By making a few simple changes to how you work with weight loss clients, you can ensure you aren’t unwittingly party to the body shaming to which they are often subjected.
Body shaming has been all over the news in the past year, from pregnant Studio 10 presenter, Sarah Harris telling her body haters to ‘get stuffed’ to a recent study in Psychological Science that proves weight discrimination can kill. Body image issues are deeply embedded in our media, and our collective psyche. How can you navigate the minefield of a client’s relationship with their body to help them with their weight loss and health goals without body shaming – and support them with their mental-emotional health too?
Let’s examine what body shaming is, why it doesn’t work, and seven ways you can help your clients without accidentally doing it.
What is body shaming?
Body shaming is the practice of insulting or judging a person due to the way their body looks. While it seems obvious that no normal person would indulge in this nasty behaviour, body shaming has become so ingrained in our culture that it is almost invisible.
Celebrity body shaming is rife in glossy women’s magazines, in which the tiniest ‘flaws’ in the celebrities’ bodies are zoomed in on and analysed. It is on our TV screens in competitive weight loss shows where participants are asked to do ridiculous amounts of excessive exercise, and are then faced with ‘temptation games’ in which they can gain an advantage by bingeing on cream pies. All in the name of health.
Body shaming is hideously obvious when you see it on the street like this: ‘Hey fattie, stop eating that ice cream and go for a run’. But it is more insidious and harmful as the silent discrimination that happens all around us. That bigger girl who was more qualified than the slimmer girl being passed over for the promotion because of the unspoken judgement that she would be lazier. The silent judging, looks and stares of passers-by.
The most damaging form of this practice is self-shaming. After being conditioned with this kind of body judgement, and beauty ideals, your clients internalise it and become their own bully. Silently calling themselves names, berating themselves for being ‘fat’, ‘lazy’, ‘hideous’ and ‘ugly’. You will find that many of your weight loss clients have experienced some sort of bullying or trauma in their lives that relates to their body-hate. One off-hand remark about getting ‘chubby’ to a pubescent teenager can be all it takes to begin a domino effect of self-shaming.
Slimmer is better?
Body shaming is built on the belief that slimmer is better, and the opposite belief that being fat is bad. As personal trainers you probably believe that for most people being slimmer mostly is better, and you know that being overweight can lead to a host of health related problems, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, heart disease and cancer. Not to mention the boost of self-confidence that you get when you know that you look good and are happy with your body. However, there is new science emerging that says that being overweight is not necessarily as bad as we all think it is, and that chronic yo-yo dieting and self-shaming is actually worse for you than maintaining a stable weight – even if it is a bit overweight – as long as you are still active. In my 11 years’ experience coaching clients in weight loss mindset, and my own 30 kilogram weight loss, I have noticed a paradox: most weight loss clients think they will finally love themselves when they lose weight, but what it actually takes to create lasting transformation is for the person to learn to love themselves with the extra kilos, after which they begin to choose the behaviours that make those kilos melt away.
Self-compassion is the key
Many studies have proved that the key defining factor in lasting weight transformation is self-compassion. It might seem that self-kindness regardless of your eating choices would lead to unrestrained bingeing, but this is only ever short lived, and eventually the person comes to a homeostasis as they get past their dieting thinking and start to listen to what their body wants. Guilt never leads to better choices. In fact the opposite is true: when feeling guilty or shameful, we are more likely to overeat and binge.
Here are seven tips to help your clients without body shaming.
1. Search inside yourself to see if you have body judgement
You got into the fitness industry to help people, right? You’re committed, passionate and motivated, there’s no way you’re a body shamer. However, it can creep up on you. Reflect on your own silent thoughts about your body or those of others. Do you maintain a strict fitness and nutrition routine because you love the habits and how they make you feel, or because you love your six-pack and the admiration that you get for how you look? When you have your own internalised negative beliefs about body image, it’s much harder to help anyone else shift theirs.
2. Stop the weekly weigh-ins
This probably goes against everything you’ve been taught, but the psychology research proves that weekly weigh-ins are not motivating, and in fact with heavily overweight and obese clients can actually be very demoralising. If you need to measure something weekly to check progress, go for a waist and hip measurement.
3. Measure their habits and focus on behaviours
The better measure, that will actually change their behaviour, is that of habits and choices. Instead of a food diary that focuses on calories, shift the focus to the habitual food choices the client makes: the 6pm glass of wine when they are making dinner, or the block of chocolate in front of the TV at night are habits that will derail any training program. Help your clients think about what outcome that habit is getting them, and then come up with some alternate ways to get that outcome without the food or drink.
4. Focus on the power of present moment choice
Remind your clients that they are in total control of their outcomes, and the outcome is determined by their present moment choices. When they talk to you berating themselves for their past ‘poor food choices’, stop them and say ‘Well that’s in the past now, the only thing you have power over is your choices right now. Let it go, and let’s help you make more choices that support your health.’
5. Set goals based on performance, not physical traits
When you’re setting goals with your clients, steer them away from outcome goals that focus on their appearance, like ‘Lose 10 kilos’ and ‘get a flat tummy’, to more performance-based outcomes, like ‘run 5kms’ or ‘eat veggies with every meal’ and ‘wake up with energy’. Set up a success calendar to mark every time they do any kind of physical activity: walking the dog, their session with you, even playing in the park with their kids. Teach them how to celebrate movement and count every little bit, even the incidental exercise they get in the day. You could also set a performance-based habit goal around nutrition, e.g. ‘eat 2+ serves of veggies and 1 of protein with every main meal’. Every time they do this they get a star on their success calendar. This kind of reward chart, that counts behaviours rather than calories, is much easier to actually do, and has been proven more likely to embed positive habits that will lead to lasting success.
As a fitness professional you are probably pretty clued up on macros and micros of nearly every food you put in your mouth. The problem is, when you talk good/bad food to a person struggling with chronic weight issues and emotional eating, the ‘bad food’ label is like a red rag to a bull. The minute that food becomes off-limits it suddenly becomes so much more desirable. Instead of labelling food this way, and giving your client a list of authorised and unauthorised foods, teach them to think that all food is possible – there are just some foods that will energise the body, and some foods that will drain the body. Help your client become aware of how their body responds to different foods. Ask them what makes them feel energised, and what makes them feel sluggish? The more you can teach them to guide their own choices, with the feedback from their body, the more you are setting them up for lasting success.
7. Help them celebrate their emerging capabilities
The key to stopping body shaming is to shift the focus away from how our bodies look, towards what they enable us to do, feel and experience. Instead of talking about whether they lost weight this week or if they are looking good, remind them how much more fit, flexible, strong and energetic they are becoming. Help them celebrate what their body can do, rather than just judging it by how it looks.
Kylie Ryan is a neuro-linguistic programming trainer and hypnotherapist who teaches health and fitness professionals how to use mindset coaching and NLP to greatly improve their clients’ results. Since her own 30kg weight loss 11 years ago, Kylie has become a leading authority on weight loss coaching. mymindcoach.com.au