Workout + Body Shaming = Bad Combo

Do you ever go to a Pilates or Spin class taught by a petite, fit ( maybe even underweight) teacher and walk out feeling like you got a good workout but you feel shitty about yourself?


Did she say things like: 

  • Let’s get rid of that spare tire
  • It’s tank top season, no one wants flabby arms
  • Push harder, Thanksgiving’s coming up


Have you been to a doctor ( or taken your teenage daughter) and been told that all your problems are because you are overweight? It’s widely accepted by most health practitioners and nutritionists who keep up with current research that the BMI scale is a poor metric for health. As a bodywork and movement teacher, I see clients who carry a lot of weight on their structure in a balanced way and thin people who have excessive head forward posture or other harmful alignment issues. I’m much more concerned with the thin person’s propensity for pain and joint/soft tissue dysfunction than the heavy person. Yet the heavy person is told again and again that they need to lose weight. While the thin person gets no commentary on their body. While fat and skinny shaming are both problematic, thin people have less exposure to medical bias.


Have you worked your ass off over decades to pull back from all the advertising and diet/fitness industrial complex messaging and love your body for what it is? Did your heart break when your 9-year-old came home from ballet classes crying because she thinks she is fat? Do you have a tight schedule and a hard time motivating yourself to exercise, so you go to that awesome boot camp class but you don’t want to go back because you feel like it’s a toxic, body-shaming environment?


Body shaming isn’t an effective motivator for creating healthy self-care habits- in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Here’s an article that backs this up with scientific research. And yet we continue to find plentiful examples of shaming words in fitness classes and medical environments. It’s been proven that fat shaming also harms mental and physical health.


So what helps get and keep us moving?

Do something you love– Discipline isn’t required when love is there. We don’t need to muster the motivation to do something that lights us up. I love to dance. It’s one of my favorite things to do in the world. I’ll do it almost anywhere when I hear music that turns me on. I’m not great at it from a technical perspective but I often get stopped at public events when I’m dancing and told what a great dancer I am or how much fun I look like I’m having while doing it. People also thank me for being the first one to get up and dance. Doing something we love makes us happy and brings out the best in us. It’s so needed in the world that we rise to our best selves. You never know how doing what you love might impact others around you.


Find a buddy– It can be really helpful to have an accountability partner. Choose a friend who you wish you spent more time with and make dates to go for a walk or hike. Is there something that you value in terms of maintaining your body’s health and movement capacities that it’s just really hard to motivate yourself to do on your own? For me, that’s lifting weights. I volunteered to pick up a strength training class at work so I’m locked into lifting at least one day a week.


Get Bodywork!– We go toward things that make us feel good. So schedule a massage especially if you start a new program and feel extra sore. I offer a 12-session Structural Integration bodywork series that helps folks to be more aware of their bodies-to feel them more deeply. Nearly every client who struggles with body dysmorphia or shame reports having a better relationship and more enjoyment with their body. We often treat our bodies like these things that drag our brains around. Many of our pleasure and peak state experiences happen through being more fully embodied.


Go to a class– Dedicate time in your schedule to go to one class a week. This also helps you to be accountable. Find a class with a teacher who doesn’t make the kind of comments mentioned above. Or if you feel comfortable, let the teacher know that you’d like to come to class but their comments discourage or upset you. As a teacher, I want to know if I’m doing something that is getting in the way of my students’ learning and feeling successful.

“Trick yourself”- on days when I’m really busy I’ll tell myself “ Just do 5 minutes”. Something is better than nothing. Often the 5 minutes feel so good that I stay for another 5 or 10 or sometimes do another set later.


Set yourself up for success– Keep your running shoes next to your bed if morning is your best exercise time. Have some kettlebells or dumbbells at the office so you can get up every hour and do a couple of minutes of strength training every hour or when you come back from the bathroom, lunch, or a break. Always have a pair of good walking shoes in your car so if you have a few minutes at lunch or arrive early to pick up the kids from soccer.

Work with a professional- Private Pilates sessions or personal training are great motivators. You’ll also have the confidence that you are doing exercises properly. With repetition, you’ll develop an internal awareness of your alignment so you can have great form even when your trainer isn’t in the room. Also, it takes all of the guesswork out of creating a balanced workout. As you progress, you can ask for homework to do on your own. I always ask my students how much time they will realistically dedicate to working out. Often I give them a 5-15 minute quick workout and a 20-40 minute session for days when they have more time and energy.