Why I Never Hide My Plus-Size Body At The Gym

Sweaty and exhausted, my spent body traces the steps back to the gym locker room, where my locker houses all of my post-workout belongings: shampoo, slippers, and a moisturizer. I need a good hot shower after spending 60 minutes running on the treadmill (while watching two episodes of Veep).

I peel Spandex, mesh, socks, and underwear away from my body to free my skin from the compression, and then I stand there, fully naked. I stay naked as I traipse to the shower, back to my locker, and while I apply my makeup and blow-dry my hair. I don’t put my clothes back on until I’m ready to leave.

I do this on purpose.

Leaving my clothes as the absolute last step in my get-ready process is a choice I’ve made because I’m a plus-size woman—and plus-size women often do not get the visibility or representation we deserve.

In order to be represented in a way that allows me to be seen as a three-dimensional person (and not the so-called sexless, unattractive, lazy, fat friend), I have to make myself available and vulnerable in the spaces where my body is often not seen. So, I am taking it upon myself to be a walking statement that says my body is perfectly normal.  

Plus-size women often do not get the visibility or representation we deserve.

Body positivity has made its way across social media in the past few years, but we still need to expand our scope of #BodyGoals to include all different kinds of bodies—and their bellies, hips, chests, legs, arms, and thighs. Championing all kinds of bodies allows our brains to recognize and get used to the fact that there is actually more than once acceptable look out there—which you can see when you see me stripping down alongside everyone else in a locker room. It’s like exposure therapy for the masses.

Related: My Size 18 Body Doesn’t Mean I’m Unhealthy

Have you ever encountered a trend that you weren’t really fond of (hello, everything from the ’90s), but over time grew to accept (or even love) because you saw it so often? That is the basic tenant of exposure therapy—expose yourself to something that makes you wildly uncomfortable and eventually that thing becomes normal to you.

Once, I forced myself to wear nothing but sleeveless tops for an entire month just so I could stop hiding my arms behind cardigans during warmer weather. This was one of the best self-care moves I’ve ever done for myself. Basically, expose yourself to all bodies and eventually you’ll start to see their beauty. It’s all about representation.

My body makes people uncomfortable. It jiggles when I run. It has winding curves and a protruding chest and backside. My body can’t just walk into any store and find a perfect fitting pant—because they don’t sell my size. When I sit down my belly sticks out. When I bend over, a soft ripple extends across my sides. When I walk, my chest sways slightly to the rhythm of each step.

I am taking it upon myself to be a walking statement that says my body is perfectly normal.  

But there I am, walking around the gym locker room with the confidence of a woman that’s been told her body has value.

Sometimes I get stares. I wish I was doing something interesting to garner those glances, like jumping up and down or singing at the top of my lunges. Most of the time, I’m just looking for my makeup bag or tying back my hair.

I used to run straight to the bathroom to change the very moment I turned off the shower. I would try to stretch the far-too small gym towel across my body as though I wasn’t allowed to be seen. A belly roll here, a thigh muscle there—constantly behaving like anyone above size 14 had a secret they had to keep under the towel. Everyone else got to gracefully take their time in the nude while checking their phones at their lockers while I found a bathroom to get ready in.

The moment I stopped hiding was the moment I saw another woman in the locker room with a similar body type to mine doing the same thing I was doing: She was gathering all of her belongings and heading to an open stall to change. It was like a silent, common understanding that we should be hiding.

too good not to share 👀 #bodysuit via @forever21plus

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But after seeing that woman hide, I couldn’t abide any longer. Despite what people have been told, my body is a gym body—and it’s important for it to be seen as such so that we continue to recognize all bodies across all spaces.

The lack of plus-size bodies represented in general (movies, ads, fashion, fitness) gives me the extra push I need to make sure my body is seen in locker rooms or running in public spaces or simply being confident.

Am I changing the world? No. We as a society have much larger issues to tackle—no matter how naked I get. But am I making it a better place so that other people feel comfortable and good about their bodies? Yeah, I am.

