On February 8th, 2019, a gentleman going through the Delta College health fitness specialist program -- the same academic program that I went through to become a health fitness specialist -- posted this on Facebook:
“We have to stop the mindset that it's "shaming" if we inform someone that something they're doing is unhealthy. For example:
Perhaps, reader, you agree with everything in this post and see absolutely nothing wrong with it but, as a Body Positive Health Fitness Specialist, I was immediately disheartened and saddened by the obvious messages and the underlying assumptions in this post and I was moved to write about why.
It is my intention, overall, to post brief and accessible messages on this blog. I'm aware that this particular post is extraordinarily long but even with as much as I have written here, I have still left so many things unsaid. This is a complicated and important topic and deserves thorough exploration. I hope, reader, you can hang in there through this post and I also hope you will forgive me if I left anything out.
The gentleman (I call him that very intentionally) that posted this is – from all of my experience with him—a very kind, intelligent and well-meaning individual. I know he is absolutely unaware of there being anything wrong or uninformed about this post. So, I did not respond to the post itself. I do not believe the provocative and often reactive posting back-and-forth on facebook is productive in us attempting to learn together as human beings. However, since I am the only official Body Positive Trainer, that I know of, to come out of our program, I felt I had a responsibility to respond to this post with a detailed explanation of the many misguided and off-handed remarks in it. The thoughts expressed in this gentlemen's FB post are just basic common sense to most fitness professionals – which is why so many of us are getting it wrong and utterly missing the point of what it truly means to be Body Positive. The gentleman that posted this is only reiterating the sentiments that have been ingrained in him through a lifetime of living in Diet Culture and the health fitness industry which, as I will discuss, is often simply the henchman for Diet Culture because it upholds and markets many of the same misguided beliefs. As long as we continue not to question these beliefs—as long as we live by the common assumptions made in this post -- we are aiding and abetting Diet Culture, creating less (not more) health in our clients’ lives and ultimately, are simply unable to be of any real, lasting help to the people we say we are here to serve.
Below, I have broken down the post section by section to explain my reaction, as a Body Positive fitness professional. I do this only in an attempt to help us ALL learn – and NOT to “call out” this one really great guy whose opinions are just a common product of his culture (The health fitness industry + Diet Culture) and his training.
“We have to stop the mindset that it's "shaming" if we inform someone that something they're doing is unhealthy.”
This brief statement refers, it seems, to the concept of “body shaming” or “fat shaming.” Body shaming is the act of telling someone that their body is “wrong” or “bad” for any reason. Fat shaming is the act of telling someone that their body is “wrong” or “bad” because it is fat. Both are unwelcome and unrequested from the body in question. That is, this sort of shaming occurs when we give our negative opinions of bodies that did not ask for our opinion.
The word “inform” here can be a reference to any number of interactions. If we “inform” someone that they are “unhealthy” by yelling at them on a crowded street when they were just minding their own business and did not ask for our opinion, we are most certainly body shaming them. On the other hand, if we are a fitness professional who has been openly approached for our opinion, to “inform” someone of their health status is our job and can and should be done in a professional, objective manner.
But this distinction too is trickier than we might immediately think. Even in the very best and most thorough health fitness programs, health fitness professionals are steeped in the deep-seated belief that the one easy health-marker of weight is the holy grail of health. That is, sadly, many health fitness professionals see weight as the primary – and sometimes ONLY – health factor that matters. We are essentially taught that fat is a great enemy and if we want to help people (which most of us purport to want to do), we will help people escape fat at any and all costs. The truth is weight is only ONE marker of health. The other truth is our obsession with thinness and our hatred of fat and fat bodies directly contributes to the degradation and destruction of other markers of health.
This leads to the issue of health fitness professionals behaving in discriminatory ways toward fat people and thinking that everyone, all the time, is asking for their opinion. This is why I use the phrase “openly approached” above. As health fitness professionals, it is still NOT our job to “inform” anyone of their health status who does not specifically ask us for our opinion. And yet, fat shaming and body shaming is rampant in the health fitness profession because we do not save our opinions for those moments when they are specifically asked for. We tend, as a profession (and, as a culture – thank you, social media), to give our opinions freely and widely. So, if a health fitness professional “informs” someone of their health status without that person asking for their opinion, then yes, they are engaging in fat shaming or body shaming.
