Dear Fitness Instructors: A Plea for Body-Positive Commentary

Dear fitness instructors,

This letter comes from a place of love. I adore group fitness classes. You welcome in people of all shapes, sizes and abilities and you serve as coaches to the masses, particularly for so many of us who can’t afford personal training or super-specialized classes.

I’ll never forget my first group class back on a recent wellness push, when I’d added a spinning class into my more typically solo, machine-based cardio routine. At the peak of the workout (or one of the dozen peaks — have you people ever taken a spinning class?!?), the instructor yelled, “YOU CAN DO THIS!” from her bike up front.

“YOU’VE GOT THIS! DON’T GIVE UP!” she insisted, her voice a roar over the crescendo of the music.

In that moment, I was grateful for the darkened studio we were in, because her words led to the teensiest bout of ugly crying on my end.  No, she wasn’t talking to me specifically, but she SPOKE TO ME. She coached me when I felt tired and weak. She made me feel seen and supported in a process that so often feels isolated and invisible. She reminded me that community is part of my wellness journey.

I could mist up again just remembering the power of moment. And similar things have happened multiple times since I’ve gotten back into fitness classes, like the time one instructor referred to me as “the new athlete joining us for the day” when I showed up in her studio for the first time. Me? An athlete? No one had called me an athlete in more than a decade. Swoooon. After that confidence boost, you can bet I had my swagger on the entire class, newbie status be damned.

The work you do as fitness instructors is so important, which is why I feel compelled to bring up the idea of body positivity in the context of group classes. Because the only thing that jars me from the euphoria of a fitness class (well, besides sweat dripping in my eyes and concern about the competency of my sports bra and general exhaustion…) is the use of body-shaming language that seems to bubble up in some of the classes I attend.

You know, phrases like:

“Push harder now so that you won’t feel guilty having a drink tonight!”

“If you’ve been bad over the weekend, it’s time to make up for it here.”

“If it’s still jiggling, we’ve got more work to do.”

“Don’t forget, bikini season is right around the corner!”

The last comment in particularly stopped me in my tracks at a class a few weeks ago, particularly because there was a young girl in there, maybe 13. I hated that this young soul had such a body-negative message reinforced in this otherwise positive space.

I hated the way so many of the women in the class nodded knowingly after hearing the comment. Like, “Yep. This is finally going to be the year that my body will be bikini ready. And then I’ll find true life satisfaction.”

I hated the reminder that I’ve been spending my early thirties trying to undo all of the body-negative B.S. that I internalized in my tweens and teens.

It wasn’t just the 13-year-old girl in the class who got me thinking about the implications of that “bikini season” comment from our instructor. See, right next to me was a nearly 90-year-old man, exercising his heart out. I simply refuse to believe that his personal motivation for attending the class was to look better in a bikini, which only reinforced the very gendered and ageist slant of the remark from the otherwise awesome instructor.

I understand where these sorts of comments come from. They’re the bread and butter of many fitness and lifestyle magazines that I’ve been reading since I was a kid (see the collage I made up top!) and the theme of a gazillion fitness DVDs and VHS tapes that probably still fill many of our basement shelves. Not to mention how much of female bonding relies on body shaming and “we’ll be naughty together” reasoning (more on that in another post.)

But I think that the fitness community can do more to collectively embody a broader conceptualization of what it means to be ‘well,’ avoiding the kinds of negative myths that a body positivity mindset rejects, such as:

  1. If we’ve consumed rich food or drink, we’ve been bad and should feel shame.
  2. Strict diets and brutal exercise are penance for laziness and indulgence and weakness.
  3. Our bodies are only desirable or useful when they conform to thin beauty ideals.
  4. A bikini body ready is a thin, muscular body; the rest of us should stay hidden indoors between the months of June and September. (Under parkas, preferably.)

As I’ve said before, on my own path to body-positive wellness, I’ve begun to conceive of weight loss as a potential side effect, but it’s not the main goal. There are endless studies that suggest non-aesthetic reasons to exercise, including better sleep, improved mood, improved sex drive, better focus, decreased anxiety and depression, and more.*

Exercise is magic. Plain and simple.

Even Women’s Health magazine has recently taken the leap to remove some body-negative language from its cover. What two phrases did audiences most want to see banished from the front? “Bikini body” and “drop two sizes.”

Hear, hear!

I believe that fitness instructors have a powerful role to play in this reconceptualization of what wellness means to people (and especially women) today. So how can you motivate us without relying on the knee-jerk standby comments about penance and being good or being bad or getting beach-body ready?

Remind me of my power that I tap into in these classes, a power that is always mine for the taking.

Remind me that movement is an essential part of my expression as a human.

Remind me that this is a space for me to focus solely on me, and to leave my baggage (and my self-consciousness) at the door.

Remind me that some of my classmates have been doing this for years, but that they had to start somewhere, too.

Remind me that I already have in me everything I need to transform my life (note: not my body) in the ways I desire.

Remind me of the self-discipline it took to get up and get to a class on a cold or dreary morning.

Remind me of the energy boost I’m likely to have for the rest of the day based on my decision to exercise.

Remind me of how exercise relates to self-care and self-love.

Remind me of how I have to take care of myself before I can take care of others.

Remind me of how much you like my funky socks (because for real, my gym sock game is on. point.)

I love you coaches so much. I hope you can take the time to think about this message, and help reduce the instances of body shaming that may be keeping people outside your doors, or feeling ashamed within them. We need you!

Ever Watchful,

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*Erin Brown’s post on how she uses exercise to manage depression transformed my postpartum life after the birth of my third son. Check it out!

P.S. I LOVE this episode of ‘Braless’ about the notion of a ‘Bikini Body’ (coupled with a whole bunch of pictures of diverse bodies rocking swimsuits.)

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