“Dear KJ” is a monthly advice column by Dr. Kjerstin “KJ” Gruys, sociologist, author, and body image activist. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on the politics of appearance and is the author of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery Press, 2012). Her work and writing have been featured by Good Morning America, 20/20, The Colbert Report, USA Today, People, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NPR‘s “Tell Me More,” and “On Air with Ryan Seacrest,” among others. Find her at kjerstingruys.com.
Are there any ways I can talk to my trainer at the gym who makes body-shaming comments?
This is a really important issue that hasn’t received enough attention. How can gym cultures be more body positive, and how can personal trainers, in particular, promote healthy body image in their clients? Far too many gyms and trainers seem to think that the only reason people go to the gym is to lose weight or otherwise change the way their bodies look. A more body-positive approach would instead emphasize helping gym-goers set goals tied to health and well-being, regardless of weight-loss or changes in body shape or composition.
Unfortunately, so much of our culture is obsessed with thinness that a lot of gyms and trainers similarly think that this is what clients want, or should want. But people truly can be healthy at every size. In fact, there’s a fantastic science-based movement called Heath at Every Size (HAES) that emphasizes the fact that body size and shape are NOT the best predictors of health and well-being, and that each person has a unique body with its own needs for optimal health. More importantly, there is ample research that people who experience body-shaming have significantly worse health outcomes than those who do not. In other words, if a trainer takes part in body-shaming, they are not only being rude, but are also harming the long-term health of their clients.
But back to your specific question about how to talk to a trainer who has done this. I had a similar experience several years ago when my yoga instructor tried to motivate the class by telling us to “think of how many calories you’re burning right now!” I was really upset when I heard this. Then, instead of focusing on my movements and breathing, I spent the rest of the yoga class stressing about (1) whether I should say something and (2) what I should say. I worked up the courage to approach the instructor after class and said, “I really enjoyed your class, but I’m wondering if I could give you some feedback on something that bothered me today.”
The instructor seemed very open to this and said, “Of course!” I took a deep breath and said, “One of the things I love about yoga is that it makes me feel strong and connected to my body. I’m in recovery from an eating disorder and yoga has been healing for me. But it didn’t feel healing today when you talked about burning calories. Would you consider using different language going forward?” My heart was racing, but it went fine. The instructor seemed more embarrassed than me! She apologized, and said, “I don’t even know why I said that! I want yoga to be body-positive. Thank you for telling me.” And it never happened again.
You might try using similar language to speak with your trainer. Also, since I don’t have specific experience having this kind of conversation with a personal trainer, I forwarded your question to one of my colleagues, Dr. David Hutson, a Sociology professor at Penn State, Abington who has published research on gym culture and personal trainers. Here’s what Dr. Hutson suggested:
“Talk to your trainer directly about the comments. The trainer-client relationship may often feel like a friendship but, it is ultimately a business relationship. Your trainer’s body shaming comments might work to motivate other clients, and that may be why they’re using them with you. However, you are the expert on what best motivates you during a workout, and a conversation with your trainer about this is completely reasonable. It may also be helpful for your trainer to realize that not all clients are motivated by the same language or tone of voice. The majority of trainers are both fitness experts and salespeople—they need to keep their clients happy and buying training packages, so they have an interest in providing you with the best service possible. If, however, your trainer doesn’t stop their body-shaming comments after a conversation, then it’s likely time to find a new trainer, as that is a relatively clear sign they don’t have your best interests at heart.”
I wish you luck in having this conversation with your trainer. That said, if your interactions with this trainer have left you feeling uncomfortable, you don’t have to speak with them at all. You might instead speak with the gym manager about working with a different trainer. It is NOT your responsibility to teach your trainer to be body positive. Your only responsibility is to yourself and your mental and physical health!
For recovery resources and treatment options, please visit our help and support page. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call ANAD’s Helpline at: (888) 375-7767 or the National Alliance of Eating Disorders Helpline at: (866) 662-1235.
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