Now, it’s important to understand the communicative dynamic in an event of body or fat shaming. That is, there is a speaker and there is the body that the speaker is speaking about and to. The “shame” that happens is not about what the speaker is saying. Shame happens internally, inside the body that is being referenced. The speaker might not, from their perspective, want to inflict shame on the body but since we cannot control how other people feel (I REPEAT: WE CANNOT MAKE ANY ONE ELSE FEEL OR NOT FEEL SOMETHING), the body being “informed” of their inferior health status will most likely feel shame. Thus, it is NOT up to the speaker to determine whether what they said was “shaming” or not – it is up to the body receiving the opinion. Consider this: if I say something that sounds sexist to the people hearing what I am saying, does it matter if I believe that what I’m saying is NOT sexist? Whether a statement is sexist or not is NOT up to the person speaking it – it is up to the audience receiving that message. This is how it is with “shaming.” It is not up to us to decide if what we are saying is shaming or not, it is up to the audience who receives the message. If someone feels “shamed” by something we have said about their body then either 1) We are being insensitive and don’t care how that person feels or 2) We are uninformed and ignorant about how our words are affecting our audience. If we’re just being insensitive, there’s little help for that. We are likely assholes and can’t be helped. If, however, we are just uninformed and ignorant then we can become educated about how we might use our words in a more effective and less offensive manner.
Once again I will say that most health fitness professionals say we want to help people. We want to help people get healthier or stay healthy. IF this is really true then we should also want to learn to communicate with clients in a way that does not harm them. We should want to know how to “inform” people of their health status without shaming them. This requires that we understand and accept what Diet Culture has done to everyone. We live inside Diet Culture. Our clients live inside Diet Culture. The health fitness profession, as a whole, has unfortunately been to a large degree co-opted by Diet Culture which means as health fitness professionals we are even more inside Diet Culture than our society at large. When our clients step into our gyms or studios, they are stepping deeper inside Diet Culture. And, the fact is, Diet Culture runs on shame and body hatred. So, our clients – whatever their actual health status or weight might be – are coming to us already with some level of shame (sometimes quite deep) and a propensity towards hating their bodies or at least being dissatisfied with them.
Who takes better care of a possession – someone who hates that possession or loves that possession? If you hate your car, how likely is it to be clean and run smoothly? If you hate your house, how likely is it that your house is well maintained and cared for? Children are not possessions but they are beings that we are responsible for. If you hate your children, how likely are you to treat them well? The same goes for pets. I personally believe that our bodies are our greatest possession – without our bodies, we would not be here. Our bodies are also beings that we are responsible for – just like our children and our pets. In order to truly care for our bodies to the best of our abilities, we must – WE MUST – love them. We must – at least – see them as worthy of being cared for. As health fitness professionals, it behooves us to understand – on a deep level – how much Diet Culture has robbed people of their ability to love their bodies or to see their bodies as worthy of being cared for.
In short: When a trainer unintentionally (or intentionally) body shames a client, they make it less possible for their client to believe that their bodies are worthy of the kind of care (nutrition and exercise) that they are trying to get their clients to engage in. The way we talk to our clients matters.
We must try to begin to understand how impossible it is – in the crush, confusion and abuse of Diet Culture –for a person with a 380-pound body to simply “choose” to love themselves. Consider a child who is brutally abused throughout her entire childhood. Do you believe that this child, at the age of 18, upon being able to leave her abusive household, simply “chooses” to leave that abusive past behind? Or do you believe that this child will probably have some difficulties navigating the world until she takes the necessary steps toward healing her mind and body of that experienced trauma? Can she simply snap her fingers, take a happy selfie that proclaims “positive vibes only” and end the effects of that trauma in one instant? No. The journey toward healing from trauma is a long and arduous road that requires superhuman courage and extreme emotional tenacity. Diet Culture is a societal trauma. Though everyone – EVERYONE – is affected by it, larger bodies take the brunt of Diet Culture’s abuse.
If I have a 380-pound client who chooses to love themselves, I have to understand that this does not necessarily mean they actually already love themselves. Choosing to love ourselves happens before we actually feel that love; sometimes a long long long time before. Choosing to love ourselves means BEGINNING the process of healing from past traumas – it does not mean that those traumas disappear in an instant. A 380-pound client who chooses to love themselves is taking a very big risk walking into a gym or a studio to seek help from a health fitness professional. They are summoning every ounce of superhuman courage and extreme emotional tenacity they have to walk right up to the face of Diet Culture and say, “help me.” It is nothing short of a tragedy that someone willing to put themselves so far out on the line to seek the healing they know instinctually that they deserve should be met with a simple, “well, you’re fat – and that’s unhealthy.” Imagine the disappointment, the sense of hopelessness, and yes, the SHAME a client would feel in that moment. Do you think a 380-pound person living in our culture doesn’t already know that they are fat or that fat is "unhealthy?" Really?
