I once found myself jogging on a treadmill next to James McAvoy. While that in itself should be the anecdote, there's another moment from that starry sweat session that dominates the memory. It's how, while happily running, a staff member sidled up to me and said, with a knowing smile, "So, are you here to lose weight or tone up? Or both?"
I was thrown. What I should have replied was, "Neither, my friend. Last weekend, I ran a half-marathon for the first time ever and I am healthy, powerful and fit." But I didn't. Instead, unsettled by the suggestion that my appearance was something that he felt needed changing and reducing, I mumbled back, "I don't know – both, maybe; I'm just here to run..." I trailed off, he moved on and, despite going into the gym feeling strong, I left feeling crushed.
(Incidentally, James McAvoy did not get asked the same question.)
That was 2012. A lot has happened since then that's nurtured my confidence, including running three marathons; plenty of self-help to resolve some food and body-image demons; the rise of the body-positivity movement; plus a career that's now largely spent writing about health and wellbeing.
So, when I recently found myself having a similar conversation in the gym, I didn't feel freaked out – this time, it was everyone else who was outraged on my behalf.
Here's what happened: offered a place by Virgin Active to run the London Marathon this year, I was kindly given a few sessions with a personal trainer to help me get race-ready. Enter Ray, a lean and speedy multi-marathoner, with a charming tendency toward clowning, who takes fitness seriously, but never so seriously that we couldn't have a laugh at 7.30am.
But, during the initial assessment, while showing off my running form on the treadmill and talking about my marathon goals, he said to me, "If you want to lose a little bit of weight, you may run faster." For a moment, I heard past demons whisper. Was he saying this as a result of watching my stomach jiggle as my steps pounded the machine, or at the sight of my thighs wobbling with the exertion? No, he wasn't. He was saying it as an athlete – sharing expertise, sharing a viewpoint. And, this time, I didn't internalise my thoughts. "I'd rather not concentrate on weight loss and diet stuff, if that's OK," I said. "It tends to make me go haywire." ("Haywire" being my euphemism for the mental-health ménage à trois of bingeing, restricting and obsessing.)
"OK," he said. And that was that. On we moved to performance, core work, strength building and training plans – I left feeling focused and excited. Except that when I regaled the successes of my first session, everyone kept honing in on the weight comment. "How rude," one said, "you really don't need to." "You're not fat!" consoled another. My loyal friends, kind and supportive, sought to defend me from criticism. Except that I didn't need consoling – because I wasn't offended.
"Fat" as a word, and the implication, is so wound up in judgement and negativity that it's hard to think about it unemotionally. It's what fat activists have been fighting for for years; it's what the body-positive movement is working so damn hard to defeat. Yes, I do have some fat on me – that's being factual, just like I'm blonde and short. We need to look at it as a neutral state, not as an indication of our worth or attractiveness or personality. During my assessment, it was also observed that my lunges could be improved and my glutes were weak – but no one tried to counsel me after hearing my hip flexors were tight. Isn't that a criticism, too?
We need to expand the language we use about exercise, widen the perimeters to allow options such as ‘enjoyment’, ‘relaxation’, ‘socialising’ and ‘stress relief’
I took this discussion back to Ray, throwing out some questions during a rest between interval sprints. Most people come to the gym and see him to "lose weight or tone up”, he said. My main motivation – to be a better runner – seemed anomalous with the majority of gym goers. And I get that – it's a gym after all; there's nothing wrong with trying to lose weight and tone up if that's what you want. But I can't help but wonder if that's because women are rarely given any other options. Exercise brings you confidence, makes you feel strong, it releases endorphins that boost your mood and can alleviate stress, anxiety and depression. Why has no one asked me if I'm there for my mental health? What does it always have to be about appearance?
We need to expand the language we use about exercise, widen the perimeters to allow options such as "enjoyment", "relaxation", "socialising" and "stress relief" to jostle alongside "weight loss" and "toning up", which are currently taking up too much space. That's why campaigns such as This Girl Can are important – they show that fitness is about so much more than how we look; it's about feeling good about ourselves, achieving something, celebrating our bodies, not punishing them.
Over the weeks, as the marathon drew nearer, Ray and I could often be found philosophising between rounds of deadlifts, weights and lunges, discussing the technicalities of fitness, the psychological hurdles and the tactics to stay strong. Since that first session, my weight hasn’t been mentioned, he hasn’t asked what I've eaten, we just kept on working on my form and technique, slowly but surely building up my fitness.
Focusing on performance, not weight loss, helps motivate the sessions far more for me. I'm not at war with my body to change it – I'm there to appreciate its ability and potential. And, yes, maybe I would run faster if I weighed less, but you know what, at this moment, I'm really OK with not thinking about weight at all right now.