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Fat shaming prevents many from participating in fitness activities

Overweight people often do not feel welcome in the fitness sector. It's hard to find suitable athletic gear, and even sports professionals don't always know how to guide larger individuals.

Taru Mänttäri instructs an XXL dance class. Image: Emilia Korpela / Yle
Yle News

Taru Mänttäri recalls a dance class where the participants had to perform the splits, then jump back out of the position. Mänttäri attempted the move, without success.

"With my weight, I can't do it. The instructor made me practice the move, separate from the rest of the group, convinced that my attitude was preventing me from doing it. Holding back tears, I bit my lip and thought, I’ll show her how hard I’m working," says Mänttäri.

Mänttäri is a Finnish social media influencer who talks about fat shaming and body positivity. She is overweight but doesn’t let this detract from the joy of exercise. While practicing dance as a hobby, however, she has encountered several obstacles stemming from her weight.

Even sports professionals don’t always know how to guide a larger person, even though more and more people of working age are overweight.

Mänttäri’s experiences are not unique to her. Society is still plagued by fat shaming, which persuades larger people to stay away from gyms and swimming pools.

Obesity researcher: "Obesity must not be visible"

Social media influencer and dance instructor Taru Mänttäri. Image: Emilia Korpela / Yle

Mänttäri has been dancing for years. Dancing is a way for her to express herself and it also makes her feel good about her own body.

The hobby requires a strong sense of self, as Mänttäri is often the only overweight dancer on stage.

"When we were performing, I noticed that my presence stood out to the audience. People often come up and gush that it’s so great to have a bigger person on stage," says Mänttäri.

The comment may seem innocent to many. When she was younger, Mänttäri also believed in its innocence. But the praise contains a message of fat shaming: The obese should not be dancing on stage. It is something strange to behold.

Mänttäri explains the insidiousness of the comment: In the gym, for example, it would be considered inappropriate to go up to praise someone who was fit, telling her that it’s great that she feels included. Why would the contrary be acceptable?

According to Mänttäri, weight does not prevent movement, as long as everyone is allowed to work out according to the capabilities of their own body.

"I don’t want to say that someone’s weight limits them, but of course it slows down movement. Our moves might not be so forceful. And, if you think about yoga, your weight might limit your ability to get into all the postures," says Mänttäri.

Although Mänttäri has always tried her best, it isn’t always enough. Once, she was unable to join a dance group because she couldn’t find an outfit in her size. Her dance skills were sufficient.

Mänttäri's experiences are also familiar to Hannele Harjunen, an obesity researcher at the University of Jyväskylä. She has heard the experiences of thousands of people regarding exercise.

The data shows how society builds barriers to prevent exercise for the obese: they are not taken into consideration in terms of guidance, and they are not even offered clothes or sports equipment. In sports ads, only the fittest athletes are featured. If an overweight person decides to defy the stereotypes, they may even be ridiculed.

"The feeling is that obese people are not allowed to participate. They may face mean comments, laughter or harassment from others. In some of the worst cases, professionals have expressed contempt or even mocked them," says Harjunen.

Is it any wonder that many overweight people dread the idea of going to the gym or the swimming pool?

Overweight people thought to be lazy and immoral

Many people subconsciously think obesity is the reflection of a person’s inner self. According to Harjunen, obesity is a stigma that characterizes people many times over.

"It is determined that this kind of appearance is abnormal and deduced that the causes stem from one’s inner self. Obesity is not considered just one trait but something deeper – an indication of making the wrong choices, being lazy or lacking self-control, even being morally deviant," explains Harjunen.

The overwhelming stigma is the reason overweight people don’t feel welcome to exercise. Harjunen considers it especially important for fitness and health professionals to be aware of this and receive training for their encounters with overweight people. Fitness professionals play a large part in how we define and articulate obesity and can equally influence how it is regarded.

"These sectors mainly approach the obese body as something to fix or even erase. Obesity is like an intermediary space that people must constantly strive to get out of. Instead, it might be worth considering how an obese person could be at their healthiest without the need to constantly lose weight," says Harjunen.

According to international studies, exercise instructors have the most negative attitudes towards the obese, even though they should be the ones creating a safe space to exercise.

For most fitness instructors, exercise has always been easy and fun and an important part of life. They may find it difficult to understand people with negative thoughts and experiences associated with exercise.

"It's not necessarily conscious ill will. In fact, many want for all people to be able to come and move. But as long as nothing is done about these attitudes, or the problem isn’t even identified, the end result is the opposite," says Harjunen.

Dance lessons for the overweight remind us that the world is not perfect

Mänttäri now heads up the XXL dance class, which is intended for women with a body mass index over 30. The purpose of the class is to create a safe space where no one has to fear being ridiculed or scrutinised.

A song blares from the speakers. In the ballroom, people pose to the beat of the music. The atmosphere is relaxed and the dancers move around the room with flushed cheeks.

The instructor does not drone on about burning calories but talks about the joy of exercise. Everyone gets to have their own reason for coming to class. And by no means is anyone allowed to comment on anyone else’s appearance.

Classes for the overweight are a lifesaver for many. At the same time, they are a reminder that the world is not perfect.

Some companies have realised that there are a lot of larger people who want to exercise. Increasingly more sportswear is available in plus sizes. Still, no relief can be expected from the market economy.

Many activists spread the message of body positivity, but obesity is still not seen as acceptable. Fat shaming is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we need to fight it with force, says Harjunen.

According to Harjunen, more discourse is needed about diet culture and more training required in the fields of fitness and healthcare. The media should also look at content more self-critically.

"We have TV genres that turn obese people into a spectacle. A transformation into something different is considered entertainment," Harjunen says.

Mänttäri also hopes that sports clubs and coaches will be involved in the change. They should make sure that people of all sizes have the same opportunities to advance in sports, and that these people are allowed visibility.

"I wouldn't want to separate overweight clients from others. I would like everyone to be in every dance class. That kind of world would be nice," she says.

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