If you look around you for one moment, you will see that Diet Culture has that message on lock. In fact, I would venture to say it is the ONLY message most Americans have really heard about health. "You’re fat. Fat is bad. You’re bad. Stop Being Fat." Yep – we get it. We ALL get it. This messaging IS the abuse. This messaging is Diet Culture’s co-opting of the health fitness profession. There is SO MUCH MORE to health than whether someone is fat or skinny. It is EMBARASSING to me that, ultimately, even most health fitness professionals boil all of the complexity of health down to that one shallow, ignorant judgement. And when that client – who had to use all of their courage and tenacity just to walk through the door of our gym – is met with yet another ignorant, abusive message – do we think that we are helping them? Really? Because the bottom line is, we’re not. We’re negligent. And again, either we are negligent because we are assholes or we are negligent because we just haven’t taken the time and energy to understand the effect of Diet Culture on the hearts and minds of our clients. If we’re just ignorant, it is our responsibility to seek the education we need to better serve our clients. If we really care about our clients, we must learn what is happening to them, where they are coming from and how we might actually be able to really help them, in a profound, long-term, life-changing way. We WILL NOT provide profound, long-term, life-changing care by simply focusing on a person’s weight and weight loss. We will not.
“But, can you love/accept yourself as you begin a proper dietary lifestyle and a safe workout regimen?”
This is a great question –and it is more complicated than most health fitness professionals would like to think because most of us believe beginning such a regimen is just about getting the proper education and making the decision to change. But, this process is far more complicated than handing our clients some brochures and telling them to follow the rules.
How easy our work would be if we could simply say: eat nutritious foods and workout regularly. Again, do we think this message is new? One more glance at Diet Culture would tell us that this is more messaging everyone gets ALL of the time. We know. Oh, lord do we know… we MUST eat nutritious foods and workout regularly. Right after – “you’re fat and fat is bad” – these messages are the most abundant. So Diet Culture messaging goes something like this: “You’re fat, fat is bad, you’re bad, if you want to be good, you must eat nutritious foods and workout regularly.” This messaging puts people in a panicked, fearful, self-hating state of mind that leaves them vulnerable to marketing of essentially anything that will take away those feelings. Sometimes it’s a daily protein shake. Sometimes it’s a three-week program that promises 15 pounds of weight loss. Sometimes it’s a set of DVDs. Sometimes it’s a library of streamed workouts. You name it, once Diet Culture has us in that state of mind, we’ll buy it! In fact, Diet Culture has been able to co-opt the health fitness profession by making what health fitness professionals do lucrative and sought after. We can so easily coast on the fear, body-hatred, and shame that Diet Culture produces to sell our training plans and programs – and most of us do.
So… chances are… our suggestions of eating nutritious foods and working out regularly are not remotely new to our client. In fact, our client is very likely to have tried every possible method of “eating nutritious foods” (which they will decode to mean “Diet”) and regularly working out (which they will decode to mean “extreme exercise routines that punish them for being bad/fat”) that they can afford. They will already likely be filled with feelings of failure because they have not been able to live up to this expectation of Diet Culture already. So, if we think about that for a minute… the answer to this question is very likely, “no.” No, it is not possible for most clients to love and accept themselves AND “begin a proper dietary lifestyle and a safe workout regimen” because they associate our “proper dietary lifestyle” and “safe workout regimen” with hating themselves and punishing themselves for being unacceptable, unworthy, unlovable human beings.
Let that sink in, please. …Please.
The time it takes to go from “choosing” to love oneself and one’s body to actually being healed enough from the trauma of Diet Culture to truly choose nutritious foods and joyful movement (not punishing exercise) simply in order to care for one’s body is different for everyone. But it will take time. One cannot simply snap one’s fingers and change an entire lifetime of trauma. As health fitness professionals, we have to ask ourselves if we are willing to give our clients that time and space to heal. Are we? Some of that time and space – maybe even a lot of it – will look like “bad eating habits” and inactivity to us. Can we understand and accept that most of the healing is going to take place in the hearts and minds of our clients and not in their bodies? Can we appreciate that Body Diversity is real. Not everyone was meant to fit into our narrow charts of “proper weight.” Once they are healing from Diet Culture and truly see their bodies as worthy of respect and love, some of our clients might experience some weight loss. Some might not. Can we accept that? Can we accept the complexity and diversity of human experience and expression? Or can’t we? Can we change our business model and our product to something that does not USE the fear, body-hatred and shame Diet Culture produces in order to sell our expertise to our clients? Do we have something to offer other than being the henchmen for Diet Culture? Can we offer guidance toward nutritious eating and joyful movement without also harming our clients with the futile punishment of restrictive dieting or the pressure of fitting into narrow societal standards of acceptable body size?
