Alrighty, what was my reaction to an exercise book by a fat woman — Hanne Blank (she/her) — when I’m already in an exercise routine? Well for me, exercise can be like a toxic ex-boyfriend. Or, even like a best friend who died. When I was in elementary school, I recall being named the fastest kid on the playground, who even beat the boys (I have evidence from a fellow elementary school boy: a drawing complete with a stick figure me hauling ass and the statement “Melanie is cool because she is faster than the boys”). I loooooved swimming and hated when I had to stop. And who didn’t enjoy parachute day at public school? Or line dancing with boys (OMG, YES). Then there was a whole Richard Simmons phase I had during which I memorized and danced to all the songs your grandparents love. Ask me today, and I can still do many of those dances from memory.
But come middle school, I remember a gym teacher with a Marine haircut who just, like, yelled at everyone, but was also probably in his twenties and eyeballing some of the more mature-looking girls. That was 7th grade. I failed the Presidential Fitness Test (sorry Mr. Clinton). In 8th grade the gym teacher was a former cheerleader, and now the cheerleader coach, and she looked like a cheerleader (OMG, NO). You ever meet a gym teacher reliving their glory days? Yet I did learn some skills, like proper weightlifting and archery (what the liability hell was that??) and how to play badminton listlessly. I failed the Presidential Fitness Test (Sorry again, Mr. C).
Come high school, you basically get a gym teacher who is trying to turn the gym class into extra practice for whatever team that horse’s ass is teaching. Football, basketball, the cheerleaders, whatever. The rest of us are basically sent over to do pretend sit-ups and stay out of the way. Fitness at this time (please tell me it’s changed) was determined with a caliper. They would pinch your arm and calf fat and measure it. Then write it down. In this government institution called public school. Never did I learn how to strengthen my endurance, balance, or control my breathing. At the end of every year we were required to run a mile. I have never run a mile because I couldn’t breathe, meaning I failed the Presidential Fitness test in 1999. I think Clinton knows how I feel. He was president for a long time.
And after that, I was 100% positive the reason for exercise was to not be fat. And if you were fat (I was by kid standards), then the point of exercise was to punish you for being a piece of shit. Warning: there are some swears in this post. Physical assessment seemed more about whether you lost weight and how much you sweated. If you weren’t soaking wet and breathing as hard as a buffalo, you weren’t really trying, now were you. Thus, I started to feel funny about swimming and bicycling. Those didn’t make me “sweat enough.” And I would walk for miles without stopping, but I was never going “fast enough.” And I loved dancing, but I wasn’t losing weight.
Essentially, I gave up until I started seeing a doctor yearly like grown ups do. And she asks, “What are you doing for exercise?” Talk about panic. Whatever I said wasn’t enough for her. Tai-chi? That’s not exercise. Walking with my husband? Well, if you can still talk, you’re not going fast enough. Aquacizing? Nothing in the water gets you moving hard enough. Challenging yoga that made me sweat buckets? But yoga is just meditative. Okiedokie.
So, I quit exercising and told her why. It was a very fun “Look, lady…” kind of conversation, and she realized the error. While I had contemplated finding a new doctor, it occurred to me this lady may not know what her “helpful suggestions” were doing to me, her patient (hint, the answer is basically filling my large intestine with water every time I engaged in non-mandatory movement because I was so panicked). Then the pandemic hit and I couldn’t go back to yoga or swimming. And I didn’t exercise unless I was dragging around a stick (if you’ve been here a while, you likely remember me dejectedly dragging a stick through 2020).
But something at the end of 2021 made me change. I was reading What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon, and the ending chapter lit me up. I started slowly with a 1 Mile Walk at Home video and did that every single day for two months. Just the same 1 mile, which I could listen to on my phone (I know all the moves) or do while look at my laptop. Music has certainly become more electric since I used to exercise in the 90s, and that helps. Then, I switched to a 2 mile video with an energetic guy who doesn’t mention calories or losing weight. He simply cautions that you not reach so high you punch your ceiling fan, that you move your pet out of the way that you don’t trample it, and that you don’t crank the volume so loud you bust a speaker.
So, back to Hanne Blank and her informational book, The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts. Blank immediately opens with a humorous attitude, which set me at ease and made me laugh out loud. But the laughs slowly reduced, making me think Blank chose humor as a rhetorical technique to put me at ease and relate to readers. She covers the honest benefits of moving, such as lowering blood pressure and regulating insulin, and the mental health boosts and enjoyment lots of folks feel after accomplishing a goal, such as doing an activity faster, lifting more weights, etc.
Helpful sections include how to dress (and there is a Resource Guide at the back that points readers to specific fat-friendly brands and stores) and how to get off the floor if you can’t due to age, disability, weight, or injury. She describes those past relationships we have with fitness and feeling rejected when we do work out because people want to know why we have the audacity to be there. Thankfully, Blank also covers concern trolling, those folks who make comments about your insulin, blood pressure, etc. because you are still fat, even though they are unaware of what you eat and how you move — or your entire medical history.
If you’re already into working out, Blank also gives advice on how to pick a new trainer and gym and proper shoes for types of movement. I appreciated that the book goes over how to treat an exercise-related injury and when to seek help. Even more practical, I learned quite a bit about doing some basic movement routines at home that aren’t full-blown workouts and how to measure success if your goal isn’t to lose weight. Getting directly into my own concerns, Blank gives a measurement for knowing how to push without overdoing it and hurting or discouraging yourself. The math is simple for any activity, and you’re never going “110% — XXXTREEEEEEME!“
For those who feel shy, Blank describes strategies for the locker room and responses for all sorts of comments. Funnily enough, though I have gotten mad about exercise, I don’t care who sees me. For a few years I went to the University of Notre Dame pool and showered naked afterward, and those showers were in a hallway that everyone coming back in from the pool had to walk through. I guess I learned this confidence after I took aquacizing at a community center, and the class started at 6:00AM and was made up of women in their 80s + me. They always got naked, except me and the woman who had had one breast removed due to cancer when she was younger. Her choice to change in private led to me showering naked. I felt I owed it to boobs everywhere. I will say that when I was at Notre Dame 85% of students had been on at least one varsity sport in high school, so you may imagine how “good looking” everyone was. Once I was out of the pool and in the shower, I was very “varsity smarcity” even though no one ever made rude comments to me. I confess a whole lot happens in our heads, and I was just mentally telling stories. Which, the 18-22 year-old students may have been doing, too.
Lastly, I’m included a quote from The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercising that struck me. There really are two kinds of “fat girl” feelings about exercising, and for a very long time, I was the later:
And for every fat girl who leaps into newfound movement with a sense of joy and liberation at finally feeling like she’s allowed to do something she’s wanted to do for years, there will be those who find the whole issue of adding physical activity to their daily lives so unsettling that they’ll have to approach it several times from different angles, stopping and starting and running into walls, before they finally figure out a way to do it so that it doesn’t feel too weird to be tolerated.
CW: None, though Blank mentions that you might have at some point hated gym class at school or felt bad about your fat body, dealt with workplace weight loss competitions or even struggled with an eating disorder. None of this is in detail; it is an acknowledgment of what you may have experienced.