|Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs
By Cheryl Peck
Published by Warner Books
January 2004; 0446692298; 224 pages
It happened again this morning. I was sitting there half-naked on a bench when a fellow exerciser leaned over and said, "I just wanted to tell you-I admire you for coming here every day. You give me inspiration to keep coming myself."
"Here" is the gym. I have become an inspirational goddess. In a gym.
I grinned at the very image of it, myself: here is this woman who probably imagines herself to be overweight-or perhaps she is overweight, she is just not in my weight division-sitting on the edge of her bed in the morning, thinking to herself, "There is that woman at the gym who is twenty years older than I am and has three extra people tucked under her skin, and she manages to drag herself to the gym every day. . ."
It is not my goal here to be unkind to myself or to others. Perhaps I am an inspiration to her because I am easily three times her size and I take my clothes off in front of other women. Being fat and naked in front of other women is an act of courage. Perhaps my admirer did not realize that it was exactly when she spoke to me that I was artfully arranging my hairbrush and underwear and bodily potions to cut the buck-naked, ass-exposing mini-towel-hugging moments of my gym experience to the absolute minimum. She wears a pretty little lace-edged towel-thing to the shower and back. I don't, but I understand the desire.
It was not that long ago that she bent over to pick up something as Miss Tri Athlete walked into the locker room and whistled, "Boy did I get a moon!" Junior high gym, revisited: I can't swear that particular exchange was the reason, but I did not see my admirer again for the next month. To Miss Tri Athlete she answered, "Just when I had forgotten for half a second that I was totally naked. . ." I doubt that she forgets that often. Almost none of us do.
Nor do I: which is why, the first time someone in the locker room said to me, "I have to give you credit just for coming here," I smiled politely and thought ugly thoughts for some time afterwards.
Up yours thrummed through my mind. Nobody asked you for credit zinged along on its tail, followed closely by Who died and left you queen of the gym?"
Like it takes any more for me to go the gym than it does any other woman there," I seethed to my Beloved.
"Well it does," my Beloved returned sedately, "and you know it. How many other women our size have you seen at our gym?"
The answer is-none.
There are women of all shapes and sizes-up to a point- from Miss Tri Athlete, who runs in the 20-25-year-old pack, wears Victoria's Secret underthings and is self-effacing about her own physical prowess to women who are probably in their sixties, perhaps even seventies. There are chubby women and post-partum moms and stocky women and lumpy women. . . but there are very few truly fat women.
Exercise, you might advise me solemnly, is hard for fat women. Exercise is hard for everyone. Exercise is as hard as you make it.
Miss Tri Athlete shared a conversation with me the other morning. She said, "It feels really good to get this out of the way first thing in the morning, doesn't it? I think when you plan to exercise in the evening it just hangs over you like a bad cloud all day."
She can't be more than twenty-five, she can't be carrying more than six ounces of unnecessary body fat and I've never seen her move like anything hurts. Her joints don't creak. Her back doesn't ache. She sweats and turns pink just like everybody else. She trains like an iron woman, but she's relieved when it's over.
I don't believe it's exercise that keeps fat women out of the gym. I think it's the distance from the bench in front of the locker to the shower and back. I think it's years and years of standing in grocery lines and idly staring at the anorexic women on the cover of Cosmo, I think it's four-year-olds in restaurants who stage-whisper, "Mommy-look at that FAT lady," I think it's years of watching American films where famous actresses never have pimples on their butts or stretch marks where they had kids.
It's Baywatch. Barbie. It's never really understanding, in our gut, that if we could ask her even Barbie could tell us exactly what is wrong with her body. And we all know, intellectually, of course, that Barbie's legs are too long, her waist is too short, her boobs are too big and her feet are ridiculous, but she's a doll. What we do not know, as women, is that my sports physiologist, who is in her late twenties and runs marathons, also has tendonitis in her shoulder, a bad back, and passes out if she trains too hard. My former coach for the Nautilus machines had MS. None of us have perfect bodies. If we did have perfect bodies, we would still believe we are too short or too fat or too skinny or not tan enough.
