New York City recently joined San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Michigan in passing a law banning body size discrimination.
This law, which in my opinion should be adopted by all states and cities, protects the civil rights of all people, no matter their weight or height, and applies in the realms of work, housing, and public accommodations.
But what about the gym?
I have been fat my whole life. When I was in elementary school, gym was my least favorite class, especially during Presidential Fitness Week.
Each year I dreaded going to the front of the class to demonstrate how many pull-ups I could (not) do or how long I could hold my chin above the bar while my classmates watched, and my teacher clicked a stopwatch.
In contrast, I loved recess. I loved climbing on top of the monkey bars and hanging upside down. I loved swinging super high and flipping backward off the swings to see how far I could jump. In winter, I reveled in the construction of snow forts with long and complex tunnels.
As I grew older, the focus on exercise, athleticism, and “being the best” alienated me from the idea of physical movement as a joyful practice. Movement stopped being about having fun and feeling good.
It was no longer about connecting with friends or building something, but instead about specific movements that I could not achieve—I’m looking at you, layups—or discipline and even punishment, especially for me as a fat teen.
By the time I turned 18, I had sworn off movement in public, even at one point writing “lose enough weight to do yoga in public” as a goal for myself.
I’m not alone. In a study of over 3,800 fat people, 57 percent of them experienced weight stigma, including weight-based discrimination, body-targeted teasing, and harmful beliefs about fat people.
I believe these experiences of stigma directly influence the accessibility of movement and movement spaces. For example, researchers at Flinders University found that “teasing and body image concerns may contribute to adolescent girls’ reduced rates of participation in sports and other physical activities.”
There are some who believe fat people shouldn’t even have access to the necessary clothes to move their bodies. When Nike launched its plus-size mannequins in 2019, the internet was full of backlash, criticizing the brand for making movement more accessible.
Even though my body was the same size as it was when I wrote that resolution, when I was in my early twenties and in graduate school, I very hesitantly began practicing yoga through my local parks and recreation department to manage my anxiety. After just a few sessions with the right teacher, I was hooked.
I rediscovered joy in moving.
Even though I was practicing yoga regularly, I was hesitant to tell others. I didn’t want them to ask me about my body or weight loss, and I feared that people would secretly roll their eyes or joke that I couldn’t possibly be doing yoga. I wanted to keep moving my body in ways that were just for me, a secret.
In this, I’ve got company. I believe the primary barrier for fat people in accessing joyful movement is fat oppression. Oppression targets members of social groups by limiting their available options for the benefit of some other social group.
Oppression shows up in the ways we think about the world and ourselves, our interactions with others, and the practices and policies of institutions.
In my opinion, fat people are targeted and their available options are constrained solely because of their body size. These constraints can be physical: sometimes I don’t fit in the space.
The constraints may show up as lack of access to appropriate and supportive healthcare: I could be denied a medically necessary surgery because of my BMI.
Other times they are interpersonal: My coworker tells me about yet another diet they are trying this week and suggests I try it. Over time, I feel, these constraints can result in decreased wellbeing and shortened lives.
I believe that companies selling diet and weight-loss products benefit from these limitations, because it can feel like the only way for a fat person to free themselves from these constraints is to become smaller.
Meanwhile, exercise is typically marketed as something meant to change the size and shape of one’s body, usually to achieve a size that’s smaller or bigger in very specific places.
Think TikTok or Instagram reel tutorials on getting a tiny waist and big butt, or the obsession with “75 Hard”, a 75-day challenge that requires complete compliance including two workouts a day, branded as a “war with yourself.”
These stories identify the path to “health” as punishment. This is awful for everyone, but I feel it targets specifically fat people, who are always already identified as failed thin people, who could succeed if only they had enough willpower.
One way for fat people to resist is to do the things they aren’t “supposed to” do according to the popular narrative. They can do yoga, like I do, play beach volleyball, skateboard, or dance till dawn. Not to lose weight and get smaller, but for themselves. For joy. For connection. For the wash of feel-good brain chemicals.
In a fat-phobic culture, fat people like me face spaces and faces that are hostile to us at every turn. The path forward isn’t always clear. This means we need to create options, places, and spaces for ourselves that don’t already exist. Perhaps we find it joyful to walk in nature.
We may feel joy on the path to the trailhead, but not on the hike. No worries. Walk the path to the trailhead. Maybe we find it joyful to do the opening and ending of a yoga sequence, but not the full planned practice. Skip the middle! If it was not designed for you, it is not your fault. Creativity in designing an experience for yourself is resistance.
To be sure, there may be times when fat people run into pushback from someone in the public sphere while moving our bodies. This pushback can be a subtle commentary on our assumed goals—”good for you!”—but there are times when it might be cruel and very hurtful. But I have hope we can transform the world.
Watching all the “thick b******” rush the dance floor when Tempo by Lizzo featuring Missy Elliott comes on is a joy of my life. We are finding ways to carve out spaces for ourselves to be joyful in movement.
I do not feel these shifts and spaces are the result of body positivity, which focuses on changing an individual person’s orientation to their own body. Instead, they result from a refusal to accept conditions of oppression and a conviction that all people deserve to live in a world where they can thrive, no matter their body size.
I went on to earn my 200-hour yoga teacher certification so that I could share with others my love of movement for joy exactly as our bodies are today.
Joyful movement is your right. Being in the body you are in today is your right. You are not wrong. Your body is not wrong. You get to decide what the goals and purposes are for moving your body.
And one of them can be joy.
Lacey J. Davidson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Indianapolis. She organizes for transformative community change with Indiana Task FORCE and is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. You can follow her on Instagram: @laceyj_oy or Twitter: @DrD_Philosophy.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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