Take It Off
I’ve never been comfortable in my body. There has always been something to fix, cover up, shrink, and be ashamed of. When I accidentally became immersed in the world of Crossfit, I found myself to be the chubby girl in a sea of thin and thin-obsessed women (and men). The diet talk was constant. Every food and drink was weighed and measured and came with an emotional and moral attachment of “good” or “bad”. There was no middle ground, definitely no body positivity, not even a sliver of body acceptance or neutrality. This is a toxic environment for any person, but especially dangerous for someone like me who was struggling with eating disorders and negative body image.
During my first Crossfit Open, I took the Judge’s Course (a $10 online course that teaches you how to count reps, ha) so that I could watch and record my gymmates’ performance in each Open WOD (workout of the day). My first day judging, the workout was barbell snatches and bar over burpees. It was HOT, and the workout was HARD. I was sitting on the sidelines judging, when I learned so much than I bargained for about what it means to be a badass woman.
A new acquaintance, Staci, was in the middle of her WOD, when she suddenly and casually took off her shirt. She did the rest of that workout in just crop pants and a sports bra. And I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Strong, capable, fit, confident, self-assured, and unapologetic. She wasn’t thin-obsessed. She didn’t complain about her body, or apologize that it wasn’t smaller or more tan or more “toned”. She was hot and she was working her ass off, so she took off her shirt. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. She wasn’t making a statement. She wasn’t trying to get attention. She wasn’t trying to piss anyone off or offend anyone. She was just trying to get more comfortable. She finished that WOD like a champ and then laid on the ground sweating and panting from a combination of the intense effort and heat.
That was my very first glimpse into what I would discover later as “body acceptance”.
Staci embodied it and lived it—not as a movement, but as a way of being. She didn’t wear it on her clothes or put hashtags on it. She just DID it. She taught me so much in that moment, and inspired me to more deeply explore the idea that my body may not be as shameful as I had thought. She helped me to imagine that maybe one day, like her, I could take off my shirt during a workout because it’s hot. Or maybe, because I just feel like it.
And since that day, I’ve become more and more comfortable with my own body. I still have a long way to go, and I’m ok with that. The learning and growth happen slowly over time, with intermittent bursts of those desperately sought after “aha” moments. My most recent “aha” moment came earlier this week when I found myself working out in shorts and sports bra only—because it was hot and humid—and more importantly, because I just felt like it.
As a “fit pro” (I hate that term, by the way), I’m supposed to be proselytizing the benefits of exercise and strongly encouraging everyone to continue working out at home. Even amidst gym closures, job losses, fear of serious illness, isolation, and uncertainty, I should be selling training.
“Transform your body in 12 weeks with at-home workouts!”
“Avoid the dreaded Quarantine 15!!!”
"Use your time wisely and learn to meal prep!!”
“Don’t give into your human emotions! Don’t eat cookies and ice cream!!”
On the other side of this false dichotomy, I’m proudly a sponsored and self-proclaimed “body positive trainer”. So I’m obliged to tell people that gaining weight or losing their progress with training during isolation and stay at home orders is no big deal. Eat whatever, even if it makes you feel sick. Stay on the couch. Take lots of time for your mental health. Rest. Rest. Rest.
I absolutely abhor the first option we’re given. It’s ignorant, insensitive, fat-phobic, and manipulative. The fitness industry is chock full of manipulative sales people who are trying their best to capitalize on this situation. Some of it is fear-based, I’m sure, as our incomes have been slashed as gyms and studios have been mandated to close and our clients hunker down in their homes. But that doesn’t excuse the manipulative behavior and fat-phobic rhetoric being spewed.
I find my home in the body positivity movement. I have to for my own sake, and for the sake of my beloved clients. Because if I didn’t I would still be miserable trying to be a “typical” trainer; writing meal plans that don’t work, taking people’s measurements, posting “before and after” pictures on social media, focusing on “calorie burn” and contributing to the negativity and disordered fitness industry. That was never what I wanted to be, and finding body positivity has given me a compass and a clearer set of values.
That said, I can’t throw my hands up and surrender in the midst of global chaos. None of us can afford to do that. I can’t, in good conscience, sit by and encourage my clients to “rest” every single solitary day. Yes, our bodies and minds need rest. Yes, we absolutely need to take mental health breaks, and those might last a day or more. Mental health doesn't follow a schedule or calendar. But if you are someone like myself and many of the people I work with, who’s mental health will suffer without physical movement, then I’m not going to say it’s ok to “rest” for weeks at a time. Not because I’m worried about the cookies you ate. Not because I’m worried you might gain weight while working from home. Not because I care about body transformation or counting your macros. But because I care deeply about your mental health, especially at this particular point in time.