And if you are the kind of person who silently judges the bodies of others in a seemingly-safe space, I say to you this: Take a good, long look, because this is my body goal.

I Weightlift For My Sanity

The. Weight. Room. Hearing those three words used to immediately transport me into a male-dominated turf riddled with loud grunts, motivational tank tops, and a ton of unnecessary flexing. Not exactly a welcoming visual. I had never actually worked out in a gym weight room for that reason—it never seemed like the right place for me—but all of that changed in the past year. And then, so did my life.

My wellness journey is deeply rooted in the need to feel calm, beyond building my strength and endurance. I’ve always been anxious and I also spend a lot of time managing my depression. I use medication, but I also turn to fitness for its feel-good hormones—I’ve done yoga, running, and swimming. For the longest time, I never felt the need to be ripped or to be able to show how much I could lift, so I never even considered adding lifting to the list of activities that could support my mood.

And because lifting never made sense to me, I kept sequestering myself to those other workouts, or to Cardio Island, where my routine felt safer. On that island there were fewer chances for me to incorrectly use dumbbells or show off my poor deadlift skills.

My wellness journey is deeply rooted in the need to feel calm, beyond building my strength and endurance.

The fear of messing up or really hurting myself took over my thoughts, too. And then off to the treadmill I went, where I could zone out for an entire album or a lengthy podcast episode.

MAKING👏A👏200LBS👏DEADLIFT👏LOOK👏EASY👏

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On top of all of that, I was dealing with minor knee trouble from a previous sports injury. It was seriously getting in the way of my workouts, so I decided to see a trainer for the first time in my life. Maybe she could help me run in a smarter way? I was determined to correct the pain for fear of not being able to run at the gym—I mean, what would I do if I couldn’t do that?

Related: My Size 18 Body Doesn’t Mean I’m Unhealthy

Besides helping my knee, the first thing she did was place a set of eight-pound weights in each palm. She stood before me and mimed the proper way to do bicep curls. I tried to hand them back, explaining that I was only here to help figure out the pain caused by running, but she didn’t back down. She really believed I should be lifting.

One set of 10 reps with eight-pound weights was barely a test. Simple. So I did another set. Not so simple. At that point, everything started to get a little shaky. I couldn’t curl those eight-pound weights after the second set—I really wasn’t as strong as I thought I was!

Honestly, I didn’t like the lifting at first. Mostly because I wasn’t very good at it. I always had to slow down every rep to get the mechanics just right and I got frustrated when I couldn’t find my balance during weighted squats or lunges. I’d get annoyed and then I’d find myself rushing (which only ever leads to pulled muscles).

So, I compressed and iced and elevated my body and went back to training. It was a great lesson, actually. For someone who strived for serenity, I was really putting a lot of pressure on myself to speed through the reps just because I found them to be challenging.

It was a great relief to find something that actually made me feel still, all while watching myself do overhead extensions in a gym mirror.

I kept up with the training and really dived into lifting smarter: That meant no hunching on dumbbell rows, no lazy curls, no swinging my arms to use momentum when the lift got difficult.

Related: There Are Two Types Of Cardio—Here’s Why They Both Matter

Then I started noticing something amazing: I was falling asleep faster—an issue I’ve had trouble with since I was a kid. I was less emotionally reactive at work, and had a generally better attitude throughout the day (I never felt this way when I was running).

Another major benefit? My confidence was boosted. I would walk into work a little taller knowing I was increasing my squat-weight steadily overtime. And as a person who is constantly aware of my own mental health state, it was a great relief to find something that actually made me feel still, all while watching myself do overhead extensions in a gym mirror.

I started with eight-pound weights! I can now deadlift 200 and squat lift 170.

So I stuck with it. I now head to the gym, turn on a podcast, and go through my routine. I treat it almost like a form of therapy. I even track my progress in a tiny notebook, and it’s a real trip to see where I started at and where I am now. Remember: I started with eight-pound weights! I can now deadlift 200 and squat lift 170.

