To the sanctimonious thin person who handed me a note at the gym…

A reflection by Sarah

This post has little relevance for the general subject of our blog, but we decided that I should publish it here anyway. Yesterday, I (Sarah) was at the gym doing my usual workout when the woman running on the elliptical next to me finished her own workout, began looking at her phone, scribbled something down on a sheet of notebook paper, folded it, and handed it to me. I waited a bit before reading it, but when I did, I saw that the note was laden with sanctimonious presumptions about people of size. A quick Google search showed me that the woman’s note had very little originality: over half of it was a word-for-word repeat of a Facebook post that had gone viral last month, apparently. Today, I’m using our blog as a medium for responding to the person who gave me the note. Thanks to all our readers who have patiently allowed me the space to process some things related to my eating disorder recovery. The past few weeks have been challenging for me, and I’ve been uplifted by the encouragement I’ve received from readers. After this post, I’ll try to give that topic a rest for a bit, and we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled posts on celibacy, vocation, and LGBT Christian issues.

Dear Sanctimonious thin person who handed me a note at the gym,

It took me about thirty seconds to find the source of your unoriginal note. It’s all over the Internet. I found it here and in several other places. I also found a response it received from another blogger who felt a sense of solidarity with the original note’s target. I have no idea what motivated you to write out parts of it on a sheet of notebook paper and hand it to me yesterday after you had finished your workout on the elliptical next to mine. Presumably, you found something inspiring when you saw the original circulating through social media. Maybe you thought it would inspire me as well. Maybe you were once my size and were trying to give me an “it gets better” sort of message. Maybe you’ve always been the size you are now. I don’t know anything about you, but I’m going to show you a courtesy that you did not show me: I’m going to give you the chance to tell your own story instead of making one up to explain your actions. I waited a couple of minutes to read your note after you handed it to me, but when I did read it I stopped mid-workout and made a run for the locker room in attempt to find you. You were already gone, so I’m using the blog I write with my partner as an opportunity to voice what I didn’t get the chance to in person.

I was not, as your note suggests, at the gym on a noble mission to reduce my body size. At one time I was as thin as you, if not thinner. But I certainly wasn’t healthy. I came to the gym regularly, wearing cute cotton lycra outfits like yours, bearing a large water bottle and an apple or protein bar. I’d alternate between the elliptical and weightlifting, sometimes hitting up the pool for laps instead. Then, I’d go home and consume an extra large pizza, which would ultimately end up down the garbage disposal in my apartment. In those days, I spent more time purging food than eating it in the first place. Eventually, this became the fate of the apple and protein bar as well. After years of this daily routine, I reached a point at which I found myself in the emergency room every other week. My eyes were sunken, my neck was sore from swollen glands, and I spent more than a few days on a potassium drip that month. But to my knowledge, no one at the gym had ever wondered what I was doing or speculated as to why I was there amongst all those thin people—I was one of them.

That was almost seven years ago. Since then, I’ve undergone a significant amount of treatment and devoted certain seasons of life solely to recovering from my eating disorder. I made it a goal to eat normal meals and snacks every day no matter what, and generally I’ve kept to that for the past seven years. I don’t always do perfectly, and I’m not 100% behavior-free, but life is infinitely better than it has been in years past. I’ve also gained a lot of weight since then, and I’m sad to say that I didn’t realize the magnitude of social stigma against fat persons until I became one myself. I like my broccoli, avocados, and flaxseed, and I can’t stand the taste of fast food. Rarely have I exceeded normal portion sizes since my time in eating disorder treatment, yet because of my wonky metabolism I’m the largest I’ve ever been in my life. But you know what? I’ll take my current size—complete with t-shirt and sweatpants instead of cotton lycra gym outfits—over my former, unhealthy, “thin” body any day.

Sure, there are people who think I’ve gone from one extreme to the other where thinness is concerned. Yes, there are medical professionals who don’t care to hear my story and would rather assume incorrectly that I visit McDonald’s on a regular basis. Some people gawk at me for eating ice cream or a cupcake when my partner takes me out for a special treat. Women in my family make ignorant comments about my body size and will probably do so from now to kingdom come. And indeed, there are and will continue to be thin people like you who feel the need to “inspire” the rest of us by presuming to know our stories and playing on size-shaming stereotypes. No matter. I’m happier and healthier as a fat person than I ever was as a thin person. And if my body were to change and suddenly drop a bunch of weight while I’m still eating normal portions, that would be totally cool too. Whatever my body does naturally is fine by me, and I’m not interested in wearing my size—large, small, or anywhere in between—as a badge of honor.

