Guilt is Great Exercise! Wait…what?

I work as a freelance project manager.  One of my clients is Amy Hardin who owns AcSELLerate Sales Development Systems.  One of the perks is that I get to take her sales class. (I love that her goal is getting away from smarmy sales techniques and into authentic business conversations.)  As part of an exercise that we were doing last week, Amy asked us to think of a question that, when we asked it, would help someone understand how our business is different from other businesses like it.

My question was this:

In your last fitness class, when the teacher encouraged you to appreciate your body, what specific things came to mind?

The class laughed, some a bit uneasily.  Fitness instructors who encourage you to appreciate your body for anything other than getting smaller are few and far between.

I’ve been thinking about it since class.  I am an aerobics class participant from waaaaaaay back.  I did Step Aerobics on homemade steps when Gin Miller first invented it.  I have literally taken thousands of group exercise classes and I can count on one hand the number of those classes that were taught from a body positive perspective – where students were encouraged to be active for their health and to appreciate their bodies, rather than trying to change their body size and shape.

All I remember from my exercises classes were statements about the horror of having body fat, and vague assertions that “bikini season was coming”.  …and don’t think I wasn’t guilty of the same things.  When I taught aerobics I encouraged my students to bring outfits to class didn’t look good on them to hang on the wall for motivation. I actually used the phrase “if you don’t squeeze it, nobody else will” while doing squats.  I was 18 years old and convinced that the only way to get people to work hard was through guilt, fear and shame.

Oh how the tides have turned. ..well, my tides anyway.  These days if a student asked I would probably suggest that they donate the outfit that doesn’t fit to Goodwill and go buy some clothes that look good on them now.  I actively encourage students in my dance classes to appreciate their awesome bodies and everything those bodies are doing for them.  I am certain that whether or not I squeeze it, someone else will.

Just for fun I attended a step class last week and it was the same old stuff.  Here are some of the instructor’s greatest hits:

“Since you’re just starting an exercise program be sure to take it slow, I wouldn’t use a riser at all…”.  This was said to me upon my walking in, and without asking me about my exercise program.  I replied in a calm friendly matter  “Why would you think I’m just starting an exercise program?”  She fumbled for a minute and then just sort of backed away slowly.  Off to a rockin’ start…

“Give me all you’ve got.  Give a little extra for all the fat girls eating bon bons in front of the television right now!”.  Ok, first – why is it always freaking bon bons?  I’m a certified, bonified, in-the-flesh fat girl – Fatty McFaterson, Mayor of Fat Town –  and I don’t even know what a bon bon is. Also, this seems vaguely like “eat your peas because children in [insert third world country] are starving.  I think that ignoring my body’s signals and working past its limitations will not help sedentary people enjoy the benefits of exercise so much as it will lead to me being sedentary while I wait for my overuse and fatigue based injuries to heal.

“Bikini season is here, and there’s nothing worse than a muffin top”.  Really? There’s nothing worse?  A muffin top is not cancer, let’s not act like it is.

and my favorite…

wait for it…

“If you don’t squeeze it, nobody will!”  I laughed out loud at that one, I can’t believe people are still using that.

I must thank the instructor for the trip down amnesia lane, and I hope that things aren’t as they appear and that she doesn’t live in constant terror of having a muffin top but that’s certainly her prerogative.

After class she asked me what I thought and I gently (no, seriously – I’m trying to have a teachable moment here, not throw a fit) gave her my feedback, “I liked the choreography and I got a good workout.  I was put off right at the beginning by your assumption that I was just starting an exercise program, and I find that I’m not very motivated by someone telling me to hate my body.  Being fat, I certainly didn’t appreciate your motivating the class by suggestion that they don’t want to look like me.  Out of curiosity, have you ever considered motivating students by encouraging them to appreciate their bodies and take care of them with healthy habits”.  She literally laughed out loud and said “Nobody cares about being healthy, we all just want to be thin.  You can say what you want but you wouldn’t be exercising if you didn’t want to lose all that fat”.  As I tried to control my rage before replying, she said that she had to go and shut down future communication.  Okie dokie.

I find it unconscionable to try to motivate people by convincing them that they should hate the body that they have now.  As fitness instructors we can do better and as fitness class participants we should demand better.  I’m tempted to get together a guerilla exercise group who go to gyms, take exercise classes and counteract every negative image with a positive one.

If you are in a fitness class where your instructor encourages you to appreciate your body, consider thanking them!

If you’re in a fitness class where you are encouraged to think of your body as flawed and ugly, or constantly told to be in terror of gaining weight, maybe it’s time to reconsider your fitness environment.  At least think about giving the instructor some feedback.

