“How do you handle negative body issues, either for yourself or when clients obviously have issues with their own body image?”
When I was growing up, I was proud of my body. No one had shorter shorts than I had. I didn’t think twice about how my clothes fit or what I was eating. After I started college, I grew a few sizes pretty quickly and began thinking about my body image. I heard a few comments here and there about my body, and my clothes no longer fit. I knew I needed to change.
Eventually I lost six pant sizes and 35 pounds, and my passion for fitness and healthy eating grew. Over the last 4 years, I have documented my personal victories—from running half marathons to going from 25% body fat to the low teens. I’ve put myself out there on social media forums to inspire and educate others.
I became a personal trainer and launched my online personal training business. Then I started competing in bikini competitions and got really lean. I went from 130 pounds to 117, and my body became totally different. I documented these changes online. Every week, as I posted new progress pictures, I received many compliments from women who wanted to know my secrets.
For 12 weeks, I was on top of the world. Even after competitions, I maintained my lean body at about 120–125 pounds. I exercised all the time and ate healthfully. After 2 years, I was bored with competing. I moved on to Crossfit® and, within the first year, fell in love with the sport. Lifting heavy weights and achieving personal records are fun for me, but my body was changing again.
In that first year, I gained 15 pounds, putting me at 140 pounds. None of my clothes fit anymore. I started wearing different styles because clothing looked different on me. I felt I had no idea who I was. The compliments went away. Part of me was happy, but part of my heart was breaking.
Then, on top of what was already going on, a magazine interviewed me and asked what my highest weight had been (165 pounds) and my lowest (117), and what my current weight was (135). I wondered if people would think I was a failure because I weighed 18 pounds more than my lowest weight—especially since I was a fitness professional who was supposed to know what she was doing.
Yes, 117 pounds wasn’t a “real” weight for me. [I’d reached that for a competition, and] as soon as the event was over and I rehydrated my body, I was back to 120. But 120 was not a healthy weight for me either; 125 was a good place, but I gained nearly 10 pounds in muscle doing Crossfit. [I understood why I gained some weight, but] it still felt weird.
So I do have body-image issues. And sometimes it makes me wonder what in the world I’m thinking when I appear in photos wearing just a sports bra and short shorts. How is my body supposed to inspire people? I know that these thoughts are not healthy. They are thoughts I coach people away from every day. But these thoughts do creep into my mind from time to time. I wonder whether I’d be happy if I did have my “dream body.” Will I ever be able to stop having pep talks to remind myself that I should go out and enjoy dinner and drinks with friends because having a social life is more important than the elusive six-pack?
I hope my body-image issues will get better over time, but I’m not sure [if they will]. I think it’s important to eat healthy foods and be active for the love of your body and not to endure frequent starvation or overexercise out of hatred for your body. However, I think that many women, including myself, will always have to give ourselves pep talks when we eat, particularly when we consume unhealthy food. Pep talks are good—I can do pep talks—and sometimes we need them to shut our minds off.
Body image is an issue we deal with on a regular basis in our industry. Having a thin and muscular body is not just “in”; to many people it signifies having special characteristics, including being hard working, successful, beautiful, popular, strong and self-disciplined. On the other hand, fat signifies being lazy, weak, ugly, stupid, a pushover, and lacking in willpower. Psychologists describe this phenomenon in which thin and fat are no longer just descriptions of someone’s appearance but have come to describe a person’s entire moral character. Fat is bad and wrong, while thin is good and right.
Here are some specific strategies I use to help my clients address their body-image issues:
First, the fit and look of clothes really do contribute to people’s appearance, adding to or subtracting from their personal best. I suggest to clients that they dress to express who they are, and that they buy what they like that fits them now. I tell them to make sure their clothes are comfortable and that the clothes make them feel good and set up their mood for the day. I also suggest they remove the size labels from their clothing.
Second, I recommend staying away from the scale. If clients need to keep track of their weight, they can wait to do so at a doctor’s appointment. The numbers can cause unnecessary worry and anxiety, and they don’t tell enough about heath and body composition. When you step on a scale, it’s as if you were asking a machine, “Am I okay? Can I feel good about myself?” It is always okay to feel good about yourself; don’t let the scale tell you any differently.
I also encourage clients to recognize and work with their genetic inheritance, viewing it not as a limitation but as their personal best. I also suggest they refrain from “fat talk” with friends and relatives, as this talk reinforces weight dissatisfaction.
Greg Justice, MA
AYC Health & Fitness
Prairie Village, Kansas
I used to weigh 410 pounds, but I lost 165 pounds. I have always had a body-image problem. When I weighed 410 pounds, I didn’t want to go out. I looked in the mirror and saw a body I hated. Other people made fun of me and called me names. I didn’t know how to fix my body or how to love myself.
When I was trying to lose weight, I asked for help at a gym. The trainers made me do fitness tests. At my weight, I was not in any shape for that. The trainers laughed at me and didn’t give me any helpful suggestions. From that moment on, I knew that if I ever lost my excess weight, I would help overweight clients and try to get other trainers to be more empathetic.
After losing weight, I became an ACE-certified personal trainer. That was in 1998. Today, as a trainer, I still struggle with my body image. I have excess skin from losing a large amount of weight and am even more self-conscious than before.
I am now an independent trainer. I teach my clients to love themselves a little more each day, if they can’t fully love themselves all at once. I compliment them on how their arms or legs look. I know that plus-size clients are going through the same body-image issues as I am. I feel I can help guide them to a happier and healthier way of life. I love what I do! If I can help more clients realize they are worth the time it takes to work out and feel better about themselves, I know I have done my job well.
I feel I will always struggle with my body image, but I’m learning to deal with it a little better each day. As I look in the mirror now, I love who I am. I will never be ashamed of myself and or of what I look like ever again! I realize that my excess skin is my skin. People can either love me for who I am or forget it! I teach my clients the same values. My client interactions also help me with my body image. My clients let me know they feel comfortable with a trainer who is average and not trying to show off.
I have tried to get a job as a trainer in a gym, but the interviewers haven’t been able to see past my appearance, even though I am fit. I am a certified personal trainer and loving it! I will keep going and never give up.
Queens Village, New York
I remind my clients, usually at the end of their sessions, that the most important part of fitness and healthy eating is simply being healthy, which is much more important than physical appearance. I also say it’s important to remember not to compare your body with someone else’s. Although some people look good physically, they may not be internally healthy. For example, some people eat a lot of saturated fat but are blessed with good genes that give them a faster metabolism than other people. Those people stay slim without much effort, but they are clogging their arteries!
Gabrielle Furlong, CPT, CFNS
Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Nutritionist
Fitness and Nutrition by Gabrielle