Part pep talk, part practical manual, The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise is a manifesto for any “fat girl” who wants to exercise but doesn’t know how to start. Author, movement coach and self-professed “lifelong fat girl” Hanne Blank turns the classic exercise book on its head by emphasizing how exercise makes you feel rather than how it might make you look. There are no weight-loss promises, no detailed plans to follow, just encouraging, often-humorous advice from someone who’s found peace in her plus-size body and hopes others can too.
Books for Better Living: Why did you write this book?
Hanne Blank: I wrote this book because years ago, I wanted a book like this one and there wasn’t one!
We live in a society that has really unforgiving expectations of women’s bodies and really strict agendas for what women do with their bodies. Figuring out that I didn’t have to do it that way, that it really could all be about what made me feel good in my skin, was a very big deal.
It took me a long time to figure out that it was okay if I wanted to move my body and be physically active, even if my body didn’t look like it was “supposed to.” It took me even longer to figure out that I didn’t have to share the priorities I was “supposed to” when it came to why I was physically active or what my goals were, either.
I wrote this book because I wanted to try to shorten that process for other people. Finally getting to a place where you can move your body happily on your own terms for your own reasons, no matter what you look like or how big your butt is, is a fantastic, liberating thing. I want as many other people as possible to find that out for themselves!
BBL: You encourage readers to shift their focus away from appearance and weight loss and let fitness and the joy of movement be their motivation for exercise. Why did you take this approach?
HB: To me it’s just logical. Anybody, no matter what they look like and no matter what size or shape they are, is better off when they feel good in their own skin. When we feel good in our own skins, we tend to feel more empowered, make better decisions, and enjoy our lives a whole lot more.
By contrast, the only thing that is guaranteed to happen if you obsess about your appearance and your weight is that you’ll be obsessed about your appearance and your weight. Obsessing about your appearance or your weight is no guarantee that you’ll ever be happy with either one, no matter what happens with them.
In fact, the more we tend to focus on our appearance and our size, the less satisfied we tend to be — having our bodies seem “good enough” becomes a moving target, and it seems there is always something that isn’t quite right. The further a person is from the slender, unblemished, symmetrical, young, white, able-bodied “good body” ideal, the more of a losing battle this can be and the worse it can feel.
By contrast, it doesn’t matter what you look like, how old you are or what you weigh, you never have anything to lose by focusing on what makes you feel good in your skin. Deep down, we just want to feel good — to feel robust, to feel healthy, to feel energetic, to feel like we can roll with what life dishes out. We all want to feel that physical sense of well-being, that being in your body is a pleasure! If you ask me, it just makes sense to cut to the chase and let that be your focus.
BBL: What kind of response have you gotten to the book so far?
HB: The response has been enthusiastic and really powerful. I get the feeling I have vastly underestimated the number and kinds of people who have issues and worries about exercise and movement, because the variety of people who’ve reached out to me to say “thank you for telling me it’s okay for me to move my body in my own ways for my own reasons” has been pretty remarkable.
It isn’t just fat girls who wrestle with feeling incompetent or clumsy or weak in front of other people. A lot of people say they are relieved to get permission to just do physical activities because they think might be fun, instead of feeling like they’re doing exercise all wrong if they don’t subject themselves to some rigid schedule of calisthenics and stair machines. And I have been very impressed — but not actually surprised — by the number of people, of so many different physical types and shapes and sizes, who have been relieved to know that locker rooms are terrifying for other people too.
My favorite response to the book so far has been the number of people who have told me the book helped them feel safe and encouraged, sometimes for the first time in their lives, in deciding to try adding some kind of movement to their lives on a regular basis just for the sake of their own subjective well-being. I’ve had so many people mention this that I set up a totally free, open-source, opt-in group experiment for this, actually, through my blog — inviting people to spend 100 days this spring with me, adding a new activity to their lives that they’ll do at least every other day for 100 days. I’ll be doing it too! (Here are the details.)
BBL: Besides “buy this book,” what would you say to the person who wants to start exercising but doesn’t know where to start.
HB: I’d say that you don’t have to “exercise.” You are totally entitled to move your body in ways that you think are worthwhile, or that you’re curious about, or that make you feel good. And you should! It is a great thing to do for lots of reasons.
But really, you don’t have to “exercise.” Your body doesn’t care if you think of your physical movement as “exercise” or not, it just cares that physical movement is taking place.
So start by playing around. Every day or every other day, do something that is physical that you like, or at least don’t mind, doing. Whatever it is that moves your body and that you can find at least a little enthusiasm for doing is fine. Walk your dog. Fire up some song you love and dance and sing along. Get your geek on with your WiiFit or Kinect. Maybe you’re an architecture buff and you find it fun to go for walks and look at buildings. Maybe you’re a budding birdwatcher and want to head to the park with the Audubon guide you got for Christmas and see what there is to see.
Or maybe there’s something you want to do for other reasons that happens to be physical, like scrubbing a floor or reorganizing your linen closet. I am a big fan of doing housecleaning as a way to move my body because I love killing two birds with one stone. It makes me feel super efficient.
Perhaps you have social things going on that have physical aspects. Maybe you’ve been thinking it would be good for your career if you learned how to play golf. Or you know you’ll be going to a themed wedding next summer and you want to learn how to swing dance because that’s what they’ll be doing at the reception.
So long as you’re moving your body for a while every day or every other day, you’re doing fine. As you get used to moving your body regularly, you can go ahead and figure out what you might want to do differently, or what other things you might want to try… and they don’t have to be “exercise” either, unless you want them to be.
BBL: You tell readers to focus on what make them feel fierce. What makes you feel fierce?
HB: Some of the things that work for my body, and make me feel physically fierce:
• If I’m at a gym, sustained moderate-paced walking or elliptical trainer time; an hour or a bit more usually feels right.
• Fitball sit-ups! I don’t know why, I just like them. I think it’s because I’m sitting on a ball, and it’s ridiculous and bouncy.
• Singing. I’m a trained classical singer. It’s a workout all its own.
• Urban/suburban walking. I’m not the outdoorsy woodsy type, but give me sidewalks and I’ll walk for hours.
• Swimming backstroke has good childhood memories associated with it, and I can do it forever.
Hanne Blank is a lifelong fat girl and movement coach. A writer and historian, she is the author of six books, including Big Big Love: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them) and has taught at Brandeis and Tufts universities. She divides her time between north central Massachusetts and Atlanta, Georgia.