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The Unapologetic Fat Girl's Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Actsby Hanne Blank
Excuse Me—I Think This Is Yours
I want to get one thing straight right from the start: I am not a natural-born jock. I am about as intrinsically athletic as an oyster, with the innate grace and sporty prowess of a brick—a very cute oyster and a very intelligent brick, if I do say so myself, but oysterly and bricklike nevertheless.
Nor do I count a boundless and cheerful appetite for physical activity among my virtues. I will admit that I have grown to appreciate movement and exercise very much, and often now I even enjoy them. But I am bookish and brainy by nature, which, combined with my lack of organic athleticism and physical talents, has made me a lifelong fan of sitting on my abundant and resilient tuchis, doing things like, oh, say, writing books. Also I am, quite frankly, not terribly fond of sweating. Much as I might wish it were otherwise, I could count on my fingers the mornings on which I have woken up thinking how much I was looking forward to going on that long brisk walk or that invigorating stint at the gym, and I might not even have to use both hands.
I want to begin this book by telling you this because I need you to know that I am so very not the kind of girl anyone would’ve voted “Most Likely to Write an Exercise Guide” in the high school yearbook. I am, and have always been, pretty geeky. I live, and have always lived, in my head a lot. I have always been, and most definitely still am, a bit of a klutz. And, although I have been a number of different sizes of fat in my time, I am also a lifelong fat girl.
By this I don’t mean pudgy or a little thickwaisted or “someone who could stand to lose a few pounds.” I mean actually, honest-to-God, Lane Bryant-shoppin’, belly-and-butt-shots-on-the-TV-news-resemblin’, nasty-comments-from-random-strangers-gettin’, fat. In my adult life, I have never weighed less than two hundred pounds. I have often weighed quite a lot more. The phrase “morbidly obese” was first used about me, in my presence, when I was still in grammar school, and despite the frequency with which I have been described—if you’ll excuse my translating the phrase slightly inaccurately—as “sick fat,” I continue existing, healthily, and fatly.
I also exercise a lot. You heard me right. I exercise. Frequently. Five or six days a week, most weeks. Sometimes seven. Once a day. Or sometimes twice. Occasionally three times, but I reserve that sort of silliness for weekends and vacations, because who has time to go swimming and for a nice long walk and ride bikes during the workweek? Sometimes I exercise energetically, sometimes lackadaisically, sometimes joyously, sometimes meditatively, and sometimes with a virtuosic and well-honed grumpiness that puts even my eighteen-year-old cat to shame. (Some days I manage all of these emotional states in a single gym session. It’s very The Many Moods of Me Moving My Big Ol’ Carcass around here sometimes.)
The point is, I exercise—not, as I think I have made pretty clear, because I’m one of those folks who by gosh, just lives to exercise. Nor do I think that exercising makes me or anyone any sort of model citizen or moral paragon: to me morality has more to do with how one treats other people.
I exercise because I think it’s important. Rather, I know it’s important.
It may be that exercise is somewhat more important for me than it might be for some other people. My particular body has a very specific and dramatic relationship to exercise. For me, finding out firsthand just how profoundly regular exercise affected my body’s ability to use its own insulin convinced me that exercise was more than just Something You’re Supposed to Do; it was quite literally powerful medicine. Also there are a number of other ways that exercising regularly improves my physical and mental health. And I have noticed that this seems to be true for many other people as well. It’s been very illuminating to observe what happens for friends and loved ones when they do and don’t exercise regularly: the seasonal depression that responds as much to walking to work as it does to the big expensive full-spectrum light box, the angina that only acts up when someone’s been too busy to get to karate class, the edema in the legs that gets so much better after a trip to the pool. It doesn’t seem to matter what size someone is. The beneficial side effects movement has on the body’s ability to maintain a healthy physical equilibrium appear to be among the few things in this world that seem genuinely to be one-size-fits-all.
