This post originally appeared on the blog: Seeking A Life Full of Laughter
I get into a lot of conversations with my sisters and female friends about what it means to be an athlete, to be fit, and more importantly, to be a woman who doesn’t fit the idealized view of fitness. Open up any running magazine, browse any fitness apparel websites, or look at the posters in your local gym and you will soon realize that we still live in a world where fitness is defined by a size.
Anything less than a Greek god/goddess equals laziness, inactivity, and fat.
In fact, I am tired of hearing the word fit and fat being used to describe any women over a size 8. In my world of athletics, I have always been “fat”. My BMI (body mass) index has always indicated that I was overweight, even when I was playing college field hockey and wearing a size 10. We glorify and objectify female athletes, and make critical and disgusting comments about their level of fitness and health when they do not define that idealized shape. We forget Serena Williams’s many victories while we use derogatory comments to define her athleticism, her race, and her elite level of fitness by using such abusive and vulgar terms like “beast”, “thunder thighs”, and “manly”.
It wasn’t until recently that more mainstream media outlets such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN’s the Body Issue began featuring more realistic images of women athletes. Look at the powerful and stunning physique of hammer thrower Amanda Bingson, who many would classify as “fat” or “plus sized” while the ignoring the grace, strength, and athleticism which is involved in her chosen sport.
Yet, we are quick to judge a women’s health and fitness by her looks alone. A recent issue of Women’s Running brings that discussion to the forefront with one of the first realistic portrayals of female athletes over a size 14 on the actual cover of its own running magazine.
How many women of larger size, including myself, have felt judged, shamed, and even ridiculed for the size and shape of our bodies? How many people have stared as we have jogged past, climbed on the elliptical, or worn a swimsuit into the pool for laps? How many of us have gone home discouraged, angered, and tearful that our society cannot define us as fit without also using the term “fat”?
While I am encouraged that we are willing to acknowledge the stereotypes which exist for female athletes in terms of body acceptance, I am still frustrated. Because we have a long way to go in terms of outright acceptance and creating better avenues of access to health and healthy lifestyles for larger women.
At 6′ and 250 pounds, I still operate in a world in which I am singled out for my size, despite the fact that I have been involved in some sort of athletic activity since age 5. I have to order men’s clothes to wear to the gym, because I can’t find tops which cover my fuller chest and long torso. I show up to triathlons in anything but a tri-suit, because even the women’s fitness apparel stores offer limited options and even more limited sizes in trisuits. I have trouble finding swimsuits which fit or are even designed for workouts, since most over a size 16 come with ruffles and skirts which are meant to hide fat, but clearly, accentuate it even more. Go to any store and you can find a decent sports bra if you wear a C cup or smaller, special order online and pay a lot more money if you are “full figured”.
I still continue to struggle to lose the weight, and to find community. While every woman battles with issues of body acceptance in today’s society, we forget that for women of larger sizes and shapes, no matter how fit or successful we are in our sports field, the first word to define us will be “fat”. Or rather, we may camouflage the word “fat” with seemly innocuous terms like “plus sized’, “full figured”, or “curvy”.
I am tired of being a called a fat, but fit athlete. I want to be seen and referred to as a female athlete. Plain and simple. No sizes attached to its definition, because we don’t do it to our male counterparts.
Instead of looking at my size, my curves, or my fat, look at what I can do and appreciate the fact that I chose to do something that some people would never get off the couch for. I run half marathons and 5Ks, swim countless laps, train for triathlons, play softball, participate in volleyball, complete Crossfit workouts, and go head-to-head with coworkers in pick-up basketball.
Next time you go running, work out at the gym, or are people watching at the beach, try to remember that fitness is not a size, but a way of life. A six-pack doesn’t equal health, and a size 16 doesn’t equal laziness.
Let’s do more to encourage these discussions, reflect on our own stereotypes about fitness, and appreciate that being fit is a struggle for everyone. It takes commitment, heart, and perseverance. Do not discourage others on their journey, because you are stuck with a number in your head.
And for my readers, who are also athletes (male and female alike), I would love to hear from you. What stereotypes frustrate you? What would you like more people to understand when it comes to health and fitness? What more can we do to change this discussion for the better?