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Encouragement Is Not Rude

Etiquette Hell, I am hoping you can help resolve a disagreement.

Some quick background:

I am a large woman: 5’3” and 320lbs.  Recently I have started exercising and eating better.  As part of my exercising I’ve hired a personal trainer, joined a gym, and even walked two local 5K’s.  At both the gym and at the 5Ks people have been very supportive. Here are a few examples:

– Guy at gym sees me doing leg presses and gives me a thumbs up.

– Zumba instructor pats me on the back and says “Great Job today!”

– After finishing run/walk intervals on the treadmill a lady on the bikes behind me said “You are killing it today!”

– Cute guy on elliptical next to me said “Nice Job” when I finished.

– Family passes me during 5K and the mom says “Keep it up! You’re doing great!”

– Guy passing out water at 5K says “Way to go!”

I have a close friend who is also overweight. I will call her B.  B mentioned that she would like to work out but isn’t willing to be harassed by a bunch of jerks on the street or at the gym.  Before I started working out, I was also concerned about rude comments.  But my experience has been the opposite. In general, other people at my gym are too busy working out to care what I’m doing one way or another. And if a person does take the time to make a comment, it has always been positive.  So I shared my experiences both at the gym and at the two 5Ks with B.

Now to the disagreement:

B insists that the people making encouraging comments are even WORSE than someone making a rude comment. Because the people being encouraging are being “condescending” and “patting themselves on the back for encouraging the fatty to lose weight”. B also said something along the lines of, “I don’t need a bunch of fitness obsessed jocks to validate me. I am valid. They can go ‘f’ themselves with their fat-shaming”.  I argued that being nice and encouraging is neither condescending nor fat-shaming.  People taking time out to say something nice to me at the gym and at the 5Ks really made my day. They made me smile and made me feel good.   B insists that just as it is rude to comment on a person’s weight in any manner, it is also rude to comment on someone’s physical activity in any manner.

As I understand it saying “Wow, you’ve lost weight” is rude because people with serious illnesses often lose weight quickly. So you don’t want to congratulate someone for a weight loss that is actual due to a life threatening illness.  But does that same rule apply for physical activity?  Are the people at my gym being rude when they take the time to say “Well done” to me?  Does that “Well done” imply the follow up of “for a fat lady”?  Should I consider that “Well done” to be a condescending pat on the head?  Usually I am so grateful they took the time out of their day to give me a little encouragement that it seems ungrateful to take offense.

Is my friend B right? Are they being unintentionally rude by commenting on my physical activity?   0829-13

There are people in this world who are so cynical that they see evil where none was intended.   A person can drive themselves mad trying to discern the true motives behind comments, assuming there even are ulterior motives at all.   Life will be a lot simpler if you simply take people’s words at face value.   If you feel edified and encouraged by people cheering you in your exercising, then be grateful you have joined a club where the atmosphere is one of positive affirmation and kindness.

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”   Marcel Proust

{ 87 comments… add one }
  • The Elf September 3, 2013, 6:52 am

    If you don’t feel they were condescending, then your read on the situation is probably more accurate. After all, you were there. Besides, instructors and volunteers at races are THERE to give encouragement! I can understand where B is coming from, but unless you are really clueless about these things it should be obvious if random gymgoer’s words are dripping with sarcasm or something.

    I suspect B is looking for reasons not to do something she thinks she should do. She’ll get there when she’s ready, and if she never wants to that’s okay too. Besides, there are plenty of other ways to keep healthy without a gym. In the meantime I’d refrain from discussing the gym with her.

    When I worked out at a gym, I didn’t want to hear any comments. So I used an iPod and played my own music. If anyone said anything to me, I didn’t notice. Bonus: I didn’t have to listen to the pop crap they played over the speaker.

  • Wild Irish Rose September 3, 2013, 8:36 am

    Count me in the group of people who think B is just making excuses for not going to the gym. When I go to the gym, I am largely ignored, which is just fine by me, but if someone were to say something to encourage me to keep going, I would certainly not consider that rude or condescending. It sounds like B looks for reasons to be negative. That’s not someone I would want for a friend.

  • Library Diva September 3, 2013, 9:12 am

    I think this is a near-universal fear among people who are just getting into working out. I’m not overweight, but I’m not athletic either and worried that everyone would be looking at me “doing it wrong.” I came to realize, they’re so worried about “doing it wrong” themselves that they don’t have much time to look around!