But the whole “exercise is good for your health” thing isn’t what I find most important about exercise. It’s not even the most compelling, in the long run. Exercise, after all, doesn’t make you immortal or even bulletproof. There are plenty of health conditions that exercise can’t and won’t change. You have no idea how much I wish exercise could rid me of my allergy to dairy products, for example, but I could run and lift weights and do sit-ups from sunup to sundown and the math would still look like me + mac and cheese = Technicolor Yawn. Nor does exercise permanently solve my body’s ongoing and entrenched tendency to refuse to use its own perfectly good insulin. If I stop exercising regularly, my body turns up its metabolic nose like a thirteen-year-old girl with a grudge at the insulin it produces.
Exercise is not a panacea and it is not a magic wand. There are lots of ways our bodies can break that exercise can’t fix. There are lots of ways our bodies can be dysfunctional that exercise can’t even help. Human beings are fragile and complicated, and how or whether we move ourselves around is just one part of the picture. And yet, it is my considered stance that exercise is crucially important. Even if you’re fat. No, strike that—what I should’ve said is that exercise is crucially important, especially if you’re fat.
Exercise is not important because it’ll make you thin (it won’t necessarily do anything of the kind) or because it’ll give you perfect and enduring health (it won’t necessarily do that either). But, as I discovered more or less by accident in the course of exercising as medical therapy, exercise does something else that is, in its way, more remarkable. Exercise—by which I mean regular physical movement that puts your body through its paces—is crucially important because it is something that makes it possible for you and your body to coexist in better and more integrated ways. It builds a bridge across the mind-body split. Moving your body, regularly and with intent, makes you secure in your own body in a way that no amount of above-the-neck effort can duplicate. Being secure in your body, my friends, is a thing that is relevant to the interests of pretty much every fat girl I have ever known (and a great many other people, too).
I know, I know: right now, some of you may be thinking I sound a little deranged. You may be wondering if I’ve been sucked into some nutty elliptical trainer cult or something. Believe me when I say that sometimes these kinds of sentiments come out of my mouth, and I give myself the “who are you and what have you done with Hanne?” stinkeye. I never expected to find myself an exercise evangelist. Hell, I never expected to find myself being even so much as an exercise apologist. But then again, I never expected to find myself experiencing exercise as a source of genuine well-being or amazement or find myself having exercise-induced epiphanies. And I definitely never expected to find that I was the kind of person for whom exercising was an indispensable part of feeling like I was genuinely the best and most fully present version of myself.
I know it sounds weird. I know it sounds wifty and new-agey and like a big crock of bong water. I mean, I’m a fat girl, you know? I’ve been that way all my life. As my fellow lifelong fat girls are well aware, we have to keep a calm head when it comes to people yammering on at us about how great exercising is, because we know full well it’s almost always code for “Hey fatass, if you broke a sweat now and then it might help with the lard factor.” This makes us skeptical on the topic, at the very least. Heaven knows that even after many years of regular gym-rattitude, I still automatically snarl like a rabid Rottweiler whenever someone comes at me with the whole bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, I’m-going-to-lead-the-fat-girl-to-the-light routine about the glories and wonders of exercise.
Yet here I am, trying to get you to take me seriously about the glories and wonders of exercise.
I’m not doing it because I care whether you lose weight or not. I’m not doing it to play the “concern for your health” card that is so often really just a veiled “I want you to lose weight” thing. I’m not even doing it because I think there’s a chance that exercise might improve your actual real bodily and mental health, even though there is a pretty good chance that it will. I’m trying to talk you into taking me seriously about exercise because there’s more to this exercise thing than you think. There has to be. If even I, with my natural (and, I still maintain, entirely defensible) disinclination toward anything that makes me sweaty without offering at least the balancing prospect of orgasms, have invested my time and energy and love into making exercise a near-daily part of my life, there has to be something real, something genuine, something way beyond the superficial or the obvious that has its hooks into me.
