Big, Bigger, Best

by Yolanda D. White A group of athletes runs competitively and proudly to a slogan that strikes a familiar chord with me because of my rather “full-ish” figure. You don’t have to be thin to be fit. This group is Team Clydesdale USA, and they gallop to this mantra via a weight class that specifically recognizes big, heavyweight people who race – not fat people (though of course they’re not excluded) – but big. The men are the Clydesdales, and the women, Athenas. The dictionary defines a Clydesdale as a heavy, powerful breed of carthorse, originally from Scotland. Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom, strategy, and war, and she’s even more powerful than Zeus. I am not directly of Greek descent, nor a native of Scotland. Yet I am a generously proportioned, strong, cunning woman. I have never really been too concerned with this fact. Not, that is, until I realized that my sizeability was getting the best of me, and I decided to take an aerobics class. “‘Big whoop,” some of you are thinking. But it is, after being gawked at while all of me was jogging around the track at Bally’s, or being visually devoured while sweating over a squeaky treadmill at the King Center. I’d even sworn that all gyms were evil. Nevertheless, after I dropped my daughter off at Day Camp at the Y one morning, I walked back to my cheap, white Geo Tracker and almost got in it. But some force, some power – maybe it was the sweat and heat resonating from the friction of my thighs rubbing together – led me back into that central city Y. I walked up to the information desk and told the woman sitting there, “I want to take a class from a woman who looks just like me.” She paused for a moment, sizing me up, stopping drastically at the area of my hips and — how shall I say it — my posterior region. She shook her head slowly, dramatically as if a “nah ugh,” would erupt from her mouth. “We don’t have anybody here that looks like you,” she laughed. Now, ordinarily, I might have been offended by her remarks, but she was, in all of her own fleshiness and sizability, rather funny. I didn’t have a plan for what to say next, but I should have, because she certainly did. “You could teach one,” she followed, minus the laughter. Caprice (her last name, though important to me, escapes me now) sent me straight over to the head-fit-guy in charge. I shared with him my concerns about the fact that women want to relate to someone “real” in the gym and be guided by someone who is a “sister in the size struggle.” I also stressed that most women teaching those classes looked strikingly different from the women participating in them. He bought it, and I was hired. He promised that I would be trained in the art of group exercise instruction, personal training, and coaching, and he guaranteed that one day I’d be able to teach classes myself. I had wild ideas of chasing a Suzanne Sommers-like woman from the front of my class, yelling, “Move over bacon, now for something meatier.” I’d make room for a more deserving, Rubenesque exercise diva – me. But that wouldn’t happen right away. As with all jobs, there are some things that take time and patience. The truth was that after arduous Y-instructor training and CPR certifications, I’d first have to learn how to motivate individuals as a personal fitness coach. This scared the bejesus out of me, as I kept thinking, “Who on God’s green earth would take advice from me?” Any description of my build tips the scale, and not in my favor. My measurements don’t fit easily into any song. My “brick house” figure is around 38-30-51… you get my drift. At 5’10, I was a pear — a figure eight, a triangle — not exactly Jazzercise material. But I was a natural teacher, helper, and self-esteem builder. And though I hadn’t planned on doing it, I knew I could. After all, I had been working out at home to Reebok step guru Gin Miller, and sweating profusely with the ladies of The Firm. Moreover, Billy Blanks and I had developed quite the working relationship. When I started working with members at the Y, I think the term for them was the “ready to be fit” population. What I immediately noticed was that, women, no matter what their size, are extremely hard on themselves. They invent things not to like about themselves, and they hold onto these thoughts. So, some of my job was helping women “get real” about their current states of fitness. Part of that was simply motivating women to show up at the gym. I understood their feelings — of coming to a gym to work on yourself, only to feel you are being sized up by some gym schematic that really doesn’t exist. Overcoming fears, paranoia, and internal battles were experiences that I shared with these members. Once that hurdle was jumped, the other hurdles were more do-able. Because I worked out at the Y, too, I got to know women personally. Women of all sizes would ask for advice, on and off the clock. At my fittest, I was defined, toned and, well, still big. Yet, women would see this “Clydesdale-Athena” trotting around the track and stop in theirs. They noticed that I didn’t have the body of a cross-country runner but I can run, like Forrest Gump ran out of his braces, and I ran. I hope to participate with Team Clydesdale in an upcoming marathon in Indianapolis later this year. I may be ready, I may not, but I am going to try. If I don’t succeed, it won’t be because I was too heavy, too thick, or too big; it would only be because my Rubenesque body was too busy teaching aerobics to and with women who look just like me. This fall I will be teaching a mother and daughter aerobics class, an older adult fitness class, and hopefully, a funky hip and tummy class. All the while, I will do so with the muscle and stamina of a Clydesdale and the strength and wisdom of Athena.