    I don’t think people are being rude by offering encouragement. It’s a nice thing to do, and it’s a shame that OP’s friend is so hypersensitive. As Timothy pointed out, maybe a lot of those people who are now in-shape enough to be on the cover of Muscle and Fitness used to look more like those “before” pictures.

    My current gym is literally quieter than a library. If you walked in there blindfolded and were asked to guess how many other people were in the room, you’d guess one, and that’s just based on the fact that you could hear a machine at work. Even when the room is full. I find that a little creepy…but the place is close to home and offers a great deal for the money we pay.

    • Al January 21, 2014, 8:26 am

      True. Another thing I’ve noticed is that it isn’t really that embarrassing to “do it wrong”. People don’t just stare, or laugh. They’ll walk up and offer help. Usually be polite (although there is the odd blunt guy/gal, but that’s more their nature than an attack on you) and absolutely be friendly. And, once they’ve shown you, you’re 300% more confident because you’ve been shown how to do it. Plus, you have the internal confidence of knowing that what you’re doing is going to work, because you know you’re doing it right.

  • Elizabeth September 3, 2013, 9:16 am

    Your friends sounds a bit mean spirited. I think these people are genuine and acknowledging your hard work. Please don’t over-think it but take it at face value.

  • just4kicks September 3, 2013, 9:21 am

    As a forty something woman that was “moo-ed” at a few years ago from some jerks in a passing truck while I was in a swimsuit on vacation with my family, I was almost afraid to read this. I know I’m about forty lbs. overweight, but have been scared of joining a gym for fear of nasty comments. I’m with all the posters who would take all the comments you’ve gotten as a positive. Good luck to you and keep up the good work!

  • Normallynot September 3, 2013, 9:31 am

    I’m different here –i do NOT like people making comments about my physical activity. It is a private thing for me, even though I have to do it in front of other people. Unfortunately there isn’t a sign we can wear that says “DO encourage me” or “DONT say a word” 🙂

    • Greg January 21, 2014, 12:26 am

      So you may not like people making comments, but that’s not the issue. The issue is whether the comments should be taken as condescending, self-congratulatory fat-shaming disguised as a sincere word of encouragement, or whether the comments should be taken as sincere and well-intentioned. I’m with Etiquette Hell here: B’s interpretation is a deeply cynical one.

    • Krotius January 22, 2014, 4:42 pm

      Sure there is. It’s called headphones.

  • MamaToreen September 3, 2013, 9:36 am

    I feel sorry for the OP’s friend. 15-20 years from now when people tell her she looks great, she’ll be mentally adding the subtext “for an old lady”. That’s a very negative way to be

  • Teapot September 3, 2013, 9:50 am

    The encouragement you are receiving is most likely truly positive and coming from a good place. B, however, is in a really bad place. And she’s trying to drag you down to it with her. She’s jealous of you because you’ve taken control of your life and are working to make it better. She lacks the drive so she’s trying to undermine yours by making you doubt yourself and see hurtful behavior where it doesn’t exist. Don’t let her get to you! Don’t give her opportunities to make her negative comments. And keep up the good work!!!

  • Sara September 3, 2013, 10:13 am

    Groups, clubs, and familiar faces that encourage you are all great ways for people to get into and stick with an exercise program. The first masters swim club I joined as an adult was great about encouraging new people which really helped our retention of members and showed in the levels people would improve both in overall physical fitness and specifically in swimming. Individual sports like running and swimming are great in that way for encouragement from others. I do road races also, and that is just part of the culture. Same goes for the fitness classes I do, if you notice a new face in the class it is really common to ask how they liked the class, encourage them to come back and give them general tips (not unsolicited advice, more just it gets easier after you have been coming for a while or if it was really too hard maybe try this class a few times first as it is lower intensity). None of these things are meant as fat shaming, they are meant as people want to see you accomplish your goals. It’s like one of my favorite quotes ‘it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are going today, you are lapping everyone at home on the couch.’

  • Sarah September 3, 2013, 10:30 am

    Good job on your 5Ks!

