Guest Post

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.

18 thoughts on “Navigating fitness in a body that doesn’t fit expectations (Guest post)

  1. It would be great if we could celebrate our own bodies, no matter their shape and size, without ditching the body type of others. So it’s not ok to judge fat women, but ok to shame thin ones? I thought we can do better. Now that we know that bigger bodies can be strong, fit and healthy, it’s thin women who are lacking? — no muscle, no strength, according to the author. It is really sad: women just can’t win. Whatever body they have someone out there is ready to diss it.

    1. Hmm… I didn’t intend to diss thin bodies in the general sense. I used to have one, and was quite strong then too. 🙂 It was only my reflection on the dynamics in this particular setting, where, to my eye, it appeared that the thin women were struggling to handle the muscle work; and my knowledge of fitness centre culture from many years of past experience means I know women are discouraged from building muscle and strength. I remember a personal trainer chatting with me once and expressing his total bafflement as to why a woman client of his wanted to, as he put it, “get big.” So he spent lots of his time quizzing her and questioning her motives instead of helping her reach her goals. So, apologies if it came across as a more general statement. It was intended more as a critique of how gym culture pressures women to have certain kinds of bodies and not others.

      1. Take a look at Girls Gone Strong for an exciting prospect of where fitness industry could be heading. They really show how strength matters for women. And they have a large following among trainers. So there is hope!

  2. I purposely go to the mirror to avoid look at others. I keep the focus on myself. I try very hard to mind my own business and I assume no one else is bothered to look at me. It’s relieving…and it’s taken me years to let go of the self consciousness.

    Pilates, like yoga, can be one of those sneaky exercises where it looks easy, but can become hard with very tiny shifts. Your back sound like a serious consideration. I teach yoga, but I know I wouldn’t have enough training to modify for you. It’s probably worth discussing that with a good physiotherapist.

    1. That’s definitely my plan! That and endeavouring to assume nobody’s bothered by me. Sounds like a healthy approach. 😉

  3. Speaking only for myself and my own body, I acknowledge that as I’ve been different sizes, I’ve “fit” better or worse in different environments. There’s absolutely an element of being “inside” or “outside” a group. Beyond that social pressure, it’s right that my body moves and responds differently as it has been different sizes and different fitness levels (and as I’ve explored different types of fitness).

    I think it is important for us to explore which of these limitations are *true limits* and which are our perceptions. Both are valid feelings, but our approaches to them may need to be different. Like you, I’ve had serious health issues and there are ways my body responds to activity that are irreparably changed. The constant challenge for me is to suss out which changes are genuinely hard limits and which ones just require that I take a new (often slower) approach.

    Strength in your journey! 💪🏼

    1. I think my many years of chronic pain, after a life of high fitness, taught me a lot about being gentle and slow with my body physically. But most of that has meant going outside fitness centres for my exercise – whether taking specialized classes at a back health clinic, or cycling solo, or doing yoga in a really easygoing and diverse space. I guess the challenge for me right now is in weighing the benefits of a fitness centre specifically versus having to surmount the culture clash each time. I may decide that my emotional energy needs to go toward managing my own reactions in a space I don’t love. But I take it seriously when a space, or the culture of a space, just doesn’t make me feel good. That is not always a thing to surmount; sometimes it’s a thing to simply respect. So I may end up deciding to put that emotional energy into finding spaces that do feel good, where I can get the same or similar benefits. We’ll see where I land… thanks for the good wishes!

      1. I wonder if you would like the feminist cross-fit classes I’ve been doing (east end) — totally focused on strength. They are also extremely good at modifying for each person.

  4. I love the Jewish Community Center gym near me. You don’t have to be Jewish to join, and they have clients with a wide range of ages and body diversity. They even have senior classes that are specifically designed for older/recovering clients. You may want to look at a Jewish Community Center near you.

    1. Haha funny enough this actually was at a JCC. So by all measures probably less toxic than your average Crunch or Monster or whatever, and yet still…

      1. Wow! I’m so sorry that you had that experience at JCC. I found ours to be much less toxic than the average gym. I guess each has their own “gym-rat” culture.

      2. Possibly! Also, though, I live in a fat-positive anti-ableist anti-racist queer feminist bubble. Unlike when I was spending time in fitness centres in my teens and twenties, my tolerance for certain kinds of body-related bullshit is dramatically lower. So this space might be a lot less toxic than some gyms and still be way over my personal line of where I’d feel comfortable and choose to put my money. YMMV!

  5. Andrea, this is the second time I have read this post and I really love how deeply you go into your own presence in your own body. Thank you for sharing your voice. (xcate)

  6. My body is something I’m working hard at accepting. I am strong and muscular and curvy. I have what is considered an “ideal” body at my gym thanks to my “big D” Inbody results. But I still see all these tiny fitness models or the super-lean runners and I struggle to be okay with the fact that I’m bigger than I’d like to be.

  7. Only a tangentially related question — what does ‘CN’ stand for? An Internet search only resulted in unlikely options for definitions.

    1. “content note” or “content notice” to let people know what’s in a post, it’s a note or notice rather than a warning

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