Some people can be mentally healthy without intentional movement. Some people cannot. If you are the type of person who needs physical movement in order to be emotionally and mentally healthier, then I’m going to encourage you to MOVE. And yes, some days (lots of days right now) it’s going to be very difficult to get things moving.
Well, if I’m being honest, it’s really fucking hard. and that’s why I set my goal for 3 days a week. because before, I was doing like 6 or 7 days a week. I was in a place where I was working out a LOT and when all of this happened, it knocked me on my ass.
I’m right there with you, I promise. But because I care, I’m going to keep checking in. I’m going to keep encouraging. And I’m going to keep holding you accountable for your own mental, emotional and physiological health.
I will also tell you to listen to your body and your heart. Does your body say you need to hide under the covers today? Then do it! But tomorrow, I’m going to check in again. And I’m going to ask “how are you going to feel if you keep this same routine? Will it help or hinder your emotional well-being?”.
Every person is unique in what makes them feel good, and I will always do my best to discover and respect each person's individuality. If you have confided in me that movement helps your mental health, then I’m going to push you toward movement (with love and compassion). It may not be pumping iron or doing HIIT. It might be stretching in the sun spot in your living room with your cat. It might be a bike ride. It might be walking while listening to your fav podcast. It’s unique to each person. Yes, routine is important. And for some people the routine itself is crucial to their well-being.
I’m definitely working extra-hard for it. Mental health is paramount but I also want to do whatever I reasonably can do to boost my immune system, and I know that exercise is a huge part of that for me. Now that my workload has slowed a bit (temporarily anyway), it’s also nice for me to have a consistent “to do” item that helps me feel like I’m on top of things, aside from the benefits of exercise per se.
Right now what’s most important is that you ask yourself--what will truly make me feel better? Then, give yourself time to hear the answer and be willing to act on that even if it’s something you don’t feel like doing in that moment. We have the answers. We just need to be quiet long enough to hear them.
Leaving the safety of a large (and popular) gym was frightening, to say the least. It didn’t just frighten me, it made me sad. That wasn’t just my job, it was my second home. I had a gym family. I had recently started Strongman training with a great group of people, and I’d never felt so at ease with my training and my body image. Leaving that environment felt like leaving home. Not to mention moving my clients. Would they come with me? Would they see what my previous boss had seen? A bad trainer? A bad person? Would they stop trusting me? Would they leave a well-known and well-equipped facility and trade it for an unknown space?
Thankfully, I easily found a space to train. It was literally a basement. But it was well-equipped and it was clean and it was closer to home. Best of all, I didn’t have to be someone else’s employee. I simply paid my monthly rent, trained my clients, and went home.
My new space came with its owner—another trainer. We would share the space, he would collect rent, and I would be able to run my own LLC from that space. My first question before I agreed to anything, was and still is one of my top priorities. Would I be able to bring my kids with me? And, would my clients with kids be able to bring their kids with them. The answer was yes. This was a relief for me. Going through a divorce, it was of the utmost importance that I be able to keep my kids close to me as much as possible. I wanted them to feel secure, especially given the changes happening at home and in my work life.
I started bringing clients into the new space. It was very different for them and for me. We were used to having a huge space to move around in, so we had to get creative. For my own training, I had to give up most of my Strongman implements. There wasn’t space to store or use farmer’s handles, a yoke, atlas stones, blocks, sleds, kegs, etc. So, I worked with what I had. All of us became accustomed to our new space, and eventually grew to like it. Just getting away from the negativity of the previous gym was so good for all of us. My clients could feel free to be themselves without the threat of being sold CrossFit memberships or Advocare, without fear of the gym elite finding something wrong with the way we were training, or misconstruing our closeness as a Tribe as inappropriate. Basically, we had graduated high school and found freedom. And it was awesome.
I started to feel more comfortable and even let my guard down sometimes. I started to build some confidence in myself and my abilities as a trainer and coach. And I had a good year financially, professionally, and personally. Then I learned that my landlord was looking to move his training business to a different space. I was welcome to come along, he said, and nothing would change. Our agreement would stay the same, and I could even have a say in the selection of the new space. Things changed very quickly after that. I found out from a new client, not my landlord, that we were moving in 4 days. I asked my landlord for clarification, and he denied that we were moving that soon. It would be several weeks. But it wasn’t. It happened that weekend without my knowledge. I reached out, attempting to get information, but only got passive aggressive comments and anger. I panicked. Would I have to move my clients again? Am I out of a job? Will my business fail? What will people think about me—that I can’t keep a space, that I can’t make anyone happy, that I’m difficult to work with, that I’m a terrible trainer? It was a downward spiral of negativity, panic and fear. This was 4 days before Christmas.