    It sounds like the people who’ve complimented you have really meant it. Thanks to injuries and childbirth, I’ve had times where I’m the skinny fast girl at the front of the pack in races, and the heavier, slower person struggling just to finish.

    Every single race I’ve had water volunteers and other runners/walkers and people along the side yell encouragement (and a few jerks in cars yell complaints that the road is blocked off for the race, but a friendly smile and wave helps there). In many races people are racing for fun or to finish or to get a personal best. That means they’re not racing YOU, and the atmosphere becomes very teamlike. Everyone wants everyone else to do well.

    As for the gym– your instructor likely noticed you put in a lot of effort and wanted to acknowledge it.

    Your gym sounds great. I’ve been in gyms like that before, where people just compliment and support each other. It’s very nice! Again, I’ve gotten the same compliments at my skinniest and my heaviest. It has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with the teamlike support.

  • Calli Arcale September 3, 2013, 11:34 am

    B may be looking for an excuse to validate her preconceptions, or she may be speaking out of a severely low self-esteem, or perhaps she’s paranoid. I would not assume she’s looking for an excuse to get out of exercising. It’s been said that “man is not a rational animal, man is a rationalizing animal” — people are very defensive of their views, moreso than they tend to realize. Once an opinion is formed, the natural inclination is not to seek correction but to seek confirmation. This is why people tend to dismiss evidence that contradicts their views. Not so much because they want an excuse to be lazy, but because that’s how the brain tends to work. It looks for confirmation. Now, she may have *formed* the opinion out of laziness, though I think low self-esteem is probably more likely. She expects she will receive abuse, because that is consistent with her opinion of herself. And that’s pretty sad, but you won’t be able to fix that. As her friend, you can be supportive of her, but the rest is up to her.

    Encouraging comments in a gym are generally exactly what they look like. Look on fitness as a hobby and it starts to make sense — they’re trying to connect with a fellow hobbyist, and the best opening is usually to compliment the other person’s efforts in the hobby. Sure, sometimes there are jerks — no group is immune to that — but most people hold no ill-will towards you.

  • EllenS September 3, 2013, 11:46 am

    I understand where Psychopoesie and “wherever” are coming from. Not everybody *likes* getting those comments the same way OP does, that’s fine. If B doesn’t like them, she is quite right not to put herself in an atmosphere that will make her self-conscious or uncomfortable, or to ask people to stop if they speak to her.

    But that is a far cry from accusing all the commenters of “fat-shaming” and telling OP that she SHOULD not enjoy the praise.

  • Kimstu September 3, 2013, 12:23 pm

    @Anonymouse: “Slightly off topic, but I think it’s still related. My husband told me this story coming out of the bank. Apparently there was a long line at the teller and he decided to attempt a conversation with the woman in front of him. She was wearing this black embroidered skirt, so he told her he liked it. She responded by flipping out, screaming at him and calling him a pervert.”

    The woman’s reaction was definitely WAY rude and over-the-top, but it’s true that your husband’s comment was (unintentionally and innocently) inappropriate. It’s not polite to make irrelevant unsolicited personal remarks to strangers, especially in a non-social setting, and it doesn’t matter whether the remarks are complimentary or critical.

    Everybody at the bank was there to get their business done as quickly as possible, not to engage in personal chitchat with strangers. If you want to try to start a conversation to pass the time in a situation like that, you can try a neutral remark on a relevant subject (“Gee, I’m surprised the wait’s so long today, the lines usually move quicker here” or something of the sort), but nothing more familiar.

    You’re right that this example is relevant to B’s sort-of-point about compliments sometimes being as inappropriate as insults. As I said before, the appropriateness depends on the context. If, for example, your husband and this woman happened to be taking a fashion design class together, it would have been fine for him to mention casually that he admired her skirt, because in that setting it’s expected that everyone will be thinking and talking and sharing ideas about clothes. Likewise, when strangers are working out in the same gym, it’s not rude for them to give each other a little support and encouragement about their exercising, because exercise is what all of them are there for.

  • June First September 3, 2013, 12:29 pm

    Perhaps the best reaction to B’s negative comments would be a pause, then, “Huh. It usually seems to motivate me.”

    A suggestion I don’t think I saw here (but I apologize if someone already mentioned it): wearing headphones or ear-buds usually signals a person doesn’t want to chat. That might help in B’s case. And, maybe she could put in some motivating music to get her going!