That thing is this: exercise gives your body to you. It blows the dust off and it gives it a little shine and it hands it over with a weird little curtsey that makes you understand, maybe for the first time, that this body of yours is actually kind of wonderful, maybe even miraculous. Movement teaches you, in visceral, wordless ways similar to the ways that sex does, what your body is all about. Most of all, it teaches you that your body is not just a sort of jar made out of meat that you lug around because it’s what you keep your brain in, but an equal and in fact quite opinionated and demonstrative partner in the joint production that is you. Exercise keeps you honest about this. When you forget, it taps you on the shoulder, points to your body, and says “Excuse me, I believe this is yours.”
It can be unsettling and strange to have this happen. Many of us, particularly those of us who are fat, spend a lot of time living with our bodies but not really in them. You can’t really blame us; the culture we live in is so hateful and abusive toward everybody and every body that doesn’t measure up to its constantly shifting targets for “perfect” that it can be really painful and unpleasant to spend too much time really fully inhabiting your inevitably imperfect body. When exercise brings you back to your body, it can be very unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and scary, particularly when your body still isn’t “perfect” (whatever that is). It is not much fun being fully in your body when you’re sort of a stranger there, and it is definitely not fun being in your body when you are constantly cringing and waiting for the next slap or slur or nasty, snarling laugh.
Fortunately, exercise helps with all this. It makes you stronger, not just in the sense that your body gets more sturdy and skilled. Your mind gets stronger, too. The same exercise that says “Excuse me, I believe this is yours” is building bridges between your body and your brain. As you get more physically fluent, you also get stronger in the sense of being more at home and secure in yourself, more effortlessly confident, more organically sure that your body is a good place to be—dependable and capable and worthwhile. The slaps and slurs and laughs may still happen sometimes (another thing exercise can’t cure is the fact that other people’s children can be massive assholes). But you’ve gotten stronger, too strong and too focused to give a damn about something so inconsequential as a stranger’s unsolicited opinion. “Get out of my way,” you snap as you walk smartly past. “I’ve got things to do.”
Because, ya know, you do, and not easy things, either. Exercising is complicated and hard, especially when you’ve got Body Issues and maybe Fitness Issues and also Gym-Clothes Problems and probably Fat-Kid-in-Gym-Class issues and Holy-Crap-Locker-Room-History Issues and all that stuff to navigate. And just like I won’t lie and tell you that exercise is all about health or all about weight or size or “body sculpting” or how many miles you can run before you puke up your socks, I won’t blow smoke up your ass about how exercise is so easy either. (Besides, you’d know I was lying. As I’ve said to other people many times, fat does not equal stupid.)
If exercise were easy, if moving your body regularly and freely and well were simple, there’d be no need for this book. If listening to your body and giving it the weird inconvenient things it asks for were complete child’s play, you’d already be doing it. If carving out time to do something that maybe feels stupid and embarrassing (but also really important and revelatory) were something people did nonchalantly and without having to think about it, well, you just would. If getting the exercise that lets you be completely at home in your body were really as simple as a pair of Nikes and a no-nonsense “just do it” approach, you wouldn’t have to stand there in the bookstore holding this book, trying to decide whether you’re really ready (because reading it might change things, and change is scary) to actually buy it and take it home and read the rest of it—to say nothing of actually making some additions or changes to the ways you use and move this wonderful body of yours.
This stuff isn’t easy. That’s why I wrote this book. Because, um, excuse me, this body you’re in? Yeah, I think that’s yours. You’re the only one who can provide it with the things that help it work better and feel better, and help you work better and feel better and think better with regard to your body and your self. (And yes, I am totally right there with you in thinking that it would be a whole lot more palatable if you could get the same results from caffeine, chocolate, and Internet Scrabble.) It’s not necessarily convenient. It’s not necessarily fun. But it’s worth doing and it can be done, especially with a little help from someone who’s been there and gets it.
Moving your body—it’s a thing. And it’s worth it because you are, too.
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