Where is the line between MY fitness, MY movement practices, MY relationship to food and nourishment, MY healthy behaviors (or lack thereof) and… those of my clients?
As a traditionally trained health fitness professional and health coach, I was taught to believe that “my body is my business card.” This is precisely the kind of misguided thinking that drives many individuals in the health fitness industry into disorder and then to instilling this disorder in their clients.
As a Body Liberation-oriented trainer and coach, who takes a critical, socio-political approach to “health” and “wellness,” I now understand that the pressure the health fitness industry places on trainers and coaches to look a certain way stems from hegemonic control over a hierarchical system in which control reigns supreme and people are understood as machines.
That is, the traditional, mainstream understanding of health coaching and personal training is to hook a client up with someone who the client will believe is better than/ superior to themselves so that this superior being may then control the client into submission in order to modify the client’s body until it may be deemed acceptable within our culture. The trainer or coach gets to feel superior to their client. The client gets to hand over control of their own health to the trainer or coach who will simply tell them what to do. And the mechanisms of the body simply respond to the stimuli of food restriction and exercise without any consequences to other aspects of health. Everybody wins! Right?
“Health” is so much more complex than the traditional, mainstream health fitness industry wants to believe and admit. This is largely because, it is really hard to market to/through complexity. It’s much easier to sell to simplicity and simple-mindedness; much easier to say “look at my hot body! Don’t you want a hot body like mine? Then you should… take this class, buy my product, join this gym….“ or whatever they happen to be selling in the moment.
One of the things I am constantly trying to explain to people who are not fitness instructors or yoga teachers is that, even when I am continually moving my body in my teaching, that movement is not MY practice. Even if my physical body is working very hard, because my mind and my emotional state are focused on my clients/students, I am not getting 90% of the benefits of that movement. This is not at all a complaint, just an explanation for people who think that moving my body in my teaching is the same as “getting a workout in.” It’s not. Not at all. I often say that the physical aspect of teaching fitness and yoga (when you have to move in the same patterns as your client/ student throughout the teaching) is more like construction work. Yes, I am using my body to move. Yes, that is hard physical labor for my body. But it is not a workout, it is not my own yoga practice — both of which are something else entirely.
But much like anyone with any physically strenuous job, it CAN feel difficult to make time/space for my own movement when I am physically exhausted from work. So, this is a challenge that all fitness professionals face: Making time/space for our own movement practices IN ADDITION to the physical labor of our jobs.
Additionally, any trainer or coach or fitness/ yoga instructor is living in the same cultural milieu as their clients. I feel confident saying, just from my vast life experience in the industry, MOST traditional, mainstream movement professionals are drunk on the Diet Culture cool-aid. They do not see fatphobia or the mistreatment of larger bodies in their industry. They do not see the eating and exercise disorders their own industry causes. They do not see the ableism, transphobia, ageism, xenophobia or racism that is embedded in their own understanding of what bodies “should” look like. They do not think about the cultural, social, or political aspects of what they are attempting to do to or teach their clients. They do not even question or concern themselves with their own positionality or privilege so they can’t even see all of the unspoken and unintended effects of their work with/on their clients. They do not question their assumptions about their own physical superiority or what they perceive to be their responsibility to judge and control their clients’ bodies. Whether they are aware of it or not, they practice domination and control over their clients. And this should be no surprise because domination and control is our culture’s (even our world’s in many ways) modus operandi.
My body is not my business card. My body is nobody’s business but my own, not even my clients’. I do not work from a platform of domination and control — not in any of my work. In all of my work, I come from a framework of partnership, of learning-with and walking-with and becoming-with my clients.
As a body liberation-oriented trainer and coach, I have no interest in controlling my clients or strictly modifying their bodies to become “acceptable.” I come from the perspective that all of my clients bodies are their own and that they are already acceptable, already “good.” And from that baseline, we move in partnership to figure out where they want to make changes in their behaviors and thought-patterns related to their own version of health.
It’s much more complicated than “I’ll help you lose weight” because it’s that much more real, more sustainable, more compassionate, and ultimately, more helpful. I do not come from the perspective of “look at my body and see me as obviously superior to you.” I come from the perspective of “yes, in this culture, this socio-political situation especially, engaging in, having access to and even understanding what constitutes ‘healthy’ behavior is complex and difficult but let’s find a way through… together.” Just like my clients, I struggle to get access to and consistently engage in the behaviors I know are healthiest for me even as someone who has been dedicated to my overall health and wellbeing for around thirty years now. This perspective allows me to treat my clients with empathy, compassion and respect and to continually return them to the truth that our individual and collective relationships to “health” are complex, ever-evolving and deeply personal.
In some ways — at least, theoretically — there is no line between MY health and the health of my clients’. After all, in the great web of existence, my health is bound to theirs and vice versa. Within a body liberation framework, it is not necessary for me to be “perfect” according to the laws created by the hegemony, of which Diet Culture is very much a part. Indeed, I believe strongly that in attempting to portray a false perfection (because all “perfection” is a hegemonic lie to keep those of us who are not deemed “perfect” in our place), most mainstream fitness professionals draw too hard of a line between their practices and their clients’ behaviors; their practices being the “ideal” and their clients’ behaviors obviously being inferior. This is exactly the kind of arrogant, hierarchical perspective that leads to disorder and dysfunction in people’s understanding and approach to “health.”
At the same time, I am on my journey and my clients are on theirs. This means there is also a relatively hard boundary, or line, between my “health” behaviors and my clients’ in that my journey is my own and is very personal to me and their journey is their own and very personal to them. Instead of a hierarchical structure wherein I am above my client and my client is below me, I see our work together more like a game of hopscotch, with the lines between us, drawn in chalk, on a warm sidewalk, on a sunny summer day. In this way, my work with clients is continual play and continual evolution from one pattern to the next as we both find our own relationships to and definitions of “health” while recognizing and respecting that our journeys coincide and are symbiotically moving along the same path.
Those are the lines I want to continue moving along, through and around, in partnership with my clients, while honoring BOTH of our journeys on this path of body liberation.
is an NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer; an ACE-Certified Group Fitness Instructor; a certified Yoga Teacher; a Certified Intuitive Eating Professional; and a degree-holding Health, Fitness Specialist. She lives in Frankfort, Michigan and owns Every. Body. Fitness and Yoga Studio.