A funny thing happened to me on the way to the adductor. It’s the fixed weight machine in the gym where you sit down with your legs wide apart and bring your knees together in order to lift and drop a weight. I was faffing about with a small, sweaty towel, listening to This American Life, when a man approached me and started talking. I took out an earbud. “I was asking, are you here to lose weight?” he said. The number that comes up when I step on the scales shouldn’t be an emotional issue. If my weight was the GDP of an unstable country, and I was the president, I wouldn’t feel tearful if an economist asked me what I was planning to do about inflation. Yet, the question seemed invasive, personal, and plain rude. I didn’t know this man. I assumed he was about to tell me that he was a personal trainer, and could make me thin for fifty quid an hour, if I saw him three times a week. He might have just been an awkward conversationalist, hoping to make friends. But I mumbled something like “Can’t talk now,” and put my podcast back on. I felt embarrassed for 30 seconds, angry for five minutes and then the endorphins kicked in, and took the edge off. What I wished I said was this. “No, I am not here to lose weight, I am here because, after years of bullying, anorexia, bulimia, punishing my body and hanging onto a really unflattering, uncomfortable ‘test’ skirt, just to prove I can do the zip up, I’ve finally discovered that exercise makes me feel good. I spent all 13 years of my education filled with shame, dread, panic and worry, because people like you made me so scared of P.E. When I come here, I look in the mirror afterwards and I like what I see, even though the difference might be all in my head. But it was hard to get started. If this was my first time in the gym, and you’d just said that to me, I might never come back. The gym doesn’t make me skinny, but it’s made me realise there is more to life than getting obsessed about how thin I am. I’ve been there, and I don’t wish to return. Also, fuck you for thinking you get to tell me about how I might want to look.”
I thought about the incident after model Dani Mathers sparked criticism when she took a photograph of a naked stranger at her gym, and posted it to Snapchat with a body shaming comment. Mathers has since been sacked, and banned from that gym (and all 800 in the chain). While I believe her actions should be punished, I think that it’s wrong to focus our anger on her, and not the toxic parts of our body conscious culture. In 2009, exercise psychologist Heather Hausenblas conducted a study at the University of Florida which found that regular exercise makes people feel fit, even if they’re not achieving “milestones” like losing fat or increasing stamina. The results found that women feel this benefit more than men. The numbers vary, and the results suggest that the casual fitness fan feels the benefits as much as someone who works out five times a week. You could look at this information and start scaremongering, telling people that they’re not doing it right, they’re not as fit as they think they are and it’s not enough to break into a small sweat, then tuck into a big pizza. But I think that any regular movement or effort has to be good for us, in both the cardiovascular and psychological senses. And if you start telling people there’s a “wrong” way to work out, they won’t do it the right way – they won’t do it at all.
I know I don’t look like a typical gym bunny. My flesh isn’t toned and taut, I have a bit of a belly and cellulite on the backs of my thighs. When I haven’t worked out for a while, I feel guilty, and lazily long for a full body transformation. But sometimes I’ll make it to the gym three, four or five times a week, and I notice that the way I feel about myself is the only thing that really alters. I love to sweat, to feel my muscles ache, to get out of my head and become aware of my body from the inside out. The gym doesn’t make my body perfect, it makes me love my imperfect body more. If people like Mathers think that exercise is all about achieving a certain look, they have missed the point. If I’d been in her gym, there’s every chance that she might have taken my photograph, in order to point and laugh. I’m lucky, because working out gives me the mental strength and headspace to know where my priorities lie – I have better things to do than worry about the people who want me to get thinner. I’d argue that if you’re body shaming someone at the gym, you haven’t worked out properly, because you don’t feel the need to put someone down when you’re experiencing a true endorphin rush.