the stereo and prepares her music. Her body moves freely without the impairment of fat rolls. She's dressed in a pastel, thong body suit over a pair of short, white tights.  The kind you can purchase in the club's pro shop.  The muscles of her upper thighs play with the light as they pop in and out with each movement.  Suddenly, the hard meaty beat of her music interrupts the whispers as she turns the volume up to levels I have only experienced in the night clubs. I watch secretly from my corner as she waits for others to join the class.  She chats with the people in the front row, and greets everyone like they are old friends without a glance to the back of the room where I nervously wait.  I have been joined by others just like me looking lost, frightened, and hidden by the vastness of their t-shirts.

All the pretty people in pastels were lining the front of the class. You can't see me...as I am tucked away in the dark corner of the room.
My induction to aerobics begins with a blast of music and the instruction to breathe. As my instructor moves right, I lurch left. As she marches forward, I stumble back. When she marches on the spot like a hip/hop dancer, I forget everything I know about walking in one place.  How does she get her legs to do that? Am I the only one who doesn't get it? I feel all eyes on me as I fumble through the warm up; they are probably wondering what I'm doing here. My face feels red hot and my eyes begin to sting with the formation of tears. I thought this was a beginner class...I don't belong here. I should leave.

Aerobizing to the Beat of my Own Thong

I am in the stretch room of one of the most prestigious fitness clubs in my city.  I'm proudly wearing my own pastel green thong body suit over white short tights. My thin, white belt is wrapped around my teeny tiny waist as I stretch the length of my mat.  I slide my hands over my hips to ensure my hip bones are prominently displayed for all to see.  My fingers trace each rib as I am overcome with a sense of accomplishment and pride.  I am now a certified aerobic instructor and have been invited to join the ranks of those I admired for so long. I now stand in front of my own aerobic class, chatting with those in the front row. They like me, they make an effort to talk to me, and I am now one of them. I lead my class through moves I know the front row will get; I pay no attention to those struggling in the back.

After the class is over, my participants come running up to chat. I am paid compliment after compliment on my speedy weight loss and body transformation over the last few months. They ask how I did it and what they should do to get rid of their sagging stomachs and big hips.  My advice is simple; sit ups, outer thigh work, and triceps exercise to trim and tone. You just have to stick with it, work hard, and you will get amazing results.

Once alone in the studio, as I gather my music, I take this time to admire my form in the mirror.  I stand sideways to get a good, albeit critical, look at my flat stomach. It isn't quite flat enough. My legs are defined, by could be better. The praise I received fills my head with thoughts of more exercise and less food. If I could only get rid of this fat on my stomach, I would be happy.  On the outside I have changed, but on the inside I still feel like the fattest one in the room.  I hope no one finds out I'm a fake.

A Fitness Department of My Own

It's 5:30 am and I must peel myself out of bed to go and teach a 6:30 spin class. I search for my ribs, but they are covered in a suit of fat and lard.  I poke at the fat on my stomach and feel ugly and stupid that I let myself get like this.  At what point did I lose control of myself? I'm juggling full time studies as a Kinesiology student and a full time job as a coordinator of fitness and health at the local Y. I teach over 14 classes a week for God sakes! How did I get so fat? I drag my over sized butt out of bed; every muscle and bone is aching. I am tired of being tired and feel I have nothing but a stress fracture and aching back to show for it.

I stand in front of the spin class waiting for everyone to arrive. How can I hide my belly and meat sticks from a group of ultra-fit people? Will they see my fat giggle when I spin? No doubt, they will be wondering how someone like me could be leading such a high intensity fitness class...and I don't blame them. I don't belong up here and feel like finding a deep hole to crawl into. No matter, I continue to hide inside my extra large t-shirt, put on a huge smile and work at being funny instead. Perhaps if I'm entertaining they won't think I shouldn't be here.

It's been eight years now since I walked into my first fitness class and I now manage one of the largest fitness departments in the city.  All day long I am surrounded by half naked bodies sweating and lifting and all day I'm thinking of how fat I am, how fat I look, and how I just don't belong here. The latest fitness fashions hang on the wall of our foyer for purchase, but I will never be able to wear any of them.  I sneer and make fun of the women wearing the bra tops and short shorts, but inside I just feel bad about myself wishing I looked like that.  Working in a fitness center is a constant reminder of how gross I am...why am I here? I should leave.

Personal note: Working in the fitness industry for 20 years, I never felt good about myself. Once I left the profession I started to not only regain my self confidence, but my health as well (go figure...pardon the pun).


  1. I attended exactly ONE fitness class in my life. I NEVER went back nor will I ever go again. I would rather be nourished than famished and cranky, healthy than critically thin and happy rather than live my life through someones opinion of me.

  2. Said with such passion and verve Thanks for the feedback 666. Of course I think you're fabulous. K