A little over a decade ago – a couple years after I became a Pilates instructor – I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Before the doctor correctly pinpointed Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, I knew something strange was happening to my body. Though I was deeply involved in fitness, eating well and highly active, I was constantly fatigued and incapable of losing weight. The extra pounds and exhausted, drawn look that dogged my face upset me. I am ashamed now to admit it, but I felt unattractive – and, more worrisome, I was convinced that the extra weight was causing me to lose business.
The change happened as soon as I got on thyroid medication. I lost the pounds. My energy rebounded. I felt fantastic.
But I also noticed something perturbing: I began to gain clients.
Perhaps I was, and am, being paranoid; perhaps my weight isn’t responsible for repelling or attracting business. It’s possible my diminished vitality before the diagnosis had caused clients to look for a more bubbly, hardy Pilates instructor. Or perhaps people had been seeking more experienced teachers and, after a couple years of hard work, I finally passed muster.
But it wouldn’t be shocking if true: perhaps what people want in a fitness instructor isn’t someone who is knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and an outstanding, compassionate teacher – but someone who is just plain hot.
A look at Instagram and other social media feeds this paranoia. So many fitness teachers don’t use their accounts to inform on the proper execution of a specific move, or to share funny, insightful thoughts and images, but to post tight shots of abs and thigh gaps. (I might as well plug my own Instagram account, @giamarakaspilates, which – unfortunately? – has only the former examples of social media messaging.) Accounts from Pilates instructors are slightly better, but you still get plenty of sexy, skimpily clad skeletons slinking along reformers, mixed with airless quotes that are meant to inspire (“PILATES IS MY THERAPY”…uh, no, therapy is my therapy.)
The paradox is that some of the very best instructors I have ever experienced – whether in Pilates, ballet, or barre – don’t have a cookie-cutter “hot body.” They are healthy and strong, and complete masters of their crafts. But are they unnaturally tan bikini models with Instagrammable butts? Do they have (God forbid) thighs? Sure. But how does that relate to getting a stellar workout?
Another paradox is that in so many other ways the conversation about body image has seen major progress, to make room for all shapes and sizes. I recently appreciated an editorial in the New York Times by Sarai Walker: “Yes, I’m Fat. It’s O.K. I Said It.” She has embraced the word to destigmatize its use and, by extension, the fat body. But to so many people, “fat” is only acceptable to use as an insult. “After months of witnessing so much anxiety over a harmless three-letter adjective,” she explains, “it’s become clear that fat – not just the word, but fatness itself – is apparently so horrible it is unspeakable.” The fat people we do see on TV are only acceptable if they’re in the process of becoming thin – think, for example, of The Biggest Loser. “Americans expect and enjoy the spectacle of the miserable fat person, so to challenge this narrative is a radical act.”
Negative attitudes toward any figure that strays from “slim” or “fit” is rife throughout the fitness world. This perpetuates the multi-million-dollar industry; any “excess” weight (especially on a woman) is supposedly a problem, and fitness is supposedly the cure. Time to go do the Insanity workout!
But look: there so many people I know who work out all the time, eat all the right things – and still their physiques do not square with Instagram’s ideal of “fit.” Some of these people, fat or thin, feel great; they are working out because it makes them feel good, because it’s a pleasurable activity. They enjoy it! For other people, fitness is undergone only as a punishment, because society says that fat bodies need to be disciplined. And what does it say about us, that we want to punish other human beings just for inhabiting their bodies?
So what can we do to change our attitudes? For one thing, we can choose more wisely the kinds of messages we look for on social media, and the kinds of messages we share. We can also approach people with the understanding that we don’t know the full story. If someone is obese, maybe they have a thyroid disorder; maybe they have polycystic ovary syndrome; maybe they have an underlying eating compulsion tied to personal histories we’ll never know about. Or maybe it’s none of our business, and we should accept people of every shape and size as worthy of existence. (That really should not be such a shocking idea.)
Next time you’re looking for a fitness instructor, consider beyond the surface. Find an teacher who is highly trained, generous and committed to your experience. Do they have six-pack abs? Who cares. I guarantee they will give you a fantastic workout.