I tried my hardest to find the lesson, to find the good, in what was happening. But all I kept coming back to was my failure as a business owner, my failure as a trainer, and my failure as a person. I was the common denominator in all of the troubling scenarios that I found myself. I was convinced that I was the problem. This was a repeat of what had happened 18 months prior. I was obviously worthless. A miserable failure who couldn’t figure out life. 2 long days went by before I had confirmation that I was still going to be able to train in the new space my landlord had found. I scheduled a time to pick up my key to the new space. He cancelled. I rescheduled. He cancelled again. I tried again to reschedule. Finally, at 6:30pm on Christmas Eve I was able to get my key. At this point I had lost 4 days of time with my clients, they had lost that time to train, and I had lost a good chunk financially.
Before I was given my key, I was told that things would be changing. In direct opposition to what I had been promised, my clients’ children (as well as my children) would no longer be welcome. In addition, my rent was going up. My landlord then proceeded to tell me how to train my clients differently, how to market differently, and how to make money differently. He told me to take flyers to the gymnastics classes because they’re full of overweight moms, “ripe for the plucking”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It felt like I was in a nightmare. I left stunned.
Later that night when I was crying on Brandon, he asked, “do you want to train there?”
Thinking about going back into that space made me feel physically sick. I couldn’t do it. But it seemed like my resources were exhausted. I was exhausted. And I was hopeless.
But my optimistic and hopeful guy kept me from sinking into a deep darkness. Together, we came up with a plan. We were going to bring the business, and the gym, home. With frustration, struggle, and so much fear, we forged ahead with converting our dirty garage into a well-equipped, modern and friendly training space. Over the next 5 days we gathered plywood, rubber mats, bumper plates, steel plates, barbells, storage bins, a rower, squat rack, barbell storage, resistance bands, slam balls, and dumbbells. We cut and drilled and worked tirelessly over those 5 days, making countless trips to Rogue and Home Depot and Cashman’s, drinking all the coffee, listening to Ed Sheeran, and building a beautiful training space. There were at least 3 times I hid in the laundry room, crying, convinced that I had made a huge mistake. Who would train here with me? I’m obviously a failure. Awful things keep happening and it has to be my fault, right? I’m the problem here. I’m the issue. Brandon did his best to keep my spirits up, but it was a struggle.
Almost everyone followed. The support was incredible. When people step into our space now, the overwhelming majority are in awe of what we’ve built. It’s so well organized and we have so much equipment, specialized barbells, Strongman implements, dumbbells that range from 5-125lbs, and nearly 2,000lbs in plates. Equipment aside, what people feel when they walk into this space is a sense of belonging. They feel welcome. They feel they finally belong somewhere. They feel comfortable. They feel SAFE.
Each time you fall, you have an important choice to make. You can give in to the fear of failure, give up, and move on. Or you can challenge that fear, work through the struggle, and come out stronger, more capable, and more experienced. When you face the fear, you grow, and the growth hurts. It’s always going to hurt. But I’d rather hurt and be growing than be comfortable and stagnate. The pain is worth it. The fear is worth it. The exhaustion and struggle and frustration are all worth it. My clients, my people, my TRIBE…you are all worth it.
Any asshole can be a trainer. As unflattering as it is for me, a trainer, to say this, it’s true.
When people choose to work with me, I’m honest with them. I’m not a drill sergeant. I’m not going to make you feel guilty about your food choices. I’m not going to focus on the number on the scale. I’m not going to sell you supplements. I’m not going to take advantage of the position you’ve allowed me to hold. Some other trainers aren’t this way, and it makes me sad, angry, scared for their clients, and ashamed for them.
But my confidence to be true to what I believe is best for myself and my clients hasn’t always been this strong.
Before we had our own training space, I worked for gyms (tiny and huge), and rented space from other trainers. Although I loved working with my clients, I disliked the gym cultures I found myself in. Weight-obsessed, body-shaming, sexist, homophobic, diet-culture-following, exclusive and exploitative. My Tribe formed our own subculture in the midst of this overall toxic environment and we thrived within our own group. But the cloud of negativity hung lower and heavier as time passed. When you exist in an industry so heavily focused on aesthetics and appearances (physical and social), being “different” isn’t always considered a commodity. In fact, it’s usually considered a liability and steps are taken to put you back into your expected place and/or make you a pariah and cast you out. I realize how dramatic this may sound—I mean, it’s just a gym, right? But for those of you who have worked in the fitness industry and tried to stay true to yourselves, you might understand.