I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say this as though you had the best of intentions when passing me that note: you may be unaware, but a person’s body size is not the sole indicator of health. Weight and shape aren’t everything. Weight loss is not the only reason a larger person might be at the gym. It might not be a reason at all—it certainly isn’t for me. Being healthy is not about being in a thin body, and size doesn’t tell you what or how much a person is or is not eating. Commending a larger person for going to the gym as “a step toward a healthier lifestyle” may sound admirable, but in reality that phrase is loaded with assumptions. The fat person you want to praise for “paying off the debt of another midnight snack, another dessert, another beer” could already be living a healthy lifestyle, and may have been doing so for years. For all you know, she might be eating more healthily and getting more balanced physical activity than you are. Please consider the content of my response before offering another unsuspecting gym patron a bit of your poorly contrived inspiration. And next time you have something to say to a total stranger, try speaking from your heart instead of plagiarizing from a Facebook post gone viral.



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18 thoughts on “To the sanctimonious thin person who handed me a note at the gym…

  1. Sarah, I just want to give you tons of hugs! I feel so much pride and happiness for you and in your accomplishments. I’m thankful to you for writing this post and giving such an eloquent voice to the issue of fat shaming -even when it’s under the guise of encouragement.

    I don’t know why “thin” people seem to assume that for a “fat” person our days are spent pining over wanting to be thin. As an obese person, sure I’d love to be a socially- and medically- acceptable weight. But, living with disabling major depressive disorder and dealing with the effects of emotional child abuse, which have included eating disorders and self injury, have left me with little energy to focus on thinness.

    I often spend the better part of days and weeks just trying not to harm myself, trying to stay out of bed all day, trying to push myself to take a shower, trying to force myself to go grocery shopping, trying to encourage myself to clean some random filthy spot in my house… losing weight is not on my list of priorities.

    Even though I’m morbidly obese and my doctor has suggested weight loss surgery, losing weight is not on my radar. My focus is on maintaining my current weight and not gaining more. When I do something physical, my thoughts are on maintaining my current level of mobility. My focus is on maintaining my current level of health, which means no diabetes, no high blood pressure, no any illness related to obesity.

    It’s insulting when someone assumes I’m doing something to lose weight! Like you, like anyone, people do not know me. They do not know my story. For some random stranger to presume to “encourage” me in my efforts is truly insulting. They don’t know the focus of my efforts.

    I realize the vast majority of these sorts of “encouragements” are meant to be uplifting and supportive. I can appreciate people trying to be helpful. I just wish people would stop trying to be helpful and just be accepting.

    Thanks Sarah!

    • Hi RL. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your own story. People are so obsessed with weight and body size that many wouldn’t even wonder why a larger person is going to the gym–they presume it’s about weight loss. And, in my experience, telling someone that it isn’t often results in a comment like, “Well, why *isn’t* it about weight loss. It *should* be.” Sigh. Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where people can look at the whole picture where health is concerned. -Sarah

  2. I have not experienced anything like your story around food and eating, but I know for certain if someone handed me a note like that, I would internalize that shame so damn fast…

    I’m glad you are using this space to respond, to do what you need to do for your own health and well-being. The internet as a forum seems a strange mixture of the relative privacy afforded by anonymity and distance, and yet also extremely public. I am grateful for the privilege of hearing this story from you.

    You’ve written at length about the foundation of your eating disorder being tied to desire for power and control in painful circumstances. I’m curious, if I may ask, if your religious background or current tradition, interacts with your eating disorder and recovery in other ways as well?

    Well, that was kind of a vague/ leading question.
    I ask specifically from this perspective:
    I personally struggle with a tendency in my own religious background toward ignoring, sometimes even demonizing, the body – i.e. favoring the soul over the body, lauding the superiority of obedience (i.e., by will) over acquiescence to the “flesh.” I think I’m missing out on much of a long and more mature Christian tradition of emphasis on the (good) embodied nature of our lives in Christ – i.e. focus on Christ being God incarnate, bodily resurrection, etc. But that’s been my experience, and I have needed to distance myself from the church to push back against the message I internalized as a result: “You cannot trust your body and your body’s desires, you cannot trust your own mind and heart; you can only trust God.”