  • skv September 3, 2013, 1:21 pm

    What makes your friend assume that these gym people were always jocks? Perhaps some – maybe many- of them were once starting their journey exactly where she is today, and so can relate to the job at hand. It is not fat shaming – it is relating, encouraging, being positive. Perhaps one day she will feel like doing the same.

  • MELISSA September 3, 2013, 1:40 pm

    I HAD to comment on this one; as a person who could be classified as “fit”, I assure you that those comments are sincere. It would take a special kind of jerk to be condescending in that manner. Most people in gyms and walking/running races are super supportive of each other. (Especially the guy handing out water, that’s practically part of their job!) If you did something else difficult, like get your doctorate, save up to buy a home, get a new job, etc, would you expect someone to congratulate you? I think so. Working out is similar, it’s a process, it’s not easy, but your hard work pays off.

    Sometimes as a girl I think that guys in the weight room will be less than respectful of me lifting my girly weight, but from what I’ve seen, whether you’re lifting 5lbs or 500, they don’t care and are very respectful of your time and space there. I also had a personal trainer when I got started, so that I could learn more and not be so intimidated, and now I am one, so that I can help other women learn to lift weights without being intimidated in the “guy section”.

    OP, keep up your good work – this isn’t just about losing weight, it’s about being healthier and feeling better, and please keep encouraging your friend to do the same.

  • zman September 3, 2013, 2:44 pm

    I have joined a gym to build muscle and generally stay in shape, I am on the slender, weak side of the spectrum. Since I am a part of the over the hill gang (post retirement age) I had some concerns. Turns out that all the younger members are extremely helpful, spotting, advice and all that. Plus when I, and some other olders users, walk in they shout out a ‘hello’ where have you been and how goes everything?. My only complaint is some of the music they play, just isn’t my style :-).

  • Angel September 3, 2013, 3:06 pm

    B would hate my gym then. For the most part everyone is very encouraging and friendly. My trainer is great and always encouraging me no matter what. It has enabled me to keep going and become a fitter person for it.

    B sounds like a negative person. If she is worried that everyone is judging her then she won’t get very far in her efforts to get in shape. I don’t know a single person who is perfect–we all could use encouragement from time to time. And to go through life believing you are constantly being made fun of is really no way to go through life. I don’t trust a lot of people myself but I tend to believe my trainer and the friends I have made at the gym when they say, “good job.” Even people just walking by. And if they are just trying to be jerks, who cares? It’s not like I asked for their opinions anyway!

  • ladycrim September 3, 2013, 3:51 pm

    OP, I congratulate you on what you’re doing! Keep up the good work! As for the encouragement: if it makes you feel good, then that’s all that matters.

  • BethRD September 3, 2013, 6:06 pm

    I sort of get how B feels; when you’re self-conscious, the last thing you want is for anyone to notice you, even if it’s in a nice way. I have been fat for most of my adult life, and while I don’t remember ever being made uncomfortable by someone commenting on my exercise habits, I HATE it when people comment on my food, even if all they’re saying is, “That looks good, what is it?” I’m already worried about how I look eating (fat people always look gluttonous eating! or at least, so my insecurities insist) and I’d rather people just let me eat without feeling compelled to comment. BUT. I recognize that this is my own problem and that most of the people commenting are just trying to make conversation.

  • Rachel September 3, 2013, 7:02 pm

    I think B is scared. She has probably tried to lose weight before and failed. A lot of people fail several times before they are successful. She may be intimidated or envious of original posters success. OP don’t let this get to you. In my experience, people tend to be very happy to see those around them also succeed and fitness and want to cheer them of. I even started a blog to do just that. I hope you’ll stop by and check it out. http://www.weightlossadventuregirl.com

  • Genevieve September 3, 2013, 7:18 pm

    I am fit, and in some gyms, I get (and give!) those compliments. It has nothing to do with weight, in my experience, and everything to do with the gym culture. I had to be in shape for work, so I am on the more traditional fit side, and joined a number of different gyms just in the process of seeing what worked best. Even in the same town, each fit had a different culture. Some were more neighborly but kept to themselves, another was what I called the single-mingle gym, etc. Most lately I’ve done CrossFit, and in the group I am in it’s very common for us to encourage each other – we cheer each other on for personal bests, compliment each other for pushing hard, and are supportive when it’s clear someone is struggling. I personally like that a lot, and when I switched classes and got a more quiet group, I felt it was harder to go. Right now, it is becoming more acceptable to be supportive of strangers in a gym setting. I wouldn’t take it as having any hidden meaning.

