Fitness without shame: the body positive unicorn way

This post was originally published on Tumblr in September 2018. Please note that it includes descriptions of disordered eating behaviors and other sensitive content. Content is based on my own experiences and research is not a substitute for professional treatment or advice. This post is also not officially endorsed by SuperFit Hero (although I’m proud to be a sponsored trainer).

I am a recovered anorexic, chronic over-exerciser and body-hater.

I am also a fitness instructor.

I love exercise and believe there’s great value in moving often and moving well. Burpees and planks are my idea of a good time. Give me a sweaty kettle bell sequence and I’m a happy girl.

Photo by Sara Stabley

(Yes, I am fun at parties! Thanks for asking.)

 And even though I’m part of it, I hate the mainstream fitness industry with a white hot fire most people reserve for slow walkers or strangers who are wrong on the Internet.

   The fitness and diet industries had me in the palms of their low-carb fat-free hands as soon as I was old enough to open a Reader’s Digest. An obsession with so-called “nutrition” developed as a by-product of my compulsive need to shrink my body.

I got my tips, tricks and information from the  “wellness” columns of women’s magazines.  In those pages, I learned how to calculate my BMI and RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate) and that a pound of body fat was equal to 3,500 calories.

Posters at the gym showed images of foods–candy bars, apples, sugary coffee drinks, hamburgers–position next to the number of minutes you’d have to run to burn them off–120, 18, 90, 210.

In the corner of the poster, a blonde ponytailed woman in a purple sports bra raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips and shrugged one shoulder toward the camera.

“Is it worth it?” asked the text beneath her.

 Exercise was atonement for the sin of eating, the elliptical machine an altar on which to sacrifice your desires. All to make you happier! Fitter! More worthy of love! Also able to wear a two piece bathing suit without apology!

Up until adolescence, physical activity was something I did because I enjoyed it. I was happiest when dancing or swimming or cartwheeling outside on the lawn. Then it became both a method of self-laceration and a coping mechanism for other turmoil in my life.

    When I was on the elliptical or holding a plank or tracking my calories, nothing could touch me. The endorphins coupled with the light headedness I experienced a bi-product of my anorexia created a high I couldn’t get enough of. I was abusing exercise like a substance addict abuses drugs or alcohol. I had no other tools for coping with a life that felt chaotic and uncertain and, even though it made me feel exhausted and weak, I couldn’t stop.

   After I entered initial recovery, I avoided most organized workouts for years. Every time I’d go back to a gym or workout class, I’d hear the voices I used to hear. While I loved to move, structured exercise reminded me of one of the lowest points of my life.

I wasn’t sure how to exercise in moderation or without treating it as punishment.  I worried about triggering old behaviors, that a switch would go off in my brain and I’d go back to starving myself. It didn’t help that every time I’d visit a gym or fitness class I was bombarded by those same old messages:

    “Push just a little bit more and you’ll burn more calories!”

    “Let’s flatten those abs and tighten those saddlebags!”

    Once I used a free guest pass for a certain NYC gym chain and the member services director asked me about my weight loss goals–despite the fact that I hadn’t mentioned wanting to lose weight or change my size.

And I’m in a smaller body naturally, so I can’t imagine what he’s saying to folks in bigger bodies.

    Finding a workout environment that wouldn’t trigger disordered thoughts felt like trying to find a golden haired unicorn at the DMV or a Republican at Woodstock. I gave up hope that I’d ever be able to enjoy an exercise class or gym environment again.

    Five years into recovery,  I found myself exercising again . . . for fun.

I started taking Pilates classes, walking trails and occasionally even lifting weights. After pregnancy and childbirth, and a subsequent battle with postpartum depression, I found that exercise helped me feel like myself again.

 I felt stronger, happier, more balanced.  

My mental health didn’t improve because I looked different or gained muscle mass or lost body fat or “ate clean.” It improved because I moved in ways I enjoyed and ate without any agenda other than paying attention to my body’s cues.

    I decided to share that joyful discovery with others, first as a Pilates instructor and then as a certified group fitness instructor and now personal trainer too. After four years, I still have as much enthusiasm about teaching and training as I did on day one.  But I can’t help but cringe when I see the body-shaming norms perpetuated by my own industry.

    The capitalist business owner in me gets it. It’s easy to make money off of people’s insecurities–and it’s far quicker to add one more building block to the foundation of Diet Culture than to tear the whole thing down and rebuild.

It’s not news to anyone that the diet and fitness industries rely on our cultural obsession with bodily perfection. And look, I don’t believe there’s a bunch of ripped malicious fitness gods sitting in their fully equipped ivory tower gyms sipping negative calorie smoothies while manufacturing ways to make us feel bad about ourselves.

Messages about what a “healthy” body or “stronger” or “beautiful” body looks like are so deeply ingrained in our culture already that we’re all just stuck running the same hamster wheel of negativity and fat-phobia.

    The vast majority of fitness professionals who perpetuate these attitudes don’t know or fully understand the harm they might be doing. Most believe what they’ve been told–they are fighting the so-called “obesity epidemic” or helping people be happier by helping them look better, lose weight, tone up or whatever the current trendy fitness goal of the week.

    I’ve been guilty of it myself, despite all my best intentions. I’ve found myself marketing a group class by posting how many calories it can burn or using client weight loss stories as testimonials. I thought it was the only way to get people in the door.

      After looking at the research that suggests that weight alone isn’t a great indicator of health and that weight-based shame actually perpetuates overeating, I’ve worked to cultivate as much of a body positive environment for my clients as possible.

     Now in my sixth year of fitness training, I’ve learned to quickly identify both marketing and teaching habits that might trigger body shame and revised them to help rather than harm.

The Body Positive Unicorn Way

This approach prioritizes function over form and understands that a healthy body comes in many sizes. It also understands that ALL people whether they have a healthy body or an unhealthy body deserve to be treated with respect.

Dos and Don’ts for trainers

Don’t: Set goals related to weight or fat loss for your clients

Do: Work with your client to identify ways to make their body more functional for their daily lives (i.e. walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded or experience less pain when carrying bags)

Don’t: Talk about exercises in terms of “toning” or “trimming” a part of the body.

Do: Explain what muscles are being activated and how the exercise will help the functionality of that muscle. For example, when I give a tricep-focused exercise I remind the client that the functional movement of the tricep is to bend and extend the elbow. Strong triceps may help alleviate some joint pain and allow for more ease of movement.

Don’t: Talk about exercise as a way to “make up” for eating too much or eating the “wrong” foods.

Do: Encourage your clients to think of exercise and food as simply two elements of a well-rounded life. Speak about exercise and movement as fun ways of caring for your mind and body.

Don’t: Berate (even playfully) your client’s food choices or behaviors.

Do: Model and encourage mindfulness. Help them identify “good” discomfort (the deepest point of a stretch or last few reps of a tough set) and the kind of discomfort that means they should back off and take a rest. Encourage them to apply the same principles of mindfulness when it comes to eating.

Don’t: Measure or weight clients.

Do: Celebrate their accomplishments and progress, whether it’s holding a plank for 5 more seconds, running a big race, or just showing up for their workout!

Do you have anything to add to my list? How else can we make gyms and fitness studios more positive and inclusive places?

Looking for a body positive fitness trainer, gym or studio? Check out the SuperFit Hero directory.

I’m proud to be a sponsored SuperFit Hero trainer! They offer great quality apparel for bodies of all sizes, shapes and genders AND you can get a discount on your first order using my referral code.

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