I’ve never really cared for following or participating in actual sports, but for the better part of the last decade, one of my favorite hobbies has been lifting weights along with various forms of calisthenics, yoga, and running. My social media feeds are a mishmash of politics, my pop culture obsessions, and fitness. I have an opinion on Crossfit. My hands are callused. My clothes are regularly covered in chalk.
This can be a difficult world to navigate for anyone with any interest in real Radical Self-Love. There’s a lot of toxic masculinity in fitness culture, along with sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. There’s a surprising amount of classism, especially when it comes to discussions about food.
And there’s a very real, very unsurprising amount of fat-shaming.
For many people, displeasure with fatness is what drives them to begin exercising in the first place, and for every story about a person hoping to run around with their children one day or looking to avoid the heart disease that took their parents at an early age, there are countless who insult their bodies and claim they were disgusted or repulsed by the way that they once looked in the mirror. It’s a critically problematic trend and one that activists in the community are making strides to address every day.
The prevalent belief among fitness aficionados is that fatness is 1) always and in every instance the result of a fat person’s laziness and lack of self-control, and 2) a reason to dehumanize those who are fat. They treat them like pariahs who have self-selected themselves to be lesser, and the competitive dominance of fitness culture makes no room for anything of the kind.
One issue that’s slightly more complicated is ableism.
Now in my experience, it’s been pretty unusual for someone with a disability to enter a gym and be actively shamed by anyone there. Even the prototypical meatheads, the “Ogre-in-Revenge-of-the-Nerds” types, know well enough that a person with a disability is there to get stronger just like they are, and that they deserve as much if not more respect. Anyone who acts inconvenienced or offended by their presence is looked at with scorn.
The attitude among able-bodied people tends to be that these people were dealt a ‘losing hand,’ but they’re putting in their hours and sweat in spite of it. In fact, I have seen men in a gym—and I’m sorry to say, it’s usually men—watch a person in a wheelchair clearly struggling with all of their might to successfully complete a set of dumbbell presses and say to their buddies that there goes any excuse they had for ‘not hitting their own numbers’ that day.
Those of us devoted to a goal like doing a deadlift over 300 pounds might watch a video of someone doing it with one leg, a clear result of hard work and dedication, and feel inspired to do the same. If you’ve never deadlifted, please understand that there is absolutely no one in the world for whom 300 pounds just moves from the floor to the waist without an agonizing amount of time spent training the movement pattern, the grip, the back, the legs, and every single muscle in the body to do it. It can be humbling to watch this kind of accomplishment and a good reminder of able-bodied privilege.
It goes back to that dude in the gym watching the dumbbell presses and talking about his excuses. Like anything that a lot of people want but takes hard work, a lot gets said about excuses, and people who accomplish the goals in the face of disabilities are bandied about as the destruction of excuses.
This isn’t just limited to fitness. When someone says they want to be a writer or publish a book, excuses usually arise as to why they didn’t write that day. Then a well-meaning friend reminds them that Jorge Luis Borges did his best work after going blind. When they want to pick up a musical instrument but get frustrated and quit practicing, they might recall that Curtis Mayfield recorded an album after being rendered paralyzed from the neck down. And, at least until his recent trial and conviction for the homicide of Reeva Steenkamp, people pointed to Oscar Pistorius (a double amputee from the age of 11 turned champion sprinter in both the Paralympics and Olympics), and maybe felt a little bad for not wanting to go for a jog around the block.
When able-bodied fitness folks co-opt these success stories about people with disabilities, they inherently objectify the disabled body. The other side of showing the person doing pull-ups while strapped into their wheelchair is the implied narrative that those with disabilities are inherently lesser. It says this person has been rendered weak by chance and circumstance, but that because they meet some arbitrary ableist standards of physical ability, they are a little less worthless than their non-exercising peers.
Ableism insists that those with disabilities must desire nothing more than to be “normal” like the rest of us. Maybe those stories exist, but they are absolutely not as prevalent as normally believed, and to fetishize athletes and trainees with disabilities to foster performance on the basis of guilt and shame is to render them voiceless props for body terrorism. It is to treat those existing outside of a certain paradigm of privilege, both physical and otherwise, as though their entire worth amounts to their bodies and reinforces the notion that to exist on any terms but a dominant, non-intersectional ideal is to be a failure.
The argument often used in this thinking is that these people with all of their physical problems are accomplishing great feats, so why are we able-bodied folks so incapable of doing the same? It must be because we’re inherently lazier. Before anything else, this is shame-talk of the most dangerous variety.
Like so much shame that arises from comparing circumstances, it ignores every possible other factor, distilling success down to an almost sophomoric extreme. In fitness, there are legions of important issues that some in the community label and dismiss as ‘excuses.’
I live in Camden, New Jersey, a city famous for poverty, drugs, and violence. It also happens to be a food desert. The nearest grocery store is on the other side of the next town over, and the only gym that I’ve ever seen is the one on my university campus, restricted to a few hundred students who mostly commute from Philadelphia and the neighboring suburbs.
Whether you have a gym or not, bad information will pretty much certainly hurt you if you decide you want to pursue fitness. That gentleman in the video I linked to earlier may have only one leg, but he’s also training at a Crossfit gym complete with coaches and pricing plans that cost more per month than what I’ve seen some people live on for the same amount of time. I use the Internet and books for most of my training information, but I’ve also got the time, resources, and not a lot of responsibilities to allow it.
More Radical Reads: 15 Common Phrases That Are Way More Ableist Than You May Realize
If the people doing the shaming really want success for those those they are addressing with these arguments, they would be using their energy and (considerable, I’m sure) know-how to recommend options that can possibly try to work around those issues. They might point them to programs involving just two or three training days per week if they have limited time. They might point them to no-or-minimal equipment routines if money is an issue. And they would offer that advice only after being approached on the issue by someone genuinely interested.
Thankfully, fitness culture is founded on the notion of making steady, progressive gains over time and through hard, consistent effort. We’ll get there as long as we keep talking about it in between work sets.
Are you working to practice radical self love as you work out at the gym? Do you compare yourself to others and shame yourself about what you are able to accomplish? Check out our webinar 10 Tools for Radical Self Love.
(Feature Image: A person in a gym. They are in a wheelchair and are doing chin ups. Behind them is a white wall. They have short brown hair and eyeglasses. They are wearing a blue shirt and black pants. Source: Surrey Country Council News)