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A Body Image Problem in the Fitness Industry?

by Amanda Vogel, MA on Feb 16, 2018

With our clients’ bodies, we’re oh-so-careful not to judge, but we may be less kind to ourselves and each other. Here’s a look at why our industry does indeed have a body image problem—and what we can do about it, starting now.

Fitness professionals often bemoan how clients can be too appearance-oriented in their fitness pursuits, harboring a negative body image and/or unrealistic expectations around shaping the “perfect” physique.

What about us?

How do personal trainers and fitness instructors fare in the face of body insecurities? A lot of us put pressure on ourselves—and each other—to look a certain way. Individually, fitness pros vary widely in where they fall on the body image spectrum, which extends from abject dissatisfaction to healthy self-perception. But even if our own perspective falls within the “contented range,” we must recognize that, as an industry, we have a problem. There’s tacit, and sometimes blatant, body shaming. There’s pressure to appear lean, muscular and athletic as a way to prove our professional worth and knowledge. And there’s the predicament of trying to help clients feel good about their bodies when many of us wrestle with our own woes.

Body image issues in the fitness industry are nothing new. But the need for a more positive philosophy and more diverse perceptions of beauty is especially relevant right now. With rising competition from fitness technologies, social media stars who plug fitness, TV trainers and an increasingly crowded marketplace within our own communities, a nice body can (and should) only get you so far in this industry. We need to emphasize qualifications more than we already do. And we certainly can’t afford to discourage people from exercising because of worn-out stereotypes about how a fit body is “supposed” to look. Our strength and longevity as an industry rely in part on greater acceptance of body diversity among our clients and participants. But to foster this open-mindedness, we must first extend acceptance to ourselves and to each other. Let’s break open this age-old problem and start working on new solutions.

“You’re a Trainer? Let’s See Your Six-Pack!”

Most fitness pros say a fit body doesn’t have to be thin and noticeably muscular. But the image that the industry typically showcases as “fit” in its ads, marketing, social posts and education is still pretty clichéd—a youthful, hyperfit male or female physique that even many fitness pros haven’t been able to (or cared to) attain.

“The fitness industry does a wonderful job of conveying the message that an active, healthy lifestyle is beneficial for all. However, the images that often accompany this message are those of fitness models with low body fat and [similar-looking] proportions,” says Robin M. Gillespie of Transformation Fitness, an NASM-certified trainer in Philadelphia. Fitness ads are rife with unrealistic “fit bodies,” observes Patricia Friberg, MPS, owner of Patricia Friberg.com, star of numerous workout DVDs and group fitness manager at Equinox in Westlake Village, California. “These images become the industry standard,” she says.

As a result, the general population mostly expects fitness pros to look really fit, too. But what does that even mean? And is it a fair expectation?

Presumably, a fitness pro’s physique is his or her calling card. When you live a healthy lifestyle, your body naturally reflects that. But here lies a conundrum: It’s quite possible to walk the walk of an active lifestyle every day and still look less lean, less muscular and less athletic than someone with an amazing body whose self-care routine is terrible. A trainer with a few pounds to lose might be infinitely more qualified than his or her stereotypically hot-bodied colleague. Just look at Instagram to see which types of “fitness experts” typically garner the most accolades.

“When you have fitness experts who hold no certifications or have no education but are considered experts solely based on the way they look, it makes it difficult for those of us who do have certifications and pursue continuing education,” says Christine DiFilippis, owner of Pop Fit Studio and creator of Red Hot Dance Fitness in Philadelphia.

It’s pretty obvious that a great-looking body doesn’t guarantee skills and qualifications—so why do people think otherwise? Well, some folks are just uninformed. But, thanks to today’s marketing campaigns, they’re not entirely to blame; many aspects of the industry perpetuate this myth. We need a messaging makeover.

For example, everyone knows (don’t they?) that fitness is largely about function: how well your body works and what it can do. Are we selling this concept strongly enough? “In the last decade or so, there seems to have been a shift toward health and performance,” says James S. Fell, MBA, CSCS, owner of bodyforwife.com and author of Lose It Right (Penguin Random House 2014). “Although I see us moving in a better direction, vanity still plays a significant role in this industry, and that can create body image issues.”

For more information, please see “Does the Fitness Industry Have a Body Image Problem?” in the online IDEA Library or in the February 2018 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Amanda Vogel, MA human kinetics, is the owner of ActiveVoice.ca, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. She’s a Hootsuite-certified social media consultant for fitness brands and public figures and a Fitness Technology Spokesperson for IDEA. Specializing in group fitness, Amanda holds indoor cycling certifications from Schwinn and Keiser. In addition to blogging at FitnessTestDrive.com about fit tech, workout gear and exercise clothes, she writes for popular magazines, including IDEA Fitness Journal, ACE Certified, Best Health and Reader’s Digest. Find her on social: @amandavogel on Twitter and @amandavogelfitness on Instagram.