  • Cammie September 3, 2013, 9:44 pm

    It’s cute how your friend deflected the conversation from her silly statement that she totes caaaan’t work out cause haters! to trying to tell you how stupid you are for not realizing what all those people are REALLY saying about YOU.

  • Kate September 4, 2013, 7:03 am

    If I went to a gym and random people started watching me and shouting things at me, I’d have left by about the second one. Luckily my gym is not like that. *shudder*

  • Cj September 4, 2013, 2:14 pm

    Everytime I go to the gym and see a bigger girl working out…I want to befriend her and give her support but do not know how to go about it without being rude. I know how hard it is to stay on the right path if you don’t have support from friends or family. Being fit myself I get dirty looks from the other fit ladies at the gym. I hope they are not giving any worse looks to the big girls, so I always at least try to smile at them and hope they keep up the awesome work. You are saving your life and extending it…us fitness gym rats really like that and admire you starting with that extra burden. Keep it up!

  • Cassandra September 5, 2013, 1:29 pm

    I too am overweight by about 50lbs and was nervous going to the gym but soon realized that people (even the skinny ones!) Respect you because you are trying. My husband and his friend have talked about seeing a girl there everyday who is very over weight and how awesome it is that she works so hard. People are actually proud of strangers for just doing something! It’s pretty amazing! My Zumba instructor is my bff even out side the gym and she makes sure to tell everyone who tried, even if they didn’t make it all the way or slowed down, how awesome they did! Seems like your friend is just looking for an excuse not to go to the gym!

  • Anonymous September 5, 2013, 3:20 pm

    You know, it’s funny that you’d mention this. I have a yoga instructor certification, and I’m working on personal training and choreography-based fitness certifications as well, and, through shadowing for PT, I actually did meet a man who weighed over 400 pounds. The way we handle situations like that at the YMCA is, we don’t say, “you’ve lost weight,” but rather, “you look great.” As for congratulating people for engaging in physical activity, it seems like, yeah, it’s always the overweight people who get it; not the skinny ones, because that’s natural for them, right? *eyeroll.* So, we try to validate other kinds of successes besides weight loss, like lifting a higher weight, or learning a new yoga pose, or advancing to the next colour level on the (optional) FitLinxx tracking system, or making it through Zumba without getting tripped up. That kind of encouragement empowers people, and with empowerment, comes continued physical activity, and with that, comes health improvement.

  • carma September 7, 2013, 6:03 am

    I have never been to any gym that random people shout out “way to go” or anything else. (I understand Crossfit gyms and some others classes foster that kind of group, but most people know to expect that there). Usually at the gym most people are busy with their own workout.

    One funny story of silly compliment was my at my office. A group of us were doing a workout video series for 2 months afterwork. I was one of the only ones who went every day without fail. After an extremely hard workout halfway through the series, my very fit coworker was coming upstairs with me and said “I want to know that you are MY inspiration through the workout. The fact you are doing this crazy workout makes me work that much harder. Because if you can do it so can I.”. She then freaked slightly thinking she perhaps insulted my weight. (She didn’t. I understood what she meant).

    As for 5K workers, The main job besides keeping people safe is to try to be encouraging. Heavens, watch the volunteers at the Iron Man race for folks who encourage.

    I am with others who think B just wants any excuse to not try. Yes, there is the occasional jerk, but they are rare and not worth the time. You keep doing what you are doing.

  • Michelle C Young September 8, 2013, 1:04 pm

    I have had a few people jeer at me *while I was exercising* that I was too fat, and needed to “put down the fork and exercise, you fat, ugly b****.” Then there are the ones who tell me I have no right to exercise in public, because they “don’t want to see that disgusting s***.” So, yeah, perhaps your friend B is coming from that experience. Some people truly believe that fat people may not exercise in public, and even if they are obviously in work-out gear, on an exercise machine, they are not actually exercising, because if they exercised at all, they would magically and immediately become thin. Instantly. No one loses weight gradually, so if you are fat, and exercising, it must be your very first time, and only because they told you to do it. Also, it must be for weight loss, and not for health, or the simple joy of movement. Some people are like that, and B may have had too much experience with those people.

