BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change. The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.
Tammy Griffith, CPC, CRC, CFPC is a certified life coach with credentials in recovery and food psychology. Years of personal experience with weight stigma, body shame, food obsession, diets, and binge eating led her to investigate eating disorders and embrace the path of recovery — a path she’s been personally walking for over five years, and one that she sincerely looks forward to sharing with others.
Tammy is especially passionate about songwriting, spirituality, and self-care.
How Personal Trainers Can Help Reduce Weight Stigma
We see it on television and in print media – photographs of headless fat people on the news, emotionally charged stories from The Biggest Loser and Extreme Weight Loss contestants, news features on the “obesity epidemic”, and information on the latest diets and exercise programs that promise to bring us fit physiques. We’re taught that being healthy means fighting fat at every turn! However, this intense focus on weight loss and thinness is contributing to the rising number of individuals struggling with chronic dieting, emotional eating, and eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect millions of women and men of all ages and backgrounds. Some people speculate that on the surface, eating disorders are about vanity – controlling one’s weight and size, achieving a societally acceptable body – when in reality, they are about sanity, or lack thereof. These behaviors (starving, bingeing, purging, food fear, and more) are a dysfunctional means of coping with life on life’s terms. Those with eating disorders believe that once they finally achieve a societally acceptable body weight or shape, life will be perfect – or at least a lot better than it is now.
Perhaps you have encountered clients in large bodies that have self reportedly “tried everything” to shape up; they arrive at your gym feeling hopeless and timidly sign up for personal training sessions. Taking cues from society’s portrayal of heavier bodies, your clients believe that they need tough love to win the battle of the bulge. However, these clients may very well be disordered eaters, carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, and using food rules and weight loss tactics as their primary means of coping with their current circumstances.
Consider implementing any or all of the following suggestions to foster a culture of body positivity and help lighten the emotional burden for your clients, whether or not they are overtly struggling with food:
Don’t record your client’s weight
If he/she would prefer to record his/her own starting stats, ask them do so privately. If he/she brushes off the suggestion and wants do so in your presence, for “accountability’s sake”, know that immense guilt and shame are likely tagging along for the ride. You might assure your client that health and weight are a false equivalency – that healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes. You want your client to feel successful and keep coming back for personal training sessions, of course – but your client may already be stepping on the scale at least once a day, and have lay-expert knowledge of height/weight tables and nutrition facts. Many (if not all) chronic dieters do.
Don’t send your client home with a suggested diet or meal plan.
Instead, encourage your client to contact his/her physician and a registered dietitian for a balanced food plan tailored to his/her body chemistry and specific health needs. Part of fighting internalized weight bias is creating a safe space for nourishing the body. Often those in larger bodies are told that their self care should be secondary to weight loss and so part of your work will be to change those beliefs. EVERY body needs nourishment, and helping your client to listen to their body cues through mindfulness and intuitive eating will be of great help to them both on their journey to increased physical activity and also as they realize changes in their energy needs.
Create and maintain a list of compassionate health professionals in your area, preferably those familiar with eating disorders.
Include at least one physician, therapist, and nutritionist – bonus points if they possess IAEDP (International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals) certification. You might also include the web addresses of the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) and other eating disorder advocacy groups.
What often gets forgotten when working with larger bodied people, especially those that may suffer from binge eating disorder (BED), is that disordered eating behavior, specifically cycles of starvation, occur frequently and regularly in those who experience BED. The binge eater, though in a large body, often does not possess the nutrition required to undertake the exercise prescribed when only size is taken into account. Understanding that weight stigma is ever-present and loudly says that food is bad, you will have a more keen eye to clearly see how much exercise is right for your client and what is contrary to their wellbeing due to cycles of restriction.
Become a confidante.
There’s no need to pry, but you can offer a safe, non-judgmental space for your clients to speak candidly about what is really going on, simply by being compassionate. You may consider saying something like, “I care about your well-being, and I’m interested in supporting you as you reach your fitness goals. I’m not a mental health professional, but want you to know that you can trust me, and you can share openly about your journey.”
Know that your client will appreciate your kindness.
You may be your client’s first stop on the road to understanding the affects of weight bias and weight stigma – or maybe just the first person that has cared enough to inquire if everything is okay outside the gym. Keep that in mind as you learn more about how to prevent weight bias and identify weight stigma in your clientele. You may even become a specialist in it and change an entire community!