None of us have ever been taught to admire the bodies we have.
And nothing reminds us of our personal imperfections like taking off our clothes. Imagining that-for whatever reason- other people are looking at us.My sports physiologist is more afraid of wounding me than I am of being wounded. The program she has set up for me to regain my youthful vim and vigor is appropriately hard. Not too hard, not too easy. It's just exercise. The most difficult part of my routine, designed by my physiologist, is walking through the heavy-duty weight room to get the equipment I need for my sit-ups.
The weight room is full mostly of men. Lifting weights. Not one of them has ever been rude to me, not one of them has even given me an unkind glance: still, the irony that I make the greatest emotional sacrifice to do the exercise I like the least is born again each time I walk into the room.
Someone might laugh at me. Someone might say, "What are you doing here?" I have a perfectly acceptable answer.
I joined the gym because my girlfriend said, "I want to walk the Appalachian Trail." I have no desire to backpack across the wilderness: but I could barely keep up with her when she made this pronouncement, and I could see myself falling farther and farther behind if I stayed home while she trained. I joined the gym because I used to work out and I used to feel better. Moved better. Could tie my shoes. I joined the gym because I dropped a piece of paper on the floor of my friend's car and I could not reach down and pick it up. I joined the gym because I have a sedentary job and a number of aches and pains and chronic miseries that are the result of being over fifty and having a sedentary job. I joined the gym because my sister, who is younger than I am and more fit, seriously hurt her back picking up a case of pop. It could have been me. It probably should have been me.
I keep going back to the gym because I love endorphins. I love feeling stronger. More agile. I can tie my shoes without holding my breath. I can pick papers up off the car floor without having to wait until I get out of the car. I don't breathe quite as loudly. I have lost that doddering, uncertain old lady's walk that made strange teenaged boys try to hold doors or carry things for me.I keep going back because I hate feeling helpless. Years ago, a friend of mine convinced me to join Vic Tanney, a chain of gyms popular at the time. There was a brand-new gym just around the corner from where we lived-just a matter of a few blocks. She had belonged to Vic Tanney before, so she guided me through the guided tour, offering me bits of advice and expertise along the way. . . I plopped down money, she plopped down money, and a few days later it was time for us to go to the gym.
She couldn't go.
She was fat.
Losing weight had been her expressed goal when she joined: now she couldn't go until she was "thinner."
Everyone else at the gym, she said, was buff and golden. "I'll be there," I pointed out (for I have never been a small woman).
She couldn't go. She was too fat. She was a size twelve.
I have determined that I don't particularly mind being the queen of my gym. There may indeed be women who wake up in the morning and sit on the edges of their beds and think to themselves, "There is that fat woman at my gym who goes almost every day, and if she can do it. . ." I am proud to be an inspirational goddess. It has taken me most of my life to understand that what we see, when we look at another person, may reflect absolutely nothing about how they see themselves. Always having been a woman of size, I have always believed that it must be just a wonderful experience to be thin. What I am learning is that the reverse of the old truism is equally true: inside every thin woman there is a fat woman just waiting to jump out.
We give that woman entirely too much power over our lives. We all do.Copyright © 2002, 2004 Cheryl Peck
Reprinted with permission.
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Cheryl Peck has many stories to tell-of her naughty cat, her quirky family, and her experiences as a large gay woman in the American heartland. Now in a potpourri of real tales by turns poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, Cheryl talks about family and growing up, love and loss. With self-deprecating humor and compassionate insight, she remembers the time she hit her baby-sister in the head with a rock, how her father taught her how to swim by throwing her into deep water, and the day when-while weighing in at 300 pounds-she became an inspirational goddess at her local gym. Filled with universal stories about a daughter's love for her parents and the eternal quest for finding meaning in it all, this book reveals many seemingly unremarkable moments that make a life-the weighty events that, like fat girls sitting on lawn chairs, just won't let go.
A Selection of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club(back to top)