    You are very fortunate to have surrounded yourself with good, kind, uplifting, and logical people. Yaaaay, you!

    However, “Good job!” “You did well in that workout,” and the like are most certainly not rude, nor condescending. There is no “for a fat person” in those comments, because believe it or not, exercise and weight are not inextricably linked. Just look at the fat Olympic athletes (women’s weight-lifters, for example), who exercise more than most thin models, and are still fat, because for some reason that is the way their bodies are. Some people have glands, and thyroids, and syndromes and conditions, and you just can’t tell that without some major medical tests.

    If you worked out, and they compliment you on the actual work you performed, that is a true compliment, and a good thing. I would sympathize with B, but don’t let her experiences get you down. Be warned, however, that some day, somebody may very well behave that way towards you. It will take you by surprise, but remember – it’s not your problem. It’s theirs.

  • Breezy September 10, 2013, 7:13 pm

    OP, I’ve done a lot of running events (5ks, 10ks, half marathons) and the thing I’ve always been impressed by is the encouragement, not just from other runners but people on the sidelines. I’ve never taken the encouragement as anything negative or insulting. Most people are encouraging because they know the hard work that goes into running an event or working out at the gym or taking an exercise class.

    You are a positive person and so you see the positivity in the comments people around you make. And you take the positive energy to motivate you forward, not push you backwards.

    The fact that your friend “B” thinks that everyone who makes compliments “Good job!” or “Keep up the hard work” is negative or insinuating that it’s a derogatory remark says way more about what she thinks of her physical state than anything else.

  • Kathleen September 11, 2013, 9:59 am

    Absolutely do NOT internalize anything B has said about these comments. First of all, the cynical take will do you no good in your weight-loss endeavors. Second, have you considered that B is undermining your endeavors because she feels threatened by them? If you prove you can do it, where does that leave her? It’s a very understandable situation from her perspective, albeit not kind or supportive. I wouldn’t engage in any debates with her over comments–in fact, it’s probably just best not to mention them at all. Stay positive and do your own thing!

  • MaryFran September 11, 2013, 3:24 pm

    I recently took part in a “Geek Girls Run” at an event. There were women of all shapes and sizes (a few men too) and ability and speed. We planned the run in heats, sending the slow people first (instead of last) and when the fastest people left first and arrived back first, they waited until each of us arrived back at the starting point, and encouraged us slower-movers until everyone had finished. Not one bit of condescension there. We were all happy to be there together, going at our own paces. I didn’t consider it condescending — I was touched that instead of going about their day, the fastest runners stayed at the finish and welcomed us all back with a high-five and an encouraging cheer. The point: in my experience, cheering others on is a pay-it-forward experience. Even the toughest hard-core runner gets discouraged after mile 20 of the marathon and can use a little encouragement. Keep on enjoying their cheering, and be sure to cheer them on right back.

  • Enna December 3, 2013, 9:32 am

    It depends on what the person has said to the OP – if the OP doesn’t find it offensive I would say the chnaces are it is meant to be encouragment. Those people who have encouraged the OP might have been overweight themselves or have a loved one who has struggled with their weight. It is clear B has some confidence issues – B might be looking for an excuse because she feels too scared – sometimes it is the fear of doing something that has the biggest impact on us.

    One of my firends used to go to Zumba and she said it’s great because no one judges anyone at it: there is one very large lady who puts all her energy for it. My firend who has struggled with her weight for most of her life has so much respect for this lady. The lady’s determination actually encourgaes my firend to do well (my firend has had a baby so Zumba has been put on hold!).

  • MonWee January 21, 2014, 9:44 am


    Your friend is simply jealous and miserable. She has externalized her own feelings of shame onto others. Notice that she is the only one with something terrible to say. She is the one saying mean things about other people, judging them before she even meets them. It’s kind of hard to claim to be a victim that way.

    You should be proud of what you’re doing, and enjoying talking to nice people. You don’t have to hide your happiness on account of her. In fact, maybe one day she’ll finally snap out of it and give healthy living a shot.

    Good luck!

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