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Marketing Promotes Unrealistic Body Expectations for Fit Pros

Fitness professionals often bemoan how clients can be too appearance-oriented in their fitness pursuits, harboring 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 PatriciaFriberg.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.”

Most people naturally evaluate fitness by what they can clearly observe and describe. “Attributes like strength, VO2, coordination, reactivity, speed and power are all quantifiable and can be considered markers of good fitness. But they are not visible,” says Pete McCall, MS, a San Diego–based personal trainer and fitness educator and host of the All About Fitness podcast. “Having a lean, muscular body is often the only sign of ‘fitness’ that people understand; therefore, it becomes the criterion by which people often judge whether or not someone is in good shape.”

And so we arrive at the notion that a “fit-looking” body is a marker of professional competence. Have you ever received a compliment for “looking like” a trainer or instructor . . . or been criticized for not having that look? Both scenarios speak volumes about body image in our industry. Says Fell, “I still hear a lot of chatter in the industry about the need to ‘look the part.’ It’s a powerful marketing tool for trainers. When it comes to those who make the most money and have the most popularity via TV and best-selling books, it is still absolutely required to have that stereotypical fit-looking body.”

There’s nothing wrong with striving to look good, of course, but fitness-for-appearance should not supplant fitness-for-function. Amplifying the latter message could lessen unnecessary pressure on fitness pros and encourage a better exercise experience for clients. “It is our job to educate existing and potential clients on what true fitness is: having the [physical] ability to enjoy life and do any activity they want at a moment’s notice,” says McCall. Expounding a broader, kinder definition of a fit body to the general population might even entice more people to begin a workout program.

“We’re so focused on ‘fitness’ looking like one body type. If you don’t fit that mold, you’re made to feel like you don’t belong in the industry,” says Carrie Myers, owner of CarrieMichele Fitness and a master-level transformational coach in New Hampshire. Besides that, bodies change. Injury, surgery, pregnancy and/or personal setbacks can derail your workouts, altering the way your body looks, even though your qualifications remain rock-solid.

All this leaves fitness pros—men and women representing a range of body types—with a lot of body image baggage to unpack (or leave behind).

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.

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