Think of all of the thing things that your body is doing for you to allow you to participate in class and have a little gratitude.  Your body is just awesome and it deserves your love!

12 thoughts on “Guilt is Great Exercise! Wait…what?

  1. My last group fitness class was a hydro training at Lifetime Fitness. I don’t remember any negative messages. We were encouraged to push ourselves. And to do the moves accurately. But there was no brow beating.

    I can’t take the class because it hurts my inflammatory arthritis. So I’ve been walking by myself which I find boring as hell! lol

    xo Susie

  2. Hear hear! You are on fire this week Regan.

    I find it an enormous turn-off when instructors use negative and weight-focused language like that. I feel really lucky to have found some excellent and encouraging Spinning and Pilates instructors.

    I once attended a belly dancing class where the instructor (who was not your ‘typical’ thin and buff fitness type) actually addresses this issue in class and spoke about how all bodies are sexy regardless of size. She was awesome.

    1. Thanks! I have found that many, many bellydancers are awesome about body image and I’m really glad that you’ve found a supportive community!

  3. What a BITCH. I’m sorry for swearing on your blog, but seriously. What. A. Bitch. She thinks she’s so on top of things? Does she not have time to listen to people? She thinks she knows everything? That, my friends, is an example of thinking like the crowd and taking public opinion for your own. That is a horrible, horrible but entirely true example. Who says that you can’t be fat but healthy? What’s wrong with trying to be healthy? Is losing weight going to cure everything when you’re miserable and put down for the entirety of your life because you’re never going to be good enough? They are encouraging disordered eating, disordered self-talk, and a whole nation of negative people. I’d like to see what the government would like to do about this.

    1. It’s totally cool to swear on my blog, I do it all the time! I’m with you on having some concern about where we’re headed as a nation – we’ll see how it goes I guess. My plan is to talk about the option of Health at Every Size at every opportunity as much as humanly possible and try to stem the tide of body hate.

  4. Dear Ragen,

    Wow. Just, wow. And by the way, will you be developing and releasing any dance instruction DVDs anytime soon (y’know, for those of us who don’t live in Texas)?

    That instructor’s attitude is the same attitude so many of my friends have (most of whom happen to be thin – well, thinner than me, anyway).

    The trouble is that, psychologically, I’ve gotten so angry and fed up with the whole exercise thing that I do nothing. I’ve never been the rebellious type. Never drank much, or did drugs, a cigarette has never crossed my lips, but I almost feel like, “ok, FINE, you exercise-body-hating-people, I refuse to be a thin-at-any-cost, being athletic is the most important thing in the world and anything else is meaningless kind of person, so darn it, I’m not even going to lift my left pinkie finger!!!!”

    (I have issues.)

    This is a slight exaggeration, but hopefully the point is coming across. This is obviously not a healthy way to think. Exercise is vital, and should be fun. So how do I do it without feeling like a “sell out?” Every time I start to try and workout again (I used to work out a lot – oh, like, 10 years ago), I feel like I’m giving in and saying that yes, I’m fat, and yes, I need to repent for my sins and exercise again. How does one get over that, get through those issues and make it a positive thing. I’m sure my *health* would improve, but I do I learn not to feel like a sell out to our cultural demands?

    Does this make any sense? Have I had too many cups of coffee this morning? 🙂

    Thanks so much,

    1. Hi Mary-Ellin, Thanks for the compliments :). I am working on a way to do instruction over the internet. I’ll keep everyone on the blog posted. Your question is fantastic and I will likely make an entire blog post out of it. For now my short answer is this…how much are you willing to let other people affect your life? I may be wrong but it sounds like you are putting your own health at risk by being sedentary because you don’t want people to think that you’re trying to lose weight. As much as I sometimes wish I could, we will never be able to control what other people think. If they say things to us we can use them as a teachable moment (if we can keep our wits about us more than I did!) Either way, what works for me is to do things that I like and not give a crap what other people think. A lot of people ditch the word exercise and choose “movement” instead to get away from the connotation. Find stuff you like doing. If you’re feeling particularly brave maybe you could get a meet-up of people of size who go and try different workouts together for moral support. For me, I’m not willing to let anything compromise my health and that includes bad information from doctors, the media, the diet industry, and getting caught up in what other people will think of me. (Plus if my being sedentary leads to health problems then I end up fulfilling their expectations for a fat person’s health) Anyway, those are my (Mountain Dew aided) thoughts, I hope it helps!

      1. Hi Ragen,
        I was linked to this blog through your current one about the gym, and just wanted to ask, did you get some online instruction going in the end?
        I really wish I lived in Texas so I could come and move myself and have a blast with your class!!

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