    So I guess I’m wondering if you have experienced any struggles with that kind of message – eating related or not – and if so, how you deal with it.

    • Hi Suzanne. I love this question! I had to spend some time chewing on it a bit before responding. Generally, I’ve experienced affirmation of the body’s goodness from my current and previous Christian traditions. Both teach that the body is something good rather than something bad or worthy of distrust. I’ve actually received a great deal of support in my recovery from spiritual directors, members of parishes I’ve been part of in the past, and the writings of the saints and Church fathers. I think it’s unfortunate that some Christian traditions focus on the soul to the total exclusion of the body as God’s beloved creation. During my most serious round of eating disorder treatment, I found a great deal of strength in various Christian writings on the body–even Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which unfortunately, most people think of as “the Catholic Church’s rules about sex.” That work deals with far more issues than sexuality, including the topics of food and caring for our bodies. There’s a recent book I’ve read that I wish had been written years ago when I was in treatment, and I recommend it to any Christian person I know who struggles with food, eating, and/or body acceptance. It’s called These Beautiful Bones, written by Emily Stimpson, and it discusses other topics from Theology of the Body that are not sexuality-related: While one who doesn’t have much experience with Catholicism might have trouble understanding some parts of it, the book is generally accessible to those with any sort of Christian background. It does draw on the Catholic historical tradition, but is deeply scripturally based as well. Highly recommended! -Sarah

  3. Thank you, Sarah. I support and encourage you in your work towards consistent health, as I know you would me in my struggles as a sister in Christ. 😀 I am also quite large and quite invisible, and often, when I become visible, shamed for being the size I am. Add mental health issues and you have a perfect storm of stigma.

    I often wonder if the mental health issues aren’t, to some degree, instigated by the stigma on nonstandard beauty. Hmmm.

    • Hi Maria. Thanks for the encouragement. I have also wondered if there is some link between mental health issues and how a person fits (or doesn’t) within social standards of beauty. -Sarah

    • Thanks for stopping by, Natasha! Writing this felt great. It was highly therapeutic. I’m feeling much better about the incident now. -Sarah

    • Writing this felt amazing. The person who gave me the note is lucky that the note’s recipient doesn’t struggle with body image. But now I’m wondering if she’s done the same thing to other women at the gym. One of my friends has encouraged me to print this out and post it in the locker room. I’m going to do that today. -Sarah

  4. Ugh, I had a similar experience over the weekend. After completing a half marathon 7 minutes faster than my (very loose) goal time, I was slowly gimping back to my car when a man stopped me. He congratulated me on finishing the race, then proceeded to tell me his story. “In 1976 I was even more overweight than you!” (He paused, nodding his head as if it was completely incredible that anyone could possibly be fatter than me.) “I was stressed out and miserable in my body, but then someone told me to run. That day I ran three blocks. The next day I ran 6 blocks. A month later I did a 5k race. 6 months later I did a half marathon. A year later I ran a full marathon. Now I’ve completed 15 full marathons and 27 half marathons, I’m in excellent shape and I love my life. Just keep going and you’ll get there.”

    What? I agree with what you said towards the end, that both the woman at the gym and this guy were most likely just trying to be nice (albeit missing the mark entirely.) However, there are other ways to be nice and supportive. This guy didn’t know whether I ran the half like I had been training for months, or struggled to walk it and keep ahead of the sag wagon because life and laziness got in the way of training. Sure, the latter is what actually happened, but he didn’t know that. Like you, when I looked my healthiest, I was far from it. I’d eat 1/6 of the calories recommended for my size and activity level, then work out multiple hours every day. The really sad thing is, even when I was at that point, medically I was still considered borderline obese. My body is not built to be thin, it will never be.

    Now, even though I know I am overweight, even for me and I’m not in the greatest shape, I am healthy in other ways. I do two half marathons a year, sometimes walking, sometimes walk/jogging. I may not work out as much as I “should”, but I work out in ways that make me happy when it makes me happy. I am a fairly healthy eater, not the best, but not the worst either. As the man spoke to me, I was in stunned disbelief at what I was hearing. I was too tired to come up with a response other than “um…thanks…I have to go.” When I made it back to my car, all I could think was “you don’t know me!” I won’t let his condescending ignorance ruin my weekend and my excellent race, even though it did put a damper on it. I talked to a lot of people during the race, and their stories and friendliness will be what I remember.

