I have been a runner for 15 years. I love the endorphin high, pushing my body, the achievement I feel when finishing a tough run, I love it all.
I’ve entered all kinds of races from short- to long-distance events and triathlons where running is just one leg of the race. I can proudly declare that I’m not only a runner, I’m also a running coach. Throughout my career as a personal trainer, an important highlight has been to coach women to the 5k and 10k finish line.
The catch is, I don’t look like a “typical” runner. You know the image that comes to mind when we think about runners: lean and tall with long legs that hit that perfect stride? It’s the image of runners we see in most magazines and advertising.
But nope, that’s not me. In fact, I have quite a bit of body fat, I’m average height and my legs are short. Because of the way I look I’m met with all kinds of well-intentioned but questionable “encouragement” during almost every run I do.
The other day I went out for a run with my friend who is also a plus-size runner. We were running up a trail alongside a beautiful river. I was loving the surroundings but staying focused on the run because the trail was inclining. As we passed two thinner runners, they yelled out to us, “Good for you guys!” At first, I blew it off but then I thought, Why good for us? We’re all out here doing the same thing! and Would he have said that to two thin people?
A little further down the path we started to approach a woman. As we ran by, she started to do a loud, slow clap, a clap I am very familiar with because it’s so often directed at me. This clap isn’t the typical applause you hear from the sidelines of a marathon where truly inspired spectators are giving voice to their enthusiasm and excitement. This is a clap of incredulity, maybe even condescension. It’s often followed by a shout of, “What a great role model you are!” or “Well done, you!” You might know this clap, too, the clap that is especially reserved for you because you’re fat.
I’ve experienced encounters like this often, and over many years and I will tell you one thing for sure: They are not encouraging. I have also had really positive encounters with spectators, and there’s a difference which I will break down for you in a bit.
In so many fitness environments—at the gym, in a race, in group fitness classes—people with larger bodies can feel isolated, like we don’t belong. This is, of course, the result of so many different factors, from weight bias that’s endemic to our culture to the ways body shaming shows up in wellness culture specifically. But in my experience, lots of larger-bodied people internalize these feelings as if they indicate our own personal failures, instead of attributing the feelings of exclusion to the fact that there are many ways that we’re actively made to feel like we don’t belong.
This is one of the reasons that an important part of my career as a trainer has been about trying to level the playing field for size-diversity in athletics. It’s my mission to create a fitness culture that is inclusive of all body types and that accommodates and celebrates the needs of all bodies. Of course one way I do this is by trying to empower my clients, but I believe it’s also important for me personally to speak up so that well-intentioned people can start to understand how they may be inadvertently contributing to a culture of exclusion.
Here are a few things I’d like people to know about cheering on athletes with larger-than-normative bodies:
1. Cheering us on in special ways sends the message we don’t belong.
Let’s be honest here. The reason why people slow clap or say, “Good for you!,” or my favorite, “At least you’re lapping everyone on the couch!” is because their mindset hasn’t expanded to believe that larger-bodied people can be athletes or part of the running community. This sends the message (likely unintended of course) that the thinner-bodied person belongs as a runner but I, a larger person, am an unusual and surprising guest in the running community.
Things to say or do instead: If you’re watching a race and you feel compelled to cheer beyond “woooo!,” say something that you’d say to anyone on the course. Or (and this is especially useful for when you’re not a race spectator and you’re just watching someone run by or exercise near you in the gym) use it as an opportunity to say nothing and reflect on your own thin or body-related privilege. Really ask yourself, “Am I amazed or inspired because this person’s fat?”
2. It also reinforces stereotypes about bigger bodies.
When another runner passes by me and expresses some form of surprise or amazement that I am out running in my larger body, it just reinforces stereotypes that already exist when it comes to people in bigger bodies—that we aren’t expected to be out here killing it as athletes because that’s something that is reserved for thinner people to do.
Here’s something you could say instead: “Wow, this is tough today but we’re all out here doing it together, we’re rock stars!” A slight adjustment in wording can make this kind of encouragement come from a place of solidarity and it makes a big difference.
3. Certain kinds of cheers presume that we’re out here to lose weight.
I can tell by the way people have cheered for me that they think I’m exercising because that I’ve finally had enough of my fat body and I am trying to get control of my weight. The truth is, I am an athlete and coach and although my body may not reconcile with a normative vision of athleticism, I’ve come to understand that that is not my shortcoming; it’s our culture’s. In fact, when someone assumes I’m exercising to lose weight, they’re not just misunderstanding me, they’re allowing cultural fatphobia to shape their beliefs. Just like I would never assume someone’s career, family, or financial goals, we also should not assume we know a person’s fitness goals.
Something you could do instead: Take some initiative to learn. Start to follow size-diverse athletes on Instagram so you can start to see just how diverse athleticism is out there. I talked about my favorite body positive accounts to follow here.
4. Honestly? Cheering us incredulously is a microaggression and microaggressions are exhausting.
Rest assured, this likely isn’t the first time a larger-bodied runner has experienced the slow clap or a surprised reaction. This type of encouragement is familiar territory and we can see it coming from a mile away—as you can tell from my story above, we sometimes encounter it multiple times in the same workout! This happens often and can be predictable, and while I realize many people don’t realize sizeism is at play, these repeated microaggressions are emotionally exhausting.
It’s tiring and takes the wind out of our sails. It’s no wonder larger-bodied people find it difficult to overcome fitness barriers when they face subtle and not-so-subtle stigma. A call from a car or a slow clap on the trail, although intended as encouraging, can drain one’s will to be out there. Make sure you are being supportive in a palatable way.
Something to think about/ask yourself: “Is my well-intentioned encouragement coming across as weight stigma or stereotyping resulting from my own belief system? Is what I am about to say coming from a place of thin privilege, or am I genuinely inspired and grateful to see someone achieving such greatness?”
There are people of all shapes and sizes at the races and in the gyms. Please keep in mind that our athletic pursuits shouldn’t be subjects of amazement. Whether you can see us on the glossy pages or not, larger-bodied athletes are out there so expect to see us out here killing it!
Louise Green is a plus-size trainer, founder of the fitness program Body Exchange, and author of Big Fit Girl: Embrace the Body You Have. Follow: Instagram @LouiseGreen_BigFitGirl, Twitter @Bigfitgirl, Facebook @louisegreen.bigfitgirl