Swimming is one of Kenlie Tiggeman's favorite exercises. There's something relaxing about being in the water, yet it's still a killer full-body workout. But one day, as the 35-year-old from New Orleans swam laps at the gym, her zen was shattered when she noticed a woman standing near the edge of the pool, laughing at her while holding up her phone.
"She yelled that she was 'whale watching,'" Tiggeman says. "And she was taking pictures of me."
Did we mention Tiggeman is plus-sized?
Having a stranger take snaps of you in a swimsuit without your permission is every woman's nightmare, but the fat shaming taunt was even more cruel (if that's possible) because Tiggeman (who weighs about 300 pounds) has maintained a weight loss of over 100 pounds ever since she fell several years ago, broke her foot, and needed the help of four men to get up the stairs for medical care because she weighed over 400 pounds. That, she determined, was the last time she was going to be weak, and, since then, she's made exercising and eating right a priority. Even though she's not "skinny," Tiggeman has lost weight, feels happy, is much healthier, and—most importantly—is strong enough to do whatever she wants. (Did you know Fat Shaming Could Be Destroying Your Body?)
And Tiggeman was not going to let some random woman tear her down, especially not after she logged a mile-and-a-half swim—a feat that would knock out most gym-goers. So she swam right up to the woman and retorted, "Well, one of us is working our ass off, and one of us is just being an ass!"
It's enough to make anyone stand up and cheer, but as she continued her laps, she rethought her angry comeback. "After my hurt dissipated, I felt pity for her because I can't imagine ever being unhappy enough to tear down someone who's working so hard to be better," says Tiggeman.
"I don't want to make it sound like it didn't hurt because it did, but, sadly, by this time I had gained so much experience with fat shaming that I learned to stop letting it define me," she explains. (Psst... Even celebs like Khloé Kardashian Can't Catch a Break from Body Image Haters.)
That's not the end of the story, however. A couple of months after the "whale sighting" incident, Tiggeman ran into the same woman in a Zumba class. And this time it was the woman who was caught out of breath. It was the perfect opportunity for revenge—but she didn't take it. Instead, she offered kindness and understanding.
"While we were all having fun and looking silly, she was so angry with herself for not getting it all right," she says. "So I spoke to her after that class and said, 'Whoever told you that you aren't good enough is full of crap.'"
The woman broke down in tears and gave Tiggeman a long overdue apology. Tiggeman didn't take any joy in the other woman's sorrow. But "it helps to understand why people are so mean, even though they really shouldn't be," she says.
"I have a lot of friends who are always so angry at society for the way they treat people like me. And I was angry for a long time too, but all that led to was more weight gain and unhappiness," she adds. "The old saying 'Hurt people hurt people' is true. and now I make a choice not to do that."
And if she could give one piece of advice to that woman? "The most important thing I've learned is to love myself enough to keep trying to be better," she says. Which is why you'll see her back in the pool today and the next day and the next—regardless of who's watching. (Inspired? Read "I'm 200 Pounds and Fitter Than Ever.")