Lacing up and getting out of the door to run is commendable, whatever your size or experience. But not all runners want to be congratulated for moving – especially when it’s linked to being bigger.
As a fat woman who runs, I am all too aware that I do not possess the archetypal ‘runner’s body’. That fact was made clear when I tried to buy a jacket for my first winter run outdoors, only to find that none of the high-street sports shops stocked anything above a size 16.
I’m routinely reminded of my size, however, by strangers who often congratulate me on my outings. Last week I was rounding the corner of the park, ascending the last hill on my regular 5km loop, when a man yelled out: “Well done, darling!”
That might seem inoffensive enough but it was the latest in a series of incidents involving people shouting “well done”. I’ve been called a “good girl” on multiple occasions. I’ve even overheard a woman telling her young son that I was “trying to get fit” when he asked her why I was running.
It’s reasonable to suppose that these comments come from a well-meaning place, but when strangers applaud me for running, I know they’re in some way commenting on my size.
Of course, plus-size women are not the only people who receive unsolicited comments from strangers when exercising, but it does seem to be especially common for those of us who don’t “look the part”. Would I receive the same comments so frequently if I was a size eight, or my body conformed to societal assumptions of what a runner looks like? Probably not.
Being fat and fit
You absolutely can be both fat and fit. Just look at the Olympics; weightlifters and shot-putters tend to be bigger than, say, runners. No one would doubt that Emily Campbell, the UK’s first weightlifting medalist, is incredibly fit but even she has struggled to gain acceptance, telling BBC Sport before the Tokyo games that she was determined “to prove that women who look like me can have successful careers in sport”.
When bigger people do exercise, others think they’re trying to get fitter – by which, they usually mean thinner. All those well-meaning comments get read as being congratulated for taking steps to shrink your body.
I am a fat woman, but I am also a woman with a resting heart rate that sits above ‘excellent’ in the athletic category for my sex and age. I might not conform to the images of fitness that are plastered on the covers of health and exercise magazines, but I lead a very active lifestyle.
Hypervisibility can lead to embarrassment
Kate Rummery, 37, tells Stylist that comments from strangers have previously put her off exercising. “A woman came over to me in the changing room to tell me she’d watched me work out these last few weeks and she thought I was doing really well,” she recalls.
That sounds kind of nice, right? But for Rummery, they made her feel like she was on display: “I like to not be seen. I hated the fact that someone had been watching me and then commented on it. I know she thought she was being supportive but it didn’t help. It made me not want to exercise without my PT again.”
Gem Loudon, 26, also was approached by a woman in the gym last month. “She said that it was great to see someone like me so confident to come to the gym and that it was great I was exercising.
“However well-meaning the person congratulating you is, it’s the same as saying, ‘How are you so confident?’ to a fat person, as if we shouldn’t be confident anyway,” Loudon says.
While she says this kind of incident wouldn’t deter her from exercising now, comments from strangers have prevented her from going to the gym. As a teenager, Loudon was approached by someone who congratulated her for being “brave enough” to run on a treadmill. She didn’t go back to the gym for four years.
That embarrassment is something Tara Kent knows only too well. Kent recently went on a virtual training course, where she started to tell the group about her morning swim: “I was talking about the fact that I’d been to the pool that morning when one member of the group (who I’d only met 10 minutes earlier), jumped in and said, ‘That’s such good exercise for you – really easy on the joints – well done!’
“It made me feel so embarrassed and ashamed.”
It’s that feeling of being judged that stops people from engaging with fitness. Even now, Kent wears long cycling swim shorts as she “doesn’t want to be seen in a swimming costume”. “Having [my weight] pointed out just confirms that people are judging me, which certainly has stopped me from doing things that I love.”
Policing of nutrition and exercise
And it doesn’t stop with exercising; the policing of plus-size bodies also extends to nutrition.
Plus-size blogger Becky Barnes has been congratulated for “eating well”. “When I worked in an office, if I was enjoying a salad for example, I was often asked ‘Are you being good today?’ or told ‘Aww, well done’,” she tells us.
Barnes, 41, says these kinds of comments made it very hard for her to eat in public.
“Being judged, commented on and singled out gave me such a complex and even though I’ve done a lot of work around that, those demons still hit me sometimes.” She feels that when fat people are congratulated for exercising, it is part of that same body policing culture that sees strangers congratulate plus-size women for eating a salad.
Many plus-size women face additional barriers when it comes to exercise, from the shortage of activewear brands who make clothes in bigger sizes, to concerns about being watched when moving.
Congratulating someone for exercising may feel like a supportive step, but it could leave plus-size women feeling exposed and vulnerable in exercise spaces. For many women like me, the more supportive step is simple: say nothing.
For more first-person stories, workout tips and nutritious recipes, visit the Strong Women Training Club.