At a gym that I wanted to be my long-term training home, I was consistently berated, underpaid, talked down to, told to “step in line”, and purposely left on the sidelines. My ideas were heard, dismissed, and later on taken ownership of by someone more “appropriate” and “appealing”. I was threatened, my employment was threatened, I was given ultimatums regarding my training style, and punished for not “selling” classes that were not appropriate for my clients’ needs, goals and abilities.
I was preached to, prayed for, blamed for my failing marriage, blamed for the future “misery” of my children, told to go to church, told I was “out of the friendship circle” of the rest of the trainers and owners, and told that all of my clients would leave me if I wasn’t training at that specific gym. The owner said to me, while telling me that divorce is an unforgivable sin, “I’ve listened to many sermons on marriage, which is why I feel qualified to counsel you on this subject”. This was following his remark that in order to fix my marriage I needed to fix myself.
I’ll never forget that day or that conversation, because it was the day I resigned. It was spring and such a beautiful day outside. And I was stuck sitting at a fold out table in the storage room of a dirty gym with a bigot who was preaching to me about all of my faults as an employee and as a person. All I wanted to do was be outside in that gorgeous sunshine and drive away from that part of my life, but he continued to blab on and on about what Jesus says and what a terrible person I was.
And dammit, I believed him.
He was so convincing and seemed to have so much evidence, so I just sat there and took it. I fantasized about getting up and walking away, but instead I just sat there and took it. He was so happy with himself. So proud and confident, so sure of his opinions being truth.
And I bought it.
It stayed with me for a long time, the belief that I’m broken and unfixable, a terrible coach and a terrible person. In his words, “you could be a good trainer if you were just a better person”. It echoed in my brain day and night. After leaving that gym I knew I needed to find a better environment for myself and my clients.
To be continued...
I consider myself a Body Positive Trainer. What does this mean exactly? For me, it means that I want to focus not solely on my clients’ aesthetic goals, but also encourage them to examine (and hopefully improve) their relationship with their bodies.
Something I’ve been challenging myself with is this: how does my view regarding Body Positivity juxtapose with my job of helping people get more fitness-y? It’s a tough one, I’ll be honest. It’s difficult when a potential client approaches me with the goal of “getting down to my high school weight”, or “having abs”, or “getting their ‘body back’” after having a baby. As a trainer, I absolutely want to help my clients achieve their goals. What I want even more, though, is to challenge them to figure out what drives those specific goals—to find out WHY, at age 55, they want to weigh what they did when they were going through puberty; WHY, when they’re only 6 weeks postpartum and breastfeeding and healing from a C-Section, they’re concerned primarily with losing body fat; WHY they want to look like an air-brushed Instagram model who only eats plain broccoli and chicken breast for weeks prior to a photo-shoot. Finding that WHY, that deep reason that drives that goal, that’s the good stuff. That’s the treasure chest full of the needs, desires, passions, tears, traumas, excitement, memories (great and not-so-great) that fuel those seemingly simple goals. And that’s where Body Positivity is an amazing tool and philosophy. Because we can stop talking about numbers on a scale, we can stop talking about size and “fat” vs. “lean”, and start the dialogue that really, truly matters: self-acceptance. You don’t have to “love” yourself or love your body. But you can try to give it credit for what it can do and how well it’s served you to this point. You can treat it with respect by giving it movement, sleep, food, and care. You can listen to what it needs and what it wants and do your best to provide it those things. Maybe one day it needs fresh air and a silent walk, and maybe the next day it needs to pound a max deadlift while covered in chalk and sweat.
Every person I’ve ever worked with has had some level of negative body image, disordered eating, or body dysmorphia (or a combination of all of these). Unfortunately, in our society, this has become the norm. More often than not you can catch most of us disliking, punishing, talking negatively about, or even downright hating our bodies. What effect does this have on our self-image, on our mental and physical health, on our relationships and even on our fitness goals? It’s actually self-sabotaging.
The best and most fascinating things about coming into Body Positivity, Body Neutrality, and/or self-acceptance are the changes that take place once you stop sabotaging yourself with resentment and animocity. Your mindset evolves to one more geared toward optimism, your attitude becomes more “I can do this!!” instead of “I’d never be able to do that”. Your body is being nourished with care and respect and it thanks you with all kinds of cool changes! Some of the changes can be measured, like increasing your squat or bench press or improving your mile time, or even measured by inches and pounds on the scale if that’s your thing.
But many of the changes can’t be measured in a standard or conventional way, because those changes happen in your mind, your heart, and your spirit. The realization that your body is an awesome way to move you through life, but it is not (as you once thought), the absolute most important and most defining piece of you. That’s liberation. That’s empowerment. That’s peace. And that’s exactly what I want for each and every person I work with, including myself.