I’m still not in the market for ripped arms and I don’t really want to be able to lift a car (though, that would be pretty cool). I have a lot more autonomy over my range of motion and I’m definitely the person my friends call when they need help moving out of their four-floor walkup.

Related: Shop protein to fuel your next workout.

I breathe easier, sleep better, and find myself more open to trying different workouts because of the chance I took with weightlifting. It’s not going to erase all of my hard days and restless nights, but it makes it a whole lot easier to mentally manage them.

My Size 18 Body Doesn’t Mean I’m Unhealthy

I’ve been an athlete my entire life. I’ve played on varsity sports teams, in travel clubs, through individual programs, and even recreationally. Over half of my closet is dedicated to athleisure. Nonetheless, my athletic career (and my dedication to eating well and staying strong and fit) has always been questioned and overshadowed by my size. I am a size 18.

I’m constantly having to explain my body to people that can’t grasp anything outside of the thin-equals-healthy and fat-equals-unhealthy binary. One time, someone asked a group of people I was sitting with if they wanted to do a group SoulCycle outing. They totally skipped over me because I don’t look like your typical spin class rider (um, I basically live at SoulCycle).

LD-weightliftingAnd my experience isn’t mine alone. The average American woman is a size 16, according to the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education.

So, isn’t it about time we start giving all sizes a seat at the fitness conversation table?

To start with, let’s talk about the word “healthy.” Sure, it’s a word often associated with photos of acai bowls and green smoothies on Instagram, but it’s also  a word that only seems to be attached to people of smaller frames. But healthy doesn’t always mean skinny.

In magazines, bodies like mine are consistently and stereotypically labeled “before” bodies, as if I magically house a skinny person underneath all of my fat. This furthers the myth that plus-size people have given up on their own health, are unmotivated to be healthier, or haven’t set a foot in a gym since it was required of us (ah, high school).

That couldn’t be further from the truth, though—lots of thin and plus-sized people alike worry about and want to care for their bodies in the same ways.

Related: Shop training accessories to make your workout the best it can be.

The only difference is that people are socialized to believe that being thin has more value; we’re taught to see bigger bodies as lazy or incapable of fitness or sport achievements.

The reality is that there isn’t always a correlation between body size and healthfulness. A 2016 study in the Journal of International Journal of Obesity showed that a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI) is not an accurate way to determine a person’s healthfulness. The study found that half of Americans considered overweight by their BMI are actually healthy, while 30 percent of Americans who happen to have an average BMI are actually unhealthy cardiometabolically (which means they have a risk of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke).

Despite this information, size 18 isn’t (at least not yet) considered a healthy size. But my size 18 body is the strongest and fittest it has ever been in my entire life. I can thank the fact that I run, do yoga, and lift weights several times per week for that.

Related: How Parenthood Helped Me Redefine The Meaning Of Fitness

At my smallest size, which was a size 10, I hit a low point. I wasn’t doing any of those things. I was crash dieting, shaming myself out of eating, doing elimination diets, and suffering from disordered eating (which, according to a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, have very high mortality rates, proving thin doesn’t always equal healthy). At this point in my life, I was very depressed and very angry.

LD-hanging bar

Sure, I would get compliment after compliment when I was thinner—which only exacerbated my disordered eating and bad habits (I just wanted to keep feeling valued by my peers), but it was truly an unhealthy way to live.

It’s taken years to undo those effects, but I’m finally at a place with my body where I feed it what it wants and needs with without compromising my sanity to do it. And I take care of it by making it strong. I’ve got to tell you—it’s so much better on this side.

I’m grateful for the many body-positive campaigns we’re seeing lately in the media. They’re expanding public understanding of how a bigger body can be a healthy, fit body. They’re showing that ‘healthy’ has no jean size associated with it.

It’s a step forward in the right direction, and hopefully, all people will eventually realize that size doesn’t determine worth.