The Intersectional Athlete

Losing weight was the most clichéd New Year’s resolution, as Suzanne was painfully aware. Every December, the advertisements on the Internet and radio bombarded her senses with “beach bodies,” diet pills, and gym membership promotions. She was friends with a couple gym rats on social media, and they loved posting memes full of mock dread and disdain for “resolutionists.” Her family and friends back home would have laughed at this “metropolitan silliness.”

Well, the ads finally got to her. Here she was, standing in the lobby of the local gym, new membership card in hand. She preferred to think of it as the desire to do right finally triumphing over personal pride.

Growing up, Suzanne never exactly thought of herself as fat. Food had always played a central role in happy, heartwarming events. It was a way for family and friends to share, connect, and bond. Everyone she knew had more or less the same body type.

When she went to college in the city, she learned a great deal more about health and nutrition—and that this was, in fact, not a normal lifestyle for everyone else. Admittedly, she was in denial at first, but she came to appreciate the eye-opening experience. She knew she had to make some changes, at least for her own sake. If she could help others, that would be even better.

But it was all too easy to revert to old habits once she settled back home. Back where food was love, and her worldly city friends were no longer around to tell her otherwise.

She affixed the membership card to her keychain and tried to appear confident as she strode down the steps to the gym proper. New year, new you! Having moved over a thousand miles away to this bustling city just a month ago for an exciting career change, she figured this was as good a time as any to try to get in shape, too. She wasn’t exactly sure where or how to start, but simply showing up was already an achievement, right?

The room full of cardio machines had three people in it: a woman about her age running on a treadmill, an older woman idly pedaling on a stationary bike while reading a book, and an elderly man wheezing as he climbed the Stairmaster. There was only one person in the weight room, but he looked extremely muscular and intimidating, and Suzanne didn’t want to be alone with him. There was a pool, but she didn’t bother checking it out since she didn’t know how to swim.

She returned to the first room, stepped onto a treadmill, and started jogging. The gym was playing a surprisingly enjoyable playlist of dance music that made her feel energized and excited to work out. As the song built up, she increased the machine’s speed to six miles per hour. This isn’t so bad, she thought. I just have to push myself to come here and do this for half an hour, every other day. If I eat a little less for each meal and cut out sugary drinks, that should be enough to lose weight slowly but steadily, without feeling like I’m on some crazy starvation regime.

Her optimism faded quickly as she felt herself getting tired before the same song was even over. She looked at the distance tracker in dismay: 0.27 miles. That’s it? It took all the willpower she could muster to get that number up to 0.50 before she let herself lower the speed to a power walk. After two minutes of this, she pumped it back up to 6 mph, and continued this cycle until twenty minutes had elapsed. Then she walked slowly for five minutes, turned the thing off, and headed for the water fountain. The calorie counter read 151 burned—less than a can of soda.

She was disappointed, but also feeling dangerously light-headed. It’s probably best not to push myself too hard the first day, anyway, she told herself as she gulped down the water gratefully.

When she straightened up and turned around, she saw the other young woman who was on the treadmill before.

“Hey, you new here?” the woman asked. She looked incredibly fit and beautiful—in very different ways from the people with whom Suzanne had grown up—and Suzanne couldn’t help but admire her. She had been running much faster than 6 mph when Suzanne was doing her little tour of the place, and she had kept it up throughout the twenty-five minutes of Suzanne’s own workout. That must have been at least four miles.

“Yes,” she answered, extending her hand. “I’m Suzanne.”

“Carla. You haven’t done much running before, have you?”

Suzanne felt slightly embarrassed, but tried to laugh it off. “Is it that obvious? I’m pretty new to working out in general.”

“You weren’t able to maintain a good pace. At first I thought maybe you were recovering from an injury, but your form wasn’t the best, either. You know, a doctor friend of mine said he loves how running’s getting to be such a fad nowadays, because most people don’t do it right and it winds up bringing him more patient visits.”

“I had no idea!” Maybe it wasn’t so bad that someone had been watching her, after all. She would definitely need to be more conscientious of form.

“It’s really important to get proper running shoes,” Carla added. “They’ll save you money in the long run from potential medical issues.”

“Thanks for the tip.” She was about to go to a nearby chair to take a breather, but Carla had more to say.

“Are you going to hit the weight room, too?”

Suzanne laughed again, this time at the sheer absurdity of trying to lift anything in her current state. “No, I think I’ll be heading home soon. I just need to sit for a bit.”

Carla frowned. “It’s really important to do weight training. You need to build calorie-burning muscle for real, lasting improvements to your metabolism and overall fitness. Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and a number of other exercises to strengthen your stabilizer muscles. Doing cardio alone won’t cut it.”

“Wow, that’s a lot of stuff! I’ll try to remember to look it all up when I get home.”

“Fat people.”

“Excuse me?” Suzanne asked.

“I’m getting real sick and tired of having to explain shit to fat people all the time.”

“But this is the first time we’ve met.”

Carla didn’t seem to hear her. “Swimming would be better cardio than running, in any case.”

“I don’t know how to swim.” Suzanne was starting to get annoyed. She really wanted to sit down now.

“Really? All that privilege, and you can’t swim?”

“What do you mean? My family didn’t have a pool or anything. Excuse me, I need t—”

“Ugh, just check your privilege, okay? What did you think, that you deserved a pat on the back merely for showing up here today? You have to run, swim, and join the weekly spin class they offer here. Do squats, deadlifts, bench presses, shoulder presses, overhead presses, lunges, rows, lateral raises, calf raises, bicep curls, chin-ups, pull-ups, push-ups, dips, planks, and skull-crushers. It’d be good to join a yoga class or two in your spare time, but not so many as to border on cultural misappropriation. Got that? Otherwise, don’t even bother trying to get in shape. Either you’re in it to win it, or you’re not.”

Then everything went black.

When Suzanne woke up, a gym employee was cradling her head and calling her name. Carla was nowhere to be seen. “I’m fine, thanks,” she mumbled and stood up shakily.

She thought about Carla’s rant all the way home and the rest of the evening. At first she was grateful for the advice, but it became way too much too soon. The woman seemed to have some good points, but why did she have to be so aggressive and condescending? This was all new to Suzanne. What did she mean about privilege, anyway? She was the fit and beautiful one who could effortlessly run at least four miles in one go, and still have energy afterward for weightlifting. Wasn’t Carla the privileged one?

Suzanne definitely wanted to learn and improve, but after today’s hostile encounter, she wasn’t so sure this was the right thing to do anymore. Maybe it was better just to stay the way she was and focus on her new job and surroundings, instead.

The following year, a man whose only qualification was “telling it like it is” declared his candidacy for a national leadership position. When he claimed to “call out fat-phobic sentiment for what it was,” Suzanne listened with uplifted spirits and voted for him.

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