Navigating fitness in a body that doesn’t fit expectations (Guest post)

By Andrea Zanin

CN for size, body image and fitness stuff (but this is not about me trying to lose weight, in case that makes a difference to you).

Tried out a pilates class tonight at a new gym. I ended up on a mat at the very front of the class in front of the mirror (I’m usually a “back corner” kind of class participant). It was… weird. I don’t know if it was the angles, or the light, or actual reality, but from where I stood I was able to notice a few things.

One, I was bigger than pretty much everyone else in the class. I’m not huge – but I sure felt like it in that context, especially being positioned very much in the spotlight. It was uncomfortable not because I didn’t like my appearance, but because I’m hyper-aware (as someone who used to work in the fitness industry in a past life) of how desperately important Being Skinny is to many gym-going women. So seeing my curvy ass up ahead was likely serving as a “before” picture for them. It reminded me of why I dislike gym culture even as I love working out, and of how gendered certain types of exercise are even when they’re really good for all sorts of people.

Two, I was stronger than most people in the class. The moves felt nearly effortless, so much so that I at times wondered if I was doing them wrong. As I looked around at a room full of skinny women in skinny designer workout clothes (I was in a HotDocs t-shirt!) sweating and straining and shaking, I remembered how prioritizing being skinny means you try not to build muscle, you maybe don’t eat enough to nourish muscle development, you maybe don’t have the blood sugar to stay firm and grounded when you’re making efforts you’re not used to, especially with peripheral muscles. My years in the weight room, on the climbing wall, in the yoga studio, plus my everyday cycling, means my body feels like a thick old tree trunk at this point – deeply rooted, strong as fuck, well nourished, balanced even in my weather-beaten imbalance.

Three, separately from the mirror situation, I also noticed how certain moves *were* actually super challenging for me – not from lack of strength, but from impinged mobility. The ones that involved lots of articulated spine movement showed me how my strong muscles also hold a great deal of stiffness, despite megadosing on magnesium and stretching lots. Like, when doing ab crunches with a hard foam roller under my middle back, the sit-up part was easy, but draping my back over the roller for the “resting” part was a painstaking, scary operation. This is exacerbated by the range of motion I can’t reach in my lower back because it triggers nerve pain, what with the remaining lump of cancer on my spinal cord plus scar tissue and missing spinal bones. This is probably a permanent limitation, so I’ll need to figure out how to work around it if I want to ramp up my overall fitness level. I love being a tree trunk – it’s certainly better than the block of concrete I used to be – but I need to become a bit more like a reed. More flexible, more functional, less rigid.

I feel ready to take my fitness up a notch. I want better circulation, stronger cardiovascular capacity, and greater flexibility, and to drain out leftover feelings of fragility and fear after my long period of disability. But I’m not sure I want to invest my time and effort in a setting where I feel like my body is going to be everyone else’s bad example – and this isn’t even because anyone *said* anything. Imagine if they did. I’m picturing myself turning from a serene old oak into the Whomping Willow…

So, not sure what comes next. More yoga (where there is more body diversity). More cycling as the weather warms – I’ve done 60 short rides so far this year (!), which is great, but I think it’s time for longer ones, and daily, or close to it. Maybe some personal training or physio for advice on the mobility stuff. And maybe a gym membership, though first I’ll have to decide whether not fitting in is a sufficient deterrent.

I would love to hear about others’ experiences of navigating fitness if you don’t fit into straight society’s expectations of what your body should be like, what your goals should be, and how you measure success.

Andrea Zanin has written for the Globe and Mail, The Tyee, Bitch, Ms., Xtra, IN Magazine, Outlooks Magazine and the Montreal Mirror. Her scholarly work, fiction and essays appear in a variety of collections. She blogs at and tweets at @sexgeekAZ.

Exit mobile version