Stepping into a gym for the first time as a fitness novice can be a pretty intimidating experience. For some, it’s even downright terrifying.
The gym can feel like a toxic environment for those just starting their fitness journey. For lots of people, it’s easy to feel like they don’t fit in. In fact, there’s a term for this feeling. It’s called “gym anxiety” — and it’s very real.
For many newbies, there’s a giant fear of being judged. Not knowing how to properly use the equipment can make even the best of us feel self-conscious.
One overweight woman starting her fitness journey thought she heard it all — then one “hardcore” gym bro approached her and didn’t mince any words when it came to her progress.
She Struggled With Disgusting Body Shamers — They Called Her “Ogre”
Stephanie Hoffman, a freelance artist from Jacksonville, struggled to overcome a series of misdiagnosed health issues. When the side effects of a trial medication unexpectedly shut her liver down, and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, she took matters in to her own hands — and the dumbbells too!
“On the inside, I’m sick and I’m inflamed and in pain. I was super depressed. I was grieving…[And] every time I would go in [to the doctor], they’d say, ‘You need to lose weight,’ but all they would tell me is, ‘Go to the gym and work out.’ But they didn’t really give me any tools.”
Stephanie Hoffman, PEOPLE
The TikTok Fitfluencer shared with her followers the challenges that come with combating chronic illness, and being a gym novice on the heavy side. It’s easy for all those “gym anxiety” fears to be amplified, when it feels like everyone’s looking at you, for looking…well different. Still, Steph didn’t let any of these perceptions stop her from working out regularly at her local gym.
When Steph committed to her fitness journey, she knew it was going to be an uphill battle for someone her size. Yet, she was determined to not letting fear stand in the way of her fitness journey. She wasn’t just looking for a physical transformation, she was looking for an emotional one too.
Yet, no matter how much she braced herself for what was to come — it never could have prepared her for what these two gym-goers whispered behind her back.
In a heartbreaking video Stephanie expressed her shame when she was bullied and body shamed in the most vulnerable place — at the gym. One day after a particularly hard workout, Stephanie recalls the horrific words whispered behind her back as she was leaving the gym.
Two younger guys came up behind her and coughed the word “ogre.” Even though the hurtful words devastated Stephanie, she had the courage to come back. She tried her best to keep her eyes on her own paper and continue working an honest program.
She thought she had heard it all. But it never could have prepared her for what happened next.
His Words Left a Lasting Impression
After enduring numerous hurtful comments, Steph felt completely overwhelmed and terrified as she worked out when a hardcore gym-goer, covered in tattoos, approached her.
In a now viral TikTok video that Steph made in her car, she shared her utter shock at the words of inspiration a super tough fitness-lover left her with — and it’s beautiful.
He said, “I’ve seen you in here every week, almost every day. I’ve seen you in here every week — and I’m proud of you.”
These simple words of encouragement from a stranger had such a huge impact. Even better? His words came when she needed them most. At this point in her fitness journey, Steph has been working out regularly for 2 years, but was struggling. She couldn’t help but feel defeated — like nothing was changing.
“[I’d] already been struggling lately, especially with my progress over the last few weeks,” she said. “I still have some deep-rooted insecurities about being heavier and neglecting myself.”
When a stranger acknowledged her consistency, especially at times when she believed her hard work wasn’t “showing,” Steph was moved to tears; he truly saw her efforts.
She was right, people had been watching her. Just not in the way she expected.
Overcoming Her Deepest Insecurities Invited Unexpected Encouragement — And It’s a Reminder Words Are So Powerful
Steph had internalized so much shame when it came to her weight and how the world saw her. She shared, “There are a lot of thoughts through your head being a bigger woman in the gym because there is, like, all sort of ages in there. Different body types, like super fit, not fit, and it kind of messes with your head, especially me being an over-thinker.”
Thankfully, Steph’s story resonated with so many people. Steph’s TikTok garnered over 14 million likes, with positive affirmations flooding in from strangers worldwide. Their words didn’t just impact Steph’s life but also resonated with many others touched by her story.
Those who saw her video understood Steph’s emotional response. One said, “People do not realize, how one person can change everything.” Another wrote, “Girl you are CRUSHING IT. That man you encountered is what real men do. Encourage. Support. Be human! It isn’t hard! ❤️”
Another said, “I’m a fitness coach and this made me cry 😢 just having someone say they are proud of you can move mountains for so many of us who didn’t/don’t get the praise growing up.”
Steph continued to receive more words of support from people who appreciated the video, which now has more than 15M views!
“You have no idea how people going through something appreciate kindness. Because he didn’t have to say it. He doesn’t even know what I’m going through. He changed my day. I’m grateful for people like you guys who encourage us.”
Even though we may come in all shapes and sizes, Steph’s story reminds us of a universal experience. We all want to belong. We all want to feel accepted. We all want our work to be valued and our hearts to be handled with care.
Interrupt Your Own Day — Change Someone Else’s
Practicing empathy isn’t a complicated task, and experiencing kindness firsthand, as well as passing it along, serves as a source of inspiration for more people to adopt a positive mindset.
Steph’s encounter with her tough, tattooed gym companion serves as a remarkable illustration of how compassion and benevolence can profoundly enhance someone’s life.
“We need to be more encouraging towards people who are trying. That was really nice. I was having a really hard day today, but you know what… it really made my day. Am so thankful for people like him that encourage people like me that are going through something.”
Even though he could have simply said nothing, this stranger interrupted his own day — to change someone else’s.
The Only Way Out Is Through — The Only Good Way Through Is Together
Trying new things is always hard no matter where you are. When you’re learning a new skill, it’s easy to compare yourself to everyone else — who seem to know exactly what they’re doing.
Though “gym culture” has come a long way, it’s not secret still has a long way too go. There’s still this persistent idea that a “perfect body” exists (spoiler alert: it doesn’t). Fatphobic rhertoric and body shaming has stopped plenty of people from committing to a meaningful fitness journey.
Ironically, it’s the very people who are the most afraid of the gym, who have the most to gain. Transforming their relationship with not just fitness — but their fears is a step towards transforming their life.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”