How to Be a Size-Inclusive Coach (Regardless of Your Own Size)

Jun 28, 2018

In recent years, “body positivity” has become a buzzword concept. Even though the idea may be new to many, the movement grew out of the fat-acceptance movement of the late 1960s. Today, influencers and brands are jumping on the body-positive bandwagon in hopes of capitalizing on the trend.

The core message of body positivity is that all people, but particularly people in marginalized bodies, have the right to exist peacefully, see themselves represented, and be treated with respect, regardless of their body’s size, shape, color, ability, etc.

It’s true that smaller individuals experience body policing and shaming (e.g., being asked if they have an eating disorder) and that everyone is negatively impacted by society’s unrealistic beauty standards in different ways. But it’s important to remember that body prejudice exists on a spectrum.

People in larger bodies experience systemic discrimination for their size that affects every facet of their lives — from employment, to representation in the media, to access to clothing.

On the other hand, thin and “straight-sized” individuals (those who wear clothing sizes that aren’t considered plus-size), either don’t have to worry about discrimination for their size or deal with it to a much lesser extent.

As a thin coach, I have heard from other coaches in the health and fitness industry that they’re unsure of how they fit into the body positivity landscape because they haven’t experienced the systemic oppression that burdens their fat clients (please note that when I use the word “fat,” I am using it as a neutral descriptor like I would use the word “tall” or “brunette,” not as an insult). These coaches are often uncertain what role they should play, if any, in the movement to make sure that all bodies are treated equally.

A size-inclusive coach and her client talking in front of equipment at the gym

For coaches who have the benefit of thin privilege, it’s more important than ever to be a size-inclusive and fat-positive coach. A size-inclusive coach treats all of their clients with the same respect and dignity, regardless of their size, and attends to the unique needs of their clients of different sizes.

Being aware of your thin privilege will allow you to serve as an ally to your clients in marginalized bodies and stand up to the oppression they face.

If you’ve never thought much about how your actions as a coach may affect your clients in fat bodies, here are some specific steps you can take to make sure that you’re being as size-inclusive as possible:

1. Get to Know Your Clients (No, Really)

I have heard countless stories from fat folx about health and fitness professionals who made incorrect assumptions about their athletic abilities and exercise experience based solely on their body size. Coaches commonly operate on the belief that all fat folx are either exercise beginners or deconditioned.

You can’t tell anything about a person’s exercise history or strength just by looking at them. This is true for all people, no matter their size. For all you know, your thin and muscular client hasn’t exercised in years and your fat client is a competitive trail runner.

Making assumptions about your clients is a recipe for disaster. That’s why you should always complete a thorough intake and assessment to learn about a new client’s individual exercise history, limitations, and ability levels.

Then, once you better understand your client’s needs, be sure to choose appropriate exercises. Certain methods of programming that you routinely use for thin clients may be uncomfortable for some of your fat clients from a biomechanics standpoint.

On the other hand, don’t automatically assume that fat clients can’t handle a challenge. The best thing you can do is ask your clients for their input! Programming for all clients should be a collaborative process, so frequently check in about discomfort, level of difficulty, and level of enjoyment, so that you can make changes as necessary.

2. Avoid Putting Weight Loss on a Pedestal

The health and fitness industry tells men to get strong, women to lose weight, and largely ignores non-binary people completely. The pressure to lose weight is even greater on fat folx, and many coaches contribute to this problem.

One of my past coaching clients told me that she asked a previous trainer not to prioritize weight loss with her, but he ignored her request and only focused on how she could lose weight. As coaches, we have to stop assuming that weight loss is everyone’s goal.

It is inappropriate for coaches to push weight loss on clients who have not asked for it, no matter what that client’s size is. That also means not forcing clients to do weigh-ins, take measurements, or save progress photos if they’re not interested. Our clients have the right to make the choices that feel best for them.

Familiarize yourself with Health At Every Size© and the pitfalls of weight science, and remember that any client can work on health-promoting behaviors irrespective of their size or weight. There are a variety of non-aesthetic goals that fitness coaches can help clients achieve, such as getting stronger or faster, achieving an unassisted pull-up, or increasing mobility to improve pain and quality of life.

When a coach gets fixated on a client’s size or the number on the scale, it tells the client that the way their body looks is their most valuable trait. Even when a client comes to you expressly for the purpose of weight loss, I recommend trying to get to the reason behind their desire. Do they want to have more energy to play with their kids? Are they hoping to improve their heart health so they can live longer?

Many clients want to lose weight because they’ve been led to believe that weight loss is the only solution to a variety of problems, but weight loss is not a behavior— it’s an outcome. As a coach, your job is to focus on behavior changes that are actually in your clients’ control.

A woman in athletic clothes is standing with her back to the camera. Her head is turned so you can see it in profile, and her arms are behind her back with palms together.

3. Make Your Space Accessible for Clients of All Sizes

Thin coaches often overlook the ways in which the world has been designed for smaller bodies, and this extends to the health and fitness industry. It is important to assess your space to make sure that it’s easy to navigate for bodies of all sizes.

Ask yourself:

  • Are there comfortable chairs available without arms that can support higher weight limits?
  • Is there equipment in a variety of sizes?
  • Are pieces of equipment so close together that some clients will have trouble accessