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huffing and puffing

June 9, 2008

A few weeks ago I took my sister and a few of her friends to the natural history museum. It was Sunday and crowded so we ended up having to park on the lowest level on the underground parking garage. Not really a big deal. So we park and I herd the tweens towards the elevators where I noticed a suspiciously large crowd of people waiting. Even though it was already lit up, I made sure to press the up arrow button just in case no one else had done it right. Then we waited…. Nothing. A newcomer pushed the button again – totally annoying, didn’t he know that I’d already done it? And still nothing. Oh well, not a big deal I figured and announced to the girls that we would be taking the stairs. There was some whining, but as I’m very bad at waiting and feel a bit ridiculous waiting for an elevator for twice as long as it would take me to get up the stairs, I ignored them.

I feel like I’m taking too long to get to the point.

Ends up that I had driven down further than I thought and instead of climbing a few flights of stairs, it was about five. Suck. By the time we got to the top I was doing that weird little gasping breath thingy that I do when I’m winded but trying to hide it (I’ve honestly tried to stop doing this, but it’s almost involuntary at this point – I literally don’t know how to breathe normally at times.) The girls were complaining, but not out of breath or red-faced. It took me the walk from the top of the stairs to the front desk (about a minute or so) to breathe normally again.

I was thinking about this today while reading the open thread on “Kung Fu Panda” at Shapely Prose. I was musing on how we as a society talk about fitness. How we define it and where we start our comparisons. Then I clicked on a link to an excellent post by Melissa at Shakespeare’s Sister. It’s a fabulous example of examining the subtle ways in which privilege can make even the best of allies completely oblivious to some of the subtleties of sizism. One line kind of brought me up short though:

If a film wants to be about fat, then it should make some effort to reflect the reality of being fat, the commonality of experience among fat people—which, btw, doesn’t include getting winded on stairs.

Now before anyone starts warming up their angry keyboard fingers, I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT MELISSA WAS SAYING. I do NOT think that she was putting down those fatties who do get winded going up stairs. I get the difference between rejecting stereotypes and putting down people who reflect some of those stereotypes.

It did needle me in a personal way though because I get frustrated at times. In many ways, I know I reflect the ‘good fatty’ stereotype. I’m vegan. I honestly love going to the gym and working out. All my medical numbers are good. I enjoy good health and I’m not above smooshing that all over fat-haters faces.

And yet, I get winded going up the stairs. I find myself taking twice as long to acheive the same fitness goals as people who are smaller than me – even when they are less active. I find myself hitting a lot of fitness plateaus and taking months and months to inch past them while past workout buddies seem to race from goal to goal.

Maybe part of the reason I’m not particularly bothered by watching a fat panda struggle up the stairs is that I see my experience in my fat body reflected in that.

And I wonder about the commonality of fat experience when my experience is so full of feeling winded and trying to hide it. Of lagging behind. Of not being able to catch up.

Part of me is philosophical. I’m 5’5″ and 250lbs. I need more oxygen to get up five flights of stairs. I’m naturally pretty strong and definitely can lift more weight than most women I know. But part of me still feels inadequate at times and longs to being able to run a 10 minute mile or jog up several flights of stairs without gasping.

I’m not sure this post has a point other than maybe me feeling like part of my new totally honest approach to FA has to include the ways I sometimes feel limited in my body. Maybe not limited…it might be more accurate to say that I think my instinct has been to always accentuate the ways in which I defy stereotypes, but now I also think I need to embrace the ways I embody them. Because so long as I don’t, they’ll have power to shame and frustrate me. And now, some of that power may lessen.

Also, it may help people to know they’re not alone and that there is nothing to feel bad about if they feel like they don’t ‘represent’ fat people well.

There was a girl I knew in college. We sort of kinda dated maybe a bit. Anyway, I introduced her to the concept of HAES and, in general, to the fat acceptance movement. She was very excited by the ideas and even decided to go to a meeting of a fat rights group on campus. When she showed up, she was told that there was some kind of mix up with the rooms so they would have to meet in another building. Up a flight of stairs, then outside up a hill, then up another flight of stairs. Everyone at the meeting was much smaller than her and, by her account, none of them seemed to struggle with the stairs or hill at all. But she did and by the time she was at the bottom of the last staircase, they were all seated and had begun. She went home.

It’s not a real fatties vs not-so-fatties or fit fatties vs sedentary fatties, but I wonder as I read the different reactions to this movie if we have less universal commonality and more separate sets of commonalities that sometimes overlap.


  1. integgy permalink
    June 10, 2008 12:59 am

    I can certainly understand where you’re coming from with the idea of so many different views on the fatosphere, with only a few similarities. People tend to want to get into groupthink when it comes to movements. If you are a part of a movement, you have to think this way, or else you’re not really a part. But what I think we tend to forget is that everyone is different, so while we may agree on some issues, we also tend to form many different sides, and see things differently, because of how our own unique experiences color our judgments and thoughts.

    Don’t know if this really makes much sense in the end, but I hope I didn’t throw too much wordvomit in there, as I tend to.

  2. MrsDrC permalink
    June 10, 2008 8:55 am

    I’m totally with you on this. Like integgy said, we are just different so we have differences even with a common goal. Isnt FA about “I’m different, and it’s ok”? For me it is. I think what really draws us all together is a respect for each other.

  3. viv permalink
    June 10, 2008 10:35 am

    Great post. Yes, everyone has different experiences and yes it’s ok to be a stereotype. Don’t let others control what is deemed ok or not.

    Huffing up the stairs is part of many people’s experience, thin or fat. You don’t think about it when you are thin because it’s not a stereotype for a thin person. Huffing up the stairs as in other things is neither good or bad if you are a healthy person.

    There are certain aspects to being bigger that is unavoidable and that is a reality. But we shouldn’t put a good or bad label to it, it just is the way it is.

  4. June 10, 2008 11:28 am

    Bless you for writing this. All through growing up I was known as the “Pokey Little Puppy” in the family. Always chubby, always lagging behind on any walks or bike-rides we took, always needing to stop for a rest. It was blamed on me reading too much and not running around outside as often as my thinner brother.

    Even now though, when I walk 4 days a week up a huge hill, swim laps twice a week and bellydance at least 1 hour each week; I still get winded going upstairs. My heart beats a bit faster, my mouth opens wide and tries to draw more air. I have to remember that this doesn’t mean I’m less fit than someone who doesn’t pant going uphill…and this was a nice and friendly reminder for me today that everyone, irregardless of size, is different! So thank you.

    Now I really have to go watch that Panda movie! 😀

  5. redblossom permalink
    June 15, 2008 10:06 pm

    As near as I can figure it, the huffiness one experiences climbing up stairs is inversely proportional to the hours one spends training on an incline. I see everyone get winded on stairs, regardless of size (except kids. Apparently, they are exempt from fatigue in almost all activities), from my super-in-shape college athlete cousins to my couch potato hubby. The only people I know who can take stairs are my mother, who is a step aerobics machine, and my brother, who is a fat man who walks everywhere and thus has ample practice going up hills, stairs, etc.

    You know, mentally I include FA in my view of the progressive movement in general because I see the same type of embracing of diversity, the same respect for the individuals that comprise the movement. There are really similar issues in reaching consensus and in keeping everyone accountable for their own privilege blinders, but above all, there is the conviction that diversity can only strengthen the movement…gah, I hate being so inarticulate. But I’m trying to say that I value your sharing personal experiences. FA peeps aren’t any more a monolith than any other group of folks within any movement. It’s important to hear everyone’s voice.

  6. pennylane permalink
    June 17, 2008 12:11 pm

    I think *all* our bodies have limitations, most of which are highly frustrating–fat or not. I’d love to be a fast runner but I have stumpy legs. And I’d love to be able to do the splits (you’d think it would be easier on these short stems). But I also put on muscle like nobody’s business. So you win some, you lose some. And the stairs thing–I completely agree that it is a particular kind of fitness. I have an office on the fourth floor and my college students huff and puff for several minutes after climbing up the stairs. Even my figure skating 20-year old student. And I recall being totally winded the first time I picked up swimming again even though I was running 40-50 miles a week at the time so I was no cardio slouch.

    I totally do the “hidden huffing/puffing” on stairs!

  7. June 18, 2008 9:44 pm

    Coincidentally, I’m 5’5″ and 250 lb too. And I lose my breath on more than one flight of stairs. I even lose my breath on one flight of stairs, if I’m sick, I’ve noticed. Anyway, great post.

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