How to Respond to Anti-Fat ‘Encouragement’ When You’re Working Out

When this kind of anti-fat encouragement happens to you, it can be difficult to think on your feet and respond in a way you don’t second-guess yourself about later. So here are some anti-fat encouragement scenarios that I have either personally encountered while working out, or had clients encounter, and the responses that have been successful in shutting it down. Hopefully these can help you too if you experience something similar.

1. When they’re cheering on weight-loss goals—which, nope, don’t exist

The scenario: A gym-goer approaches you mid-workout, says they once looked like you, but they kept at it for a couple years and lost over 100 pounds. So, keep up the good work!

In this all-too-common situation, the gym-goer is inferring goals that don’t actually exist simply because of the size of your body. Or maybe they’re transferring goals they once had to you. Regardless of where it’s coming from, it’s further emphasizing the belief that the only reason we’re working out is to change our bodies—something, as I’ve mentioned above, that many of us have spent years unpacking.

Most of the time, the encourager believes that they are being supportive and friendly. And after all, in fitness spaces, images of larger bodies are often only seen as the “before” picture. It’s no wonder there’s an assumption weight loss is the goal because there is rarely a point of reference that says otherwise.

So what’s the best way to respond to this? In this anti-fat encouragement situation—and in all the ones that follow—there’s no one script to follow. How to best respond in these situations depends on a lot of things, and you have to choose the tone and the delivery that’s right for you in that particular environment. The “right” tone and delivery for you may vary depending on how safe you feel, whether you’re exhausted, or if you know you’ll have to deal with the encourager next week again in class. So while certain responses may have worked for me, they may not apply across the board—so it’s best to consider them as suggestions or guidelines.

Remember, you don’t need to justify your choices and goals, especially to a stranger. You want to draw your boundaries, and respond in a way that honors those. You can even be courteous to a degree in doing so, if that’s something you feel comfortable with in that particular scenario.

So back to the weight-loss encourager. I’d stick with something like this: “I’m glad you were able to reach your goals, but my goals are different.” This way, you can remain supportive to someone who may be genuinely trying to help and honor their goals, but at the same time, draw a clear boundary without explaining why. But if you’d like to be more straightforward, you can tell that while you were glad they were able to reach their goals, you are happy with your weight as it is. We don’t need to justify our decisions to strangers at the gym!

2. When they’re applauding you for just starting out—even though you’re a regular

It’s an all-too-frequent occurrence: You’re getting ready to adjust a machine at the gym, and someone approaches you to show you how to do it. Or the HIIT class instructor tells you not to worry, that it’ll get easier—things are always way more challenging when you’re new.