    Sorry for the vent, just wanted to share with someone with a similar perspective.

    • Thanks for sharing! It’s incredibly frustrating when people assume that everyone has the potential to be very thin, or have any other specific body type. I’m sorry you had to put up with that. I’m frustrated for you right now! -Sarah

  5. I am a regular reader at Rod Dreher’s blog, and found Sarah and Lindsey’s blog as a result!

    H, my following comment is to your story. It is painful and embarrassing when people think they have something in common with us, and think they know us, and their connection is on a topic we really wish didn’t exist. We don’t usually mind it when it is on a positive topic.

    Part of maturity though is recognizing that what a person intends by their words is not exactly the same as how it lands in our own life. We become responsible to consciousness of our feelings, while being able to simultaneously suspend them in order to try to understand what a person intends. We allow ourselves to be influenced by the other person’s presence, rather than continuously reverting back to our own reflexes, which is part of our past life, just as this man’s are in his life.

    You said, “this guy [were] most likely just trying to be nice (albeit missing the mark entirely.) However, there are other ways to be nice and supportive.” But what he did is what he chose to do, not something else that you would have wished, or think would have been better.

    Reading your story, I did not feel that “trying to be nice” was a very complete description. He cared for a complete stranger, and felt his own pain in you, and tried to heal it. What more do you expect? That he should be enlightened? Or that you can enlighten him? You also have many options for how to respond. For example, you could feel touched by his bumbling care, instead of being insulted and irritated. And how do you know that opening yourself up to his care, however inadequate, might not be just what you need?

    I say these things not because I do them, but because I walk with the same tendencies as I saw reflected in your story.

    Sarah and Lindsey, thank you for your blog.

    • Hi Dale, thanks for reading. We’re glad to see you in the comments.

      We’ve noted that there are plenty of places where empathy goes wrong. Many people feel completely justified in offering commentary about another person’s size with an automatic assumption that being smaller is better. Empathy can be tricky because in trying to meet someone in the midst of vulnerability and pain we run the risk of being an agent of harm. It’s good to be cautious in our remarks, especially if our goal is to provide care and comfort to another. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay to expect someone to read our minds, but we think it’s perfectly justifiable to be upset when someone’s well-meaning remarks are actually rooted in certain harmful assumptions. -Lindsey and Sarah

  6. clap clap clap clap clap, running into standing ovation. Well done. This blog is brilliant. I had to lose weight for medical reasons which is fine for me but I have a friend who says ‘Jane, I’m large and always will be but I look after myself and like to dress well and be happy’ – and good on her. I’m proud to be out with her in the street because she’s my friend not because we are different sizes – as if?! I hope the lady who gave you the note checked her conscience and realized what a jerk she had been handing out notes instead of getting to know the real person. And maybe by now – 8 months after writing this blog – you’ve met her again and she’s apologised and you’re best mates at the gym. Who knows?

  7. The only acceptable note to a stranger is one that has no implied judgment of anyone. Like “you have a nice smile, have a nice day.” That’s it. Once a lady at church gave me a nice note at Ash Wednesday mass saying I was doing a good job and raising my kids right, and it was pretty sweet, but honestly made me kind of sad too. If I was in a more vulnerable place, I would have internalized the unintended criticism and burden of all the times I *couldn’t* keep my kids in the correct order and sufficiently quiet (because they weren’t always that responsive to direction!).

    It seems like “I am skinny” is the new “I keep a ridiculously clean house” or “my children have exceptional manners in public” or “my wife is always gracious and tidy, and presses my pants just so.” It’s the thing du jour that people must have, or risk socially-sanctioned judgement about their motives and their character. That kind of judgment is always rude, but it is way more intrusive when it’s about something so great and so personal and so individual as the human body.

    • Hi Tara, thanks for sharing your story. People feel like they can comment on all sorts of things from a person’s physical fitness level, food choices, parenting abilities, experiences with illnesses, etc. Even something intended as a complement can come off extremely poorly.

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