And on that note: What is it we are helping our clients with? What is our goal? I have seen far too many fitness professionals take it for granted that our collective goal is simply to encourage people to get skinny. Of course, most of us will couch that goal in what sounds like a worthier, loftier, more morally sound goal: to encourage our clients to “get healthy.” But the truth is when most of us say “get healthy,” what we really mean is “get skinny.”
If our goal is TRUE HEALTH, that cannot coincide with an emphasis on simple – and shallow – and usually (95% of weight loss ends in re-gaining the weight) fleeting weight loss.
“Whether you love yourself or not, your chances of developing cardiovascular disease has increased significantly; and a heart attack won't be nearly as polite and caring about motivating you as I am.”
A complete discussion of the various risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease is outside the scope of this response. It is undeniable that higher weight IS one of those risk factors. I simply want to mention here that there are many risk factors and that many of them can’t be seen in the weight someone wears on their body. In other words, we walk past hundreds of bodies every single day that appear to be a “normal” weight, “healthy” weight, and “underweight” that are carrying risk factors – sometimes many – for developing cardiovascular disease. Most health fitness professionals do not make assumptions about these bodies and do not claim to know these bodies’ risk factors simply by looking at them or even weighing them. Yet, many of us are quick to point out the larger bodies walking around who are carrying around this ONE risk. In other words: a thin body that consumes two packs of cigarettes every day, takes multiple prescription drugs, is never active, does not get adequate sleep, is chronically dehydrated, is hypertensive, carries a genetic predisposition to developing cardiovascular disease, and hates themselves (yes, this DOES impact our health) is much more likely to die of a heart attack than a fat body that ingests lots of green leafy vegetables and whole grains every day, rarely if ever has to take prescription drugs, gets 30 minutes of light-moderate activity every morning, gets adequate sleep, is properly hydrated, has excellent blood pressure, does not carry a genetic predisposition to developing cardiovascular disease, and truly loves themselves.
To boil the complexity of human bodies and human experience down to “you’re fat so you’re going to die from a heart attack” is embarrassingly simplistic. As health fitness professionals, we MUST. STOP. DOING. THIS!
It would also be great if we could stop using fear to “motivate” our clients. “You’re fat. You’re going to die from a heart attack so you better do what I tell you to do” is NOT motivating. If someone has recently had a heart attack, this might be motivating in the short term. But in general and in the long term, this is more use of shallow, ignorant, hateful, and abusive Diet Culture tactics. What we are saying is: “You’re body is a problem! Fix it or die!” The mental and emotional state that this scare tactic puts our clients in is, in itself, very bad for their health. If our goal is to really help our clients achieve TRUE health, the anxiety and depression we are encouraging our clients to suffer when we use scare tactics is negligent on our part.
So, if it is negligent to “motivate” our clients through fear, body-hatred or shame, how DO we motivate our clients? This is hard for most fitness professionals because, having been steeped in Diet Culture their entire lives and careers, this type of motivation is all they know, it is just second nature. They make the assumption that everyone should want to rid their bodies of fat at all costs – even the cost of mental and emotional health. Still, there ARE some fitness professionals who have always worked from a Body Positive mindset even if they never called it that. Graduates of Delta College’s health fitness specialist program have an advantage in understanding this mindset because most of our Professors lead with positivity, the attitude that health is about loving and respecting one’s unique body, and a holistic approach to health that sees physical health as only one factor in an individual’s overall well-being. Our Professors are also extremely professional and have an integrity in their approach to their work that includes utter respect for other human beings. They understand – and attempt to instill in us – that motivation has to come first and foremost from the respect and courtesy we must be giving our clients and their individual needs. I believe that respect and courtesy has to extend to educating ourselves about Diet Culture and its effect on our clients and our communities. I believe that if we really care about “helping” our clients, we will learn to motivate them from a Body Positive perspective and not from the old paradigm of shame and fear.
