The topics of food-shaming, fat-shaming, growing social media pressures, and the obsession with the external physical shape – and all the other topics that they border on – are far too broad for the scope of this blog.
But I have wanted to write something about food shaming and the growing “fitspiration” trend for a while now, because it’s all getting rapidly out of hand.
My problem with fitspiration in a nutshell: its fans claim that it portrays a healthier image of women; instead of being skinny and passive, they are muscular and depicted doing some sort of physical activity. However, whether they continue to be sexualised and objectified, or whether they appear to be taking matters into their own hands, they still very much promote one type of body and one type of body only (sorry for sharing all of those photos… if you’re anything like me, you’ll be quietly seething right now). As somebody who has exercised in one way or another for years, in various gyms, with various friends and partners and acquaintances, I can promise you I have never seen a woman who looked like a fitspo model.
And I certainly don’t look like one. Even less so now than I might have done a year ago, when I was unquestioningly traipsing to the gym 5-6 days a week, feeling inadequate if I left without struggling to walk down the stairs, eating the same thing day in day out, and never finding the time to see friends.
And yes, there are times (too many times) when that makes me feel inadequate as a personal trainer; shouldn’t I be dedicating every scrap of spare time to making myself look and act as perfect as clients hope they can become?
Well, no. And that’s why I’m writing today, even though many people have covered the topic way better than I ever could (a couple of my favourite sources here and here). While there is an awesome “No Diet Talk” movement, I do fear that many fitspirationers will look at it and go, “Well of course they’d say that, they’re fat” like some of the commenters to Jes Baker’s TED talk on Body Love (because of course, fat people don’t have a right to an opinion, especially not where their own bodies are concerned).
Yes, exercise may be a healthy practice. Yes, eating a variety of colourful, fresh, and unprocessed foods may be a healthy practice. But those two alone will not make you look like a fitspo model – for that, you would need to add extra muscle bulk in the right proportions (regardless of where your genes or your favourite physical activity would want you to add muscle bulk), then you would need to strip the fat off them to reveal their shape and striations. That’s without even talking about photo shoot day (last-minute dieting, clothing selection, lighting) or post-shoot days (image-editing). It’s a long and specific process, and there’s a reason people get paid to do it. It’s not going to be all happy, healthy, green-smoothie-sipping, heavy-lifting, going-home-to-a-hearty-meal-after-a-long-day fun. It’s work, and like most jobs, it comes at the cost of a number of lifestyle sacrifices.
But surely everyone should be encouraged to eat healthily and to exercise, even if they know they’re not going to look like a fitness model?
I think this is where the lines have become blurred. For a while, people knew models and images weren’t realistic, and continued about their lives. Now it seems that even those who are sensible enough to disregard unrealistic figure expectations, buy into the whole “eat clean, train hard”* message that I assume fitspiration is responsible for spreading. And they expect others to buy into it too, under a thin veil of trying to promote widespread health. Sean of Fat Gay Vegan told of a ludicrous virtual encounter in which a follower expressed their disregard for his diet because they expected a vegan blogger to be posting photos of “healthy” food.
So… does that mean we should all forget about trying to eat more fruit and veg, stop going to the gym, and should I be ashamed of being a personal trainer?
I believe sport and fitness and “healthy” eating (more on that below) are still relevant, and can happily coexist with confidence and peaceful lifestyles.
I see the role of the personal trainer as helping people live healthier lives. I don’t believe than an hour in a gym every few days (or even every day) constitutes an active lifestyle – it’s all about the other 23 hours (or 47, or 71) in between, and I was delighted when Stephanie of I Train Therefore I Eat reported that to be one of the key messages of the summit she attended. However, sometimes it’s hard to get active when you don’t feel comfortable in your own body; walking up the stairs leaves you sweaty and out of breath, stretching feels odd and uncomfortable, your limbs just feel cumbersome and your back hurts. Personal trainers should be training bodies to be more comfortable and functional in everyday life and for the long term; addressing muscular imbalances that can cause knee, back, shoulder and neck pains, improving cardiovascular fitness so that necessary everyday activities are no longer a burden. Unless you are a competitive athlete with one very specific goal in mind that you are willing to make sacrifices for, there is no point training so hard that you can’t do anything but lie on a couch for the rest of the day.
As for healthy eating, I think we need to understand that there is no healthy diet (I use the word “diet” to mean “eating pattern”, not “weight loss/food restriction method”). There is, however, a diet (or a number of diets) than accompanies a healthy lifestyle.
A healthy lifestyle encompasses the physical as well as the psychological and emotional. And those encompass the social too. So I don’t think that a flawlessly “healthy” diet in terms of nutritional value, that means you are unable to enjoy the foods or drinks you would want to for social (friend and family gatherings) or emotional reasons (stress, cravings), that means that you feel guilty if you do find yourself eating something less “healthy” in the nutritional sense, that means you have to worry and stress about preparing food in advance even though it’s late and you’re exhausted, or that means that you’re spending more money than you can afford in order to purchase the most fashionable superfood, is a healthy diet – because it doesn’t fit in to a healthy lifestyle.
Personal trainers need to help their clients enjoy life, by teaching them that they can feel healthy and happy and confident no matter what they eat or how often they train. To do that, it may be necessary to read between the lines; “I want to lose weight” could mean “I am not comfortable with my body”, and “I want to get fitter” could mean “I am not comfortable with my lifestyle”, and so on. Wanting to lose/gain weight and wanting to become fitter/stronger/faster is fine too, as long as it’s because you really want to achieve that goal and not because you think it will make your life better or you a better person.
Don’t let anyone tell you what you want or believe, what you should want or believe, what you will want or believe.
* It is worth pointing out that food is not dirty (nor is eating), and it is neither possible nor healthy to train truly hard at every single session for the rest of your life.