Gray Matters — A mile in their shoes
Belfast — I am happy to report that my recent efforts to focus more on my own physical health and well being are going well. I have rejoined my favorite gym, and a few of my closest friends have also re-dedicated themselves to the same goal.
Building a good support system has always been the key for my own success, and I've often heard others say the same. We're in it together, and we all know we're not alone in the fight.
Overall most people you meet are very supportive, especially in a gym environment, but I recently heard an account from one of my friends in our group who experienced what many who are overweight fear most about setting foot in a fitness center of any kind — blatant and uncalled-for personal ridicule.
My friend, who I won't name to avoid embarrassing her, is making great gains in her journey to lose weight after years of struggling with a medical issue and the drugs and steroids with side effects that cased her to put on some extra weight. She has lost nearly 10 pounds since the start of her efforts, and I will say now that I am so very proud of her accomplishment.
But during her recent trip to a local fitness center, one fellow member was either having a very bad day or is just a horrible human being in general. While the two were using side-by-side machines, this comparatively thin "lady" had the nerve to stop what she was doing so she could stare at my friend as she completed her set. This woman — a total stranger — then proceeded to tell my friend she didn't belong there. When my friend sought clarity on the comment, her suspicions were confirmed. It was because this person felt she was "too fat" to be there.
My typical response to new gym members is a smile, wave, or some other welcoming gesture. I have never thought it helpful to point out someone's size, especially in such a high-school-style and insensitive way. And that has not been my experience with many of my other fellow gym members.
But apparently it is enough of an issue that a man named Francis Wisniewski successfully started a chain of gyms called "Downsize Fitness" in November 2011, with locations in Illinois and Texas. According to the company's website, Wisniewski struggled with his weight for his entire life, and knew first hand the fear many overweight people have about going to gyms. The idea behind its creation was to provide those who want to lose significant weight (50 pounds or more) with an environment filled with others who understand their struggle. The fitness classes are modified for more entry-level workouts, and the trainers focus on the specific needs and concerns of those seeking to lose those extra pounds.
I love that model, and I can see how it might work. That said, most everyone my friends and I have encountered in our journeys have been great, and it saddens me to think that there are enough people in the minority whose attitudes about weight loss are so twisted and disconnected from reality.
Fortunately for my friend who had her unfortunate experience the other day, her health mission has made her stronger in body, mind and spirit. After hearing this woman's unsolicited opinion about something that was absolutely none of her business, my friend calmly explained that she had just as much right to be at the gym as she did, and added that she was sorry this other woman felt the way she did.
Then, she ignored the negative influence and went on to complete a very nice workout. I say, way to take your power back.
The way I see it, you don't know why someone is struggling with their weight. Maybe that person you're making fun of at the gym just survived cancer and the drugs they were on caused weight gain. Or maybe that woman who fits awkwardly into those gym pants just had a baby a few weeks ago — that was me about nine years ago, as the birth of my son left me with between 50 and 60 pounds of excess weight.
I worked hard to lose it, and in six months most of it was gone, but I was over what is considered a healthy weight long enough to know that if you don't fit into society's idea of "skinny" you are treated very differently as a woman. People aren't as quick to open doors for you at the grocery store, much less smile at you or even make eye contact when you're walking down the street. After enough of this goes on, you start to become conditioned to believe that but for the space you take up in the world, you do not exist.
It's attitudes like the one I've highlighted here today that further support my own personal experiences.
And that's just wrong.
Beyond the more common argument that everyone in this world, regardless of their shape or size, has plenty to give to the people around them, I want to remind people that we don't always know what others have been through. We don't know what brought them to the place they are today, including what may have brought them to the gym for the first time.
The fact is, until you walk a mile in someone else's gym shoes, you will never know.
I say encourage the efforts of those who are trying to make positive changes in their lives. Why? Well, best case scenario, you make a new friend and a new ally in your common goal to get healthier.
And because doing anything other than being supportive may make you feel superior to that other person for a brief moment, but overall it makes you look ignorant, and frankly, very unattractive on the inside and out.
You see, my friend, and people who are just as determined as she is, can lose that weight. That attitude alone makes her beautiful in the most significant way.
I'm sorry to say there's very little hope for those who are as painfully uneducated as this woman seemed to be, because I don't believe there's a diet and exercise plan for just plain mean and stupid.