Laura Delarato is a staunch body positive activist, model, writer, and painter with a side hustle as a sex educator. She is currently a branded video producer for Refinery29 and her writing can be seen in Travel + Leisure, Luna Luna Magazine, and Martha Stewart Living. She lives in Brooklyn, NYC.
I never thought I’d be a person who actively enjoys going to the gym or boutique fitness classes — not because working out ever felt like a chore, but because my body has never belonged to the institutions that push forward our basic understandings of wellness, fitness, and what we consider healthy humans.
“Plus-size” people (especially women) bear the brunt of being othered in most situations, but fitness conversations are a true kind of hell. Every workout offers up non-consensual comments about what else we could be doing, and every salad order receives an, Oh, are you trying to lose weight? observation.
We can’t just be regular people trying to feel good. We have to be people actively seeking thinness; actively trying to reach an appropriate level of health; actively dying to let that wan person out of our plus-size bodies. Often, people can’t wrap their minds around the fact that I’m an athlete, and have been since I was a kid. Or that I eat a moderately paleo diet without the personal weight loss goal attached to that decision. Survey the landscape of wellness, health, fitness advertisements — when was the last time you saw a plus-size person being positively portrayed in those programs?
At this point, it’s difficult to argue that advertisements and exclusive representation haven’t distorted the way we view health. They do. We know they do. With every bikini body, fat-into-fit body, “New Year, New You” body messaging, we drive a bigger wedge between the plus community and these spaces; making it incredibly isolating and panic-inducing to even consider opening the door to that particular type of atmosphere. And in my bravado moments, I’ve been met with surprise, eye-rolls, stress whenever a person brings out a cellphone (i.e. Dani Mathers’ Snapchat scandal), blatant avoidance, and instructors whispering into my ear, “If any of this is too difficult for you, consider trying a more beginner location.”
My favorite anecdote comes from a man at the gym that gestured for me to remove my headphones while I was in full-sprint on the treadmill. Once removed — and thinking he was going to alert me about something to do with the closing hours or being on that particular machine for far too long — he asked me, “What do you eat? Do you workout everyday? Because I’ve seen you here every morning and something is not adding up.”
I often wonder if we saw more plus-size people in gym adverts, would I get the kind of criticism and glances I receive every time I work out? If my body wasn’t constantly associated with a lack of self-control, would I still generate raised eyebrows and unsolicited how to be thin advice from strangers? And if I saw more plus-size characters on-screen not tethered to their weight or self-confidence, would every interaction with a man while on a treadmill result in me having to defend my body size?
Why can’t this just be my body? I’m not a walking “before” image desperately trying to become an “after.”
I do this thing — you might find it to be ridiculous but this is a very real step that plus-size wellness patrons often take. Before pressing the “Book” button on a fitness class, I engage in espionage-level googling to prepare myself for the types of people I might find when I enter that space for the first time. I do a general skim of all promotional photos and user-generated uploads to see if there is anyone with a similar body type to me. That will always come with a prevailing search to see if any plus-size bloggers have tried this particular work out. If all of that reconnaissance points toward zero plus-size representation, I email the company for their body policy — asking if all bodies are accepted within those four walls. Sometimes I get a thunderous, “OF COURSE!” and sometimes I get, “We prefer people with more active lifestyles that can keep up with the class.” Most of the time I don’t receive a response. The fact is: I do this because I’ve been treated as undeserving of the wellness community — and that has to change.
We need to stop correlating the fitness community to be solely occupied by stereotypically fit-looking people. We need to have a better and honest understanding that health comes in many sizes. And we need to change the conversation by representing more bodies associated with health. There are enough bralette-wearing, straight-sized women seen on pilates posters and I’m done with advertisements that link fat-people exclusively keen on sugary beverages. Basically, we as a society need to check our thin-privilege. How come there is an entire Instagram dedicated to hot girls (i.e. thin) eating pizza without a singular health-shaming comment but plus-size bloggers are in a constant battle to just be themselves without hearing from a chorus of ignorant voices exclaiming their distaste of our confidence and choices?
Possibly the scariest part of my personal history is my very long battle with bulimia and the comments directed at my brand new ‘healthy’ body. At the height of it, I was the most unhealthy I’ve ever been but thin equalled health to everyone I came across. Now, size 18 and much happier and healthier, I don’t go a day without having to be a cheerleader for my size in the face of every jackass that has feelings about my body taking up space within the fitness community. I even document the internet comments I receive through my art piece: The Comments Project. These hurtful comments proves that we still have a long way to go.
Despite the ignorance and the comments, my presence in a workout class is important. It challenges instructors and gyms to confront their ideas of larger bodies. It dispels every myth patrons have about who deserves to be in those spaces. And it brings representation in the face of none. If you’re plus-size in a workout class, you’ve probably gotten a glance or two — or sometimes a look of disgust. You’re right…you don’t deserve that. But it’s important to know that your poise and existence in those situations opens the conversation more than you realize.
Every once in awhile, I will get a knowing nod from another plus-woman in the same class. Our telepathy is immediately understood: We deserve to be there despite what we have to do to get here. And in those moments, every single terrible comment or shaming-chatter is worth it just to know the conversation is moving toward a more enlightened and inclusive direction. Thank goodness for likes of Jessamyn Stanley, Louise Green, Roz Mays, and Dana Falsetti for giving a voice and visual representation into spaces plus-size women aren’t typically included. We need to see each other and be visible. I encourage you, plus community: Be in workout classes, revel in the fact that you’re doing something good for your body, and don’t let people question your already perfect body.
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Follow Laura at @lauradelarato.