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.
Pressures From the Outside—and From Within
The pressure for fitness pros to look a certain way stems from multiple areas: traditional industry marketing, television shows, social media commentary, competition with colleagues and client/manager expectations, to name a few. Even strangers seem to have an opinion. “Recently. someone I’d just met told me that I didn’t look like I would be a personal trainer,” says says Carrie Myers—owner of CarrieMichele Fitness and a master-level transformational coach in New Hampshire—“because, as this person put it, ‘They’re usually a lot skinnier and more fit.’” At the time, Myers was recovering from several surgeries. “I thought I was doing pretty well to be back to the level I was at!” she says.
“On the flip side,” Myers continues, “several years ago, when I was very fit, I was told by a gym manager that he was surprised I was so successful with women clients. When I asked why, his response was, ‘Well, look at you. I’m surprised women would want to work with you, because you must be intimidating to them.’”
Robin M. Gillespie of Transformation Fitness, an NASM-certified trainer in Philadelphia, has also received comments on her physical appearance while on the job. They spurred her to join Black Girl Pilates, a group that seeks to provide better representation for Black/Afro Latina women in the mind-body space. “When I first started teaching, people thought it was okay to make comments about my curves,” she says. “And sometimes a co-worker would comment on my butt, saying it was large, when in fact it is in proportion with my build.”
Many fitness pros also burden themselves with expectations. “I used to feel immense pressure to look a certain way,” says Christine DiFilippis, owner of Pop Fit Studio and creator of Red Hot Dance Fitness in Philadelphia. “I thought that in order to be a fitness professional, you had to look lean but muscular, with six-pack abs.” Her struggle with body image in the fitness industry eventually led to an eating disorder and a hiatus from teaching group exercise (read more of her story in the sidebar “We’re All in This Together”).
Myers can relate, having struggled with anorexia and what she calls “an anorexic mindset” about 25 years ago. “I had to leave the industry for a while so that I could heal,” she says. “I just couldn’t get beyond where I was with the eating disorder [while I was] being continually bombarded with images of perfection and feeling like I didn’t and never would measure up.” She has since written a book called Squeezing Your Size 14 Self into a Size 6 World: A Real Woman’s Guide to Food, Fitness and Self-Acceptance (Champion Press 2004).
Research from Norway, published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, suggests there may be a high prevalence of disordered eating among group fitness instructors (Bratland-Sanda, Nilsson & Sundgot-Borgen 2015). Of the 837 subjects (152 men, 685 women) surveyed in the study, 22% of the male instructors and 59% of the female instructors were classified with disordered eating. This is a concern, not only because of the impact on instructors’ physical and mental health, but also because instructors are held up as role models of, and authorities on, health—in gyms, in their communities and even on social media.
To read more about body image issues within the fitness industry, please see “Does the Fitness Industry Have a Body Image Problem?” in the online IDEA Library or in the February 2018 print issue 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.
Bratland-Sanda, S., Nilsson, M.P., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. 2015. Disordered eating behavior among group fitness instructors: A health-threatening secret? Journal of Eating Disorders, 3, 22.
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