"Fat" and "Athletic" Can Coexist
A therapist explains why we need to see more fat bodies in athletic spaces.
Posted September 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Guest post by Emily Richman, MS, LMHC
When I was about 9 years old, I begged to play little league with my brother. I was the only girl on the team and I wasn’t any good, but I liked playing. The night before each game, I stretched my damp-from-the-washing-machine uniform top over the large lounge chair in the living room to make sure it would fit my round little body. I was hyper-aware of the visible outline of my belly when I tucked in my uniform, but we weren’t allowed to leave them untucked. Running from base to base, I imagined what the crowds were thinking about my jiggly belly underneath my little league getup. I was 9 years old and somehow I already knew, just by being in the world, that I was too fat to play sports.
Growing up, I don’t recall seeing any fat athletes. The first I ever saw was Cheryl Haworth, a U.S. Olympic weight lifter who was photographed for a book that showcased athletes’ bodies against a black backdrop. She was big and powerful and standing next to images of toned and muscular thin women. She looked majestic. I was 31 years old.
For all that time, I had thought that fat bodies were inherently unathletic. Why would I imagine otherwise when I hadn’t seen a fat person, let alone a fat woman, being athletic in my lifetime?
Fast forward to the spring of 2018. At this point, I’ve been doing yoga for almost a year and I’m rehearsing for a very physical role in a play. Nothing about those things seems “athletic” to me. Because I’m the one doing them. And I’m a fat woman. And fat bodies aren’t athletic.
I meet a man through a dating app. A thin, strong, athletic man who loves to hike and kayak and backpack. After we go out several times, he says he’s concerned that our lifestyles won’t be compatible because he likes to be “outdoorsy” and I don’t seem to have that as a priority.
I’m crushed. All the shame of childhood rushes back. I tell him that he’s right, I don’t have an attachment to those activities, but I’ve also never really tried them. “My family wasn’t hiking, camping, kayaking people,” I tell him. “If you don’t grow up doing those things, how do you get involved in them without an introduction? Have you ever seen a woman of my size in an ad for hiking boots?” I ask. He’s silent for a while and then he responds, “No, I haven’t.”
I ask him to take me on a hike and he’s happy to oblige. We’ve been on quite a few now, the most recent with an incline that felt like a damn roller coaster but I love it. I have to stop several times to catch my breath, but I keep moving upwards and the view at the top is worth every minute of exertion.
Then he takes me on a long hike around a lake where he used to go fishing. About one-quarter of the way around, he asks if I can go the full loop. I tell him I want to do it, and he doesn’t question me. He doesn’t see any limitations in me. I hike three miles around a beautiful lake, and when I finish, I cry because it didn’t occur to me that I could do that until I did it.
Around the same time, I start taking weekly yoga lessons. My instructor uses blocks, bolsters, and other props to help modify poses to fit my body, not the other way around. If something like yoga, an elegant and athletic activity, can be modified to fit the needs of my body, why wouldn't this be true of other activities? There are modifications for athletes with prosthetics, with injuries, and with mobility devices. Why couldn’t sports be modified to fit the needs of my fat body?
It's simple when I look back on it now. The world had convinced me that my body was my own moral failing and I did not deserve to have the joy and pleasure of athleticism and sport. I did not deserve access. My world is so much bigger; full of pleasure and joy now with the inclusion of movement and athleticism in my life. My yoga teacher has asked if I would consider getting trained as an instructor to help at her studio and I’m considering it. Both because I enjoy it and I want to be an example to other large-bodied people that they are allowed to enjoy their bodies in an athletic way.
To the thin-bodied folks out there: Please don’t assume that fat-bodied people aren’t capable of sharing and enjoying movement and athleticism. Invite them on that hike or to play backyard football with you. Show your kids fat athletes and celebrate their success not as an anomaly, but as a natural diversity of bodies that engage in sports. There might be a little round 9-year-old that needs your encouragement to make it around all the bases.
Emily Richman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Speaker, and Performing Artist. She currently resides and works in Southeastern Washington State.