Last week, I was talking with a friend about how I had taken some time off from Crossfit. The first thing she said? “You don’t even look like you gained weight or anything. You look exactly the same!”
I knew where she was coming from. We’re both athletes and taking time off to rest is difficult, especially when that workout is generally the highlight of your day. Nevertheless, the underlying message has been on my mind since.
Appearance < Performance
I fell in love with powerlifting and Crossfit because of how it made me feel. Like many people, I started to become more active because I wanted to lose weight. So I started running and, eventually, weightlifting.
It was purely aesthetic. So while I spent a lot of time and energy tracking what I ate and following a specific fitness regimen, I didn’t have a performance goal in mind. Eventually, I lost interest. (And, ultimately, I don’t think appearance can be the deep-down heart of your fitness goals if you want to stick with it long-term.)
When I picked up powerlifting, I noticed a shift. Instead of focusing on my appearance, I focused on my performance. As someone who wasn’t a particularly athletic child, it was the first time in my life where I saw movement and exercise as a way of feeling a certain way, rather than looking a certain way.
For me, that felt empowering.
The underlying message
For many people – especially women – it’s not uncommon to hear comments that equate physical activity to weight loss. Or, as in my case, the opposite: the lack of weight gain when you stop being active. In either scenario, the underlying message is the same: gaining weight is bad.
In other words, it’s another way in which fatphobia rears its ugly head.
It’s not uncommon for people to have a fear of stopping exercise because they’re worried they’ll gain weight. Even in the case of injuries, rest continues to be a struggle since the constant focus is on weight loss – rather than, well, health.
In general, the language around health and fitness focuses on weight loss, “leaning out,” and thinness as an ultimate goal. Even amongst friends and family, it’s generally considered acceptable to compliment someone when they’ve lost weight, even though weight loss can be the result of a wide variety of things, ranging from more mindful eating practices (good!) to health problems (not so good!)
On the other hand, weight gain can also be a result of those same exact things, including more mindful eating, strength-based training programs, or developing a healthier relationship with food. Despite considering all of those to be healthy activities, it’s uncommon for us to consider weight gain the result of a health-based activity or, really, anything good at all.
Why it matters
As a personal rule, I try to avoid appearance-based compliments – in particular, compliments around body size and weight. It’s impossible to know someone’s history, goals, and reasons for a change in their body size. For example, if someone tells me they lost weight, I usually ask if that was their intention first before expressing any kind of reaction. Don’t assume.
Reflecting on assumptions around weight-loss allows us to equally reflect on the areas in our lives where we carry judgment towards different bodies and body types. We live in a culture that idealizes thinness above all else. It’s impossible not to carry these judgments within us, both in terms of how we see others and how we see ourselves. Fear of rest, even when injured, is often a reflection of our fear of weight gain – even at the expense of our health.
For fitness professionals in particular, it’s absolutely critical to examine the prejudices we have around body types and how that is reflected in the language we use, specifically with students. I cringe each time I hear a coach announce that we need to “work off” food after a holiday or get “ready for summer” each time we do a core workout. Especially in group classes, there’s no way to know each student’s history with food, body image, and health. Language like this can be triggering, let alone makes the whole experience unfriendly and potentially damaging to anyone that does not identify with or feel seen by such language.
Reflection leads to action
The more we can reflect on the ways language represents our own personal biases towards body image and body types, the more we can see the ways in which this plays out in our day-to-day lives. It’s not just language, it’s everything.
For coaches and teachers, better understanding the ways in which your language may be excluding different students can also highlight the ways in which your classes may not be set up to support all fitness levels, body types, and abilities. Crossfit recently started a campaign to showcase the ability and importance of being able to scale workouts for everyone, regardless of access to a gym. The same goes for scaling workouts regardless of age, size, gender, and ability.
It’s our job as members of our respective communities to build inclusivity into environments that often aren’t inclusive at all. (This goes for fitness communities, and all communities in general, doesn’t it?) Even a simple question can have a completely different meaning for one person over another. Taking the time to reflect on why we do what we do and the ways in which our cultural prejudices may be influencing that can help us become stronger community members and leaders, equally.