There was a time in my life, not that long ago, that this tweet was my worst nightmare. The idea that a stranger might look at me and think — or even worse, say out loud, that I was fat — filled me with absolute terror. It frightened me so much that it controlled a lot of what I did, and didn’t, do.
Nowhere was this more the case than when it came to physical activity. I’m sure many fat folk reading this might have experienced what is perhaps the most ironic side-effect of being overweight: feeling too conspicuous to exercise. That voice inside your head that tells you the minute you walk outside in trainers and yoga-pants someone is going to point at you and shout “give up honey it’s clearly not working!”. This fear kept me from trying all kinds of activity from my mid-teenage years to early adulthood — in which time I managed to convince myself that even if I did want to exercise, I probably wouldn’t be able to anymore.
All of this is bullshit, of course. But we’ll get to that later.
For now, what’s important to know is that a fear of being judged for being fat is one of the things that kept me from trying out cycling for so long. Partly that fear was about actually not being capable of doing it: what if I was too heavy? What if I got too puffed? What if I couldn’t make it up a hill (spoiler alert: I often can’t make it up a hill)? I’d spent so long listening to society tell me that fat bodies were incapable that I believed it of myself, even though I’d never even really tried.
But a big part of that fear came from the fact that going out for a bike ride felt like I was putting all of my vulnerabilities and insecurities on show and asking for feedback. Cycling and weight-loss are so often portrayed as being two sides of the same coin. The Prime Minister talks about it. The NHS talks about it. The cycling community talks about it. Everywhere you look, cycling is being portrayed as the cure for obesity we’ve all been waiting for. As a fat person, that just made the decision to get on a bike all the more difficult — because all of these messages make riding a bike as a fat person mean a whole lot more than for others.
For me, riding a bike was never about losing weight. It was about maintaining independence and agency through lockdown. It was about exploring my city. It was about feeling closer with my partner (Leeann got that part right!). But whenever I thought about getting a bike, the first thought that went through my mind was “will everyone just think I’m trying to lose weight, and failing?”.
This is where we get back to the “all of this being bullshit” part.
I was 25 years old when I first worked up the courage to put my body to the test and give exercise a go. I’d just watched the new Tomb Raider film and fell in love with the strength and resilience of Alicia Vikander’s character. From cycling to boxing to rock-climbing — she was ever capable and I wanted my body to be that capable to.
So I signed up for ClassPass. My plan was to try out as many different exercise classes as I could in one weekend and see if there were any I could actually do. If there was, I’d keep the subscription. The most crucial element of my plan was the fact that the weekend I had chosen to trial the subscription was one in which both my boyfriend and all of my housemates were away. I was so ashamed of the fact that I was trying to use my fat body that I didn’t want anyone to know what I had planned.
So I tried out yoga, and reformer pilates, and the gym. I went swimming, rock-climbing and dancing. I tried barre, weight training and spin classes. Soon enough I was going to classes three times a week, dragging my boyfriend and my friends along with me. My body was capable of more than I ever imagined. I felt joyous, energised, and free. I got stronger. I got fitter. I got braver. But it was what I didn’t get that surprised me the most: I didn’t get any smaller.
For all those years I was too afraid to exercise, I carried an assumption around with me. That assumption was that as soon as I did start exercising, as soon as I embraced the physical activity I’d been afraid of for so long, I would immediately lose the weight. I believed that the only reason I was fat was because I was lazy. But as the weeks, then months, then years of regular intense exercise went by I realised that it was never going to make a difference to the way I looked.
This, also, probably won’t come as a surprise to any of the fat people reading this. Because one of the first things you get taught as a fat person trying to lose weight is that you can’t out exercise a bad diet. So I started measuring everything I put into my body, making sure I never had more than 1200 calories a day. And I kept exercising, keeping up those three classes a week. And no matter what I did, my weight just kept going up.
It was about this time that the tweet at the start of this story would have destroyed me. It was also about this time that I bought a bike.
Everytime I got my bike out I worked to silence that voice that told me I was too big to ride. I ignored the fear that people would look at me and laugh. I set aside my worries that other cyclists would tell me I wasn’t one of them. I focused on keeping my balance, building my confidence, and discovering my city.
Soon I started cycling more and more. I was going 6, 10, 12 miles away from my home with ease. I was doing the thing that I never thought I’d be capable. I was making new friends and going on adventures and navigating challenging traffic and I was doing it all with my own fat body. I learned that my body was so much more capable than I’d ever thought it could be just as it was.
That’s when my perspective shifted. Instead of thinking about what my body looked like, I focused on what I could do with it and I asked myself: is there anything you want to do right now that your body is holding you back from? The answer was no. Right now I weigh 220 pounds, I’m a size 18, I’m by far the biggest I’ve ever been and bigger than I ever wanted to be. But I’m also using my body to do so much more than I ever imagined. I can cycle. I can run. I can swim. I can deadlift. I can rock-climb. And I love my body for that far more than I could ever resent it for being fat.
And now I make sure I never talk about cycling like it’s a tool for weight-loss — because it’s not. But it will make you stronger. It will make you braver. It will make you appreciate your body and it will make you realise that fat bodies are capable of so much more than what is expected of us.
I love my bike. I love my body. The two of them together are capable of so much.