“The same applies to those who are under-weight.”
I hear this phrase thrown in a lot when health fitness professionals are making some grand statement about the immorality or unacceptableness of larger bodies. As health fitness professionals we have been educated about the dangers of being underweight. They are absolutely as great as the dangers of being overweight. But, in truth, and in practice, most health fitness professionals do not worry about people being underweight until that underweight-ness gets to the point of near death or death itself. Then, people suffering from anorexia finally get everyone’s attention and concern. The truth is… “underweight” people are suffering in the same way that “overweight” people are from Diet Culture’s abuse. The other truth is… body diversity. Some bodies are meant to be larger. Some bodies are meant to be smaller.
Throwing in "oh ya, and… the same applies to those who are under-weight” is a way for us to hide – or even remain ignorant to – our hatred of fat bodies. We are saying, “I’m not targeting fat bodies specifically like some kind of bigot… I hate all bodies that don’t conform to my industry’s standards.” As if this caveat makes the prior judgement, scare tactics and yes, shaming of fat bodies all good somehow.
Most of the health fitness industry’s messages specifically target fat bodies. The Health fitness Industry, as a whole, is – whether we want to admit it or not – Fat Phobic. It’s important that we see this, admit this, accept this so that we can move beyond this.
“Just be healthy!”
First, if it was easy to “just be healthy” everyone would already be living by the health fitness industry’s definition of what healthy is because, as I’ve said before – Diet Culture makes this same messaging very clear: “your weight = your health = your worth.” Everyone wants to feel worthy, loveable and deserving of respect. So, if we could snap our fingers and “just be healthy,” everyone would’ve done this already and our entire job and industry would be unnecessary.
Second, it is imperative that we learn and accept that “healthy” in Diet Culture means “skinny” BUT that, if we have any brains in our heads at all as health fitness professionals, “healthy” should mean something much different to us and should include many different aspects of health, NOT just weight. Thus, either our own definitions of “health” that we are holding our clients to must be multi-faceted, intelligent and ultimately, body positive OR we have to allow everyone their own definition of “health.” I fall on this side of that coin. I believe everyone has a right to determine their own definition of “health” and that this definition is constantly evolving and changing as people’s bodies evolve and change – as bodies naturally do throughout a person’s lifetime.
Third, and this is going to be a hard pill to swallow for anyone new to the Body Positive Movement, no one is required to be healthy – not by Diet Culture’s standards, not by your standards and not even by their own standards. “Health” is not a moral requirement. Seeking “health” does not make someone a better or more valuable person. Obsessively chasing after “health” – particularly physical health at the cost of mental or emotional health – does not make someone superior to all others. “Health” is not a mandate. As long as we treat it that way, we are buying into Diet Culture and using this as a reason to discriminate against and hate people who -- for whatever reason that is none of our business – do not choose healthy behaviors and lifestyles.
Finally, it is fat bodies/ larger bodies that often get told to “just be healthy.” People are okay with others being fat as long as they are trying to be “healthy.” Thin bodies do not get this same conditional acceptance. As long as you are thin, you don’t have to try to be healthy at all. Because we judge a body’s “health” by whether it is thin or not, we assume that thin bodies are already as healthy as they need to be. Even if that thin body consumes two packs of cigarettes and two bottles of wine each day, few people will question (at least just by looking at it) whether it is healthy or not. That’s not okay. It’s none of my business whether someone is healthy or not healthy, according to any definition. And it’s none of my business if they are trying to be healthy or not trying to be healthy.
The only time that someone’s health becomes our actual business is when they come to us as health fitness professionals and actually ask for our opinion on their health and our help in getting or staying healthy. And then, it is our professional responsibility to treat them with kindness, respect, consideration, and compassion, AND to understand the complexity of their human experience, while appreciating that their experiences are likely different from our own. And yes, it is absolutely our responsibility to take pains NOT to body shame or fat shame them and inflict the same exact harm that has been done to them through Diet Culture their entire lives. And if, not meaning to, we ignorantly say something that makes them feel afraid, hateful of their bodies or ashamed, WE HAVE TO apologize and next time, DO BETTER.
Health fitness professionals must stop hiding behind Diet Culture’s simplistic and harmful messaging about what “health” is. We must begin to see, admit, understand and then rise above the inherent Fat Phobia and Body Shaming that IS a significant percentage of the many mainstream health fitness plans and programs that we, ourselves, are products of. If we really care about helping our clients, we must – we MUST -- do better.
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.