As a former 300-pound woman, I vividly remember all of the name calling and dirty looks I received… just for being bigger than the average person. But I also remember all of the uncomfortable praise pushed on me from strangers when I was exercising… just for being bigger than the average person.
When someone points out our flaws and weaknesses, it sticks with us (especially when it’s our bodies). It hits hard.
But but but I was only complimenting you on how well you’re doing! I’m proud of you!
If you wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching a woman on the street of average size (who was running) to congratulate her on the fact that she was running, why do you feel the need to do it when a fat woman is running?
I remember a sweltering hot summer day back in 2009 as I struggled to ride my cruiser bicycle along a pond on a hilly paved trail with my boyfriend and his mom. The sun beat down on my sweaty 300-pound body as I tried to keep up with them. Pedaling as fast as I could, I knew I looked like a hot mess. As I grew closer to catching up to them, an older woman in her 60’s stopped her bicycle ride and stared at me. As I approached her on the trail, she said, “Way to go!” The comment startled me, and I immediately felt ashamed of myself. My very first thought was, “THIS is why I have never tried to exercise outside.”
Clearly, the woman meant no harm. And that’s what I tried to rationalize to myself in the hours (and days) following the event, but why did it hurt so bad then?
Here’s what everyone who’s never been overweight or obese needs to know: If you see an overweight woman exercising (and you don’t know her), don’t say a damn thing to her about her body or her effort. You have no idea what her experiences in life are and why she’s pedaling so fast.
When you compliment a fat woman while she is exercising, it highlights the misconception that the majority of fat people aren’t physically active. But MANY do… on a daily basis. It’s not something they’re just doing to lose weight or to make YOU proud of them.
You don’t know what that woman has gone through. You can’t assume she just got overweight after having kids or that this is a new thing for her. Maybe she was like me and grew up fat, dealing with the agony of teasing and bullying on a very regular basis.
I know what you’re thinking, “But I want to congratulate her! She’s doing such a great job!” And I get it. As a formerly morbidly obese woman, I love praise. I eat that shit up like stuffed crust pizza. But you have to know WHEN it’s appropriate and when it isn’t.
So, how do you know when to encourage a fat woman for her exercise and when not to?
Do you know her personally?
If not, don’t do it unless it’s in private and you have some context to offer to the congratulations besides “way to go” or “you inspire me.”
Are you average size?
Only congratulate if you know her personally.
Are you her size and inspired by her actions?
Tell her that you want to be like her and leave it at that.
Is it a race where everyone is cheering for everyone?
Do it! Do lots of it! Cheer your heart out! She will feel empowered that you’re cheering for her because she’s in a race (not because of her size).
Are you in a race or class with her?
Don’t do it. Especially if you’re passing her up. It’s condescending to hear, “You’re doing great, keep going!” as a thin person cruises right by you effortlessly.
Are you the instructor of a fitness class?
Don’t do it unless the student has approached you to build rapport first (and it’s not in front of the entire class). Otherwise, you will have lost that student, and she’ll never return to your class.
Are you a member of her gym and see her regularly?
Start a friendly conversation on a different topic first. Then mention the fact that you are so impressed by the woman’s workout ethic.
Are you doing it because you see her as weaker than you?
Don’t. Just don’t. NO ONE wants to be THAT least fit person you compare yourself to so you feel better about yourself.
Yes, it’s up to that fat woman to heal the mental and emotional baggage that makes her self-conscious of her body if she doesn’t want to allow unsolicited praise to scare her off from exercising in public. BUT it starts with compassion as a society to understand that not everyone wants YOUR two cents and assumptions thrown at them.
Remember, some of us are introverts, some of us have experienced trauma, some of us have social anxiety, some of us have multiple disorders, and some of us just don’t want attention on our bodies from complete strangers.
The best thing you can do for us is to smile, say hello, and treat us like a normal fucking person. Whatever that is.
If you’re a woman who struggles with social anxiety, body image issues and working out in front of others, download my FREE Shy Girl Obstacle Course: Daily Hacks to Instantly Turn Your Gym Insecurities into Fitness Mastery. Learn from a woman who used to weigh 300 pounds and turned her life around through changing her mindset about fitness to develop unstoppable confidence and lasting results. It’s totally free, and it’s full of un-Googlable content that no one talks about when it comes to fitness. I guarantee it’ll blow your mind.
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