I never saw the allure of physical activity until I saw an athlete with a physique that resembled my own.
It was at the 2013 United States Sumo Open when the 350-pound Byamba picked up Kelly Gneiting, all 420 pounds of him, and flipped him onto the mat. Time seemed to slow as Kelly went barreling to the ground, and I had a realization. I wanted to do that. I wasn’t going to lose weight — I liked my fat body — but I wanted to harness the strength and power behind the weight.
I wasn’t able to work up the courage to go to the gym until after going to the Sumo Open again the following year. I sheepishly went to a sumo practice in an overheated karate dojo in a Los Angeles suburb. I told myself I was just going to observe the class, and if I was interested, I would go to the gym so I could eventually — maybe — someday take a class.
But at that practice I ended up donning a mawashi, the heavy, 30-foot belt that girds the loins of the wrestler, and immersed myself fully in the class. I participated clumsily in warm-up slides, did the matawari leg splits, and even went head-to-head with a few other athletes. I got my butt kicked and pushed my body to the limits. Practice ended with shiko — the iconic sumo leg lift and stomp. Each of the seemingly infinite number of thunderous steps was punctuated by booming out the count in Japanese.
“ICHI! NI! SAN! SHI!”
At the end of the day, I could barely move and felt as if I was going to die — but I knew I needed to come back. That week, I started going to the gym to get in better shape for sumo practice.
As a fat person, it’s impossible to enter a public space, let alone a gym, without having a narrative that is not your own thrust upon you. Let’s be frank. I’m very, very fat. I spent many years struggling with this fact. I didn’t have a problem with my body, but everyone else did.
It’s not easy loving something about yourself that the rest of the world tells you you’re supposed to hate. The world is less accessible because you simply don’t fit in parts of it, so either you’re supposed to get smaller, or you allow your world to shrink instead.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I broke two chairs watching that sumo tournament. The first was a shock to myself and everyone around me. It was during a lull between matches. I was talking to my husband, there was a loud crash, and suddenly the world was upside-down. Everyone around me was flustered but kind as the twisted carcass of the plastic folding chair was promptly disposed of and another set for me in its place. About 45 minutes later, the new chair also imploded. This time, no one was fazed.
Didn’t Oscar Wilde say to break one chair may be regarded as a misfortune, but to break two looks like carelessness?
It shouldn’t be a surprise that when I started going to the gym, people assumed I was there to reform my wicked ways and lose weight. After my first week there, a muscular, handsome man who had been eyeing me throughout my workout approached me.
“Do you have a minute to talk?” he asked. We were in a gay neighborhood, and I assumed he was cruising me.
“Uh, sure,” I responded shakily.
He told me he was a bariatric surgeon and congratulated me on my efforts.
“You’re doing what I tell all my patients to do. They’re just not willing to put the work in.” He shook his head. “The surgery is barbaric. Most of them don’t end up keeping the weight off. You’re on the right track.”
I sputtered out the easiest response I could muster: “O.K., thanks.”
A few weeks later, an older woman with a therapy dog sat down at the lat pulldown machine next to mine.
“It’s really good that you’re doing something about all that weight,” she said, while inspecting my wide frame from behind her sunglasses.
“Actually, I’m not trying to lose weight,” I explained. “I’m working on strength and stamina so I … But … I should get back to my workout.” I popped my headphones in and started my next set.
I started dreading my workouts. I felt guilty for not living up to the narratives people were creating for me. I imagined their disappointment in not seeing me shrink. Worse, I worried that might invite them to give me the pep talks they thought I so desperately needed.
Like any sport, sumo took an immense amount of dedication and focus. I ended up hurting my back and took some time off. Life got busy, and my workouts dwindled.
But I soon realized that I needed to work out. My body craved the release of endorphins. I decided to commit to a new gym, a trainer and Pilates lessons, posting ironic and gratuitous gym selfies to aid in my transition into a person who enjoyed the gym.
Later, an acquaintance and fellow fat person messaged me. We had met at a Christmas party and commiserated about trying to exist in the world.
“I love seeing your posts from the gym,” he said. “I wish I could do that.”
Now I was that fat person showing others that they could be physical. I had been wishing for invisibility, to be able to navigate the world without narratives being draped upon me. As a very fat person, it’s impossible to simply be a face in the crowd, an extra, or the default. We’re forced to carry other people’s narratives — whether it be the good fatty who goes to the gym to lose weight, or the bad fatty who doesn’t go to the gym at all. But, he had put a narrative on me, just as I had put a narrative on Byamba and Kelly — the narrative of the hero.
Some of the comments at the gym made me uncomfortable because people were placing me on a pedestal, but maybe it’s not a bad place to be.
With Pilates, I’ve traded my mawashi for spandex leggings and tightfitting shirts in eight shades of black. I’ve acquired the balance gifted only to God’s largest creatures, as I pull my body weight on the moving platform of the rolling Pilates equipment. My body is on full display through the glass panels of the studio, and when I catch the occasional glance, it doesn’t matter what the narrative is. I’ve found my own.
Trevor Kezon lives in West Hollywood and does his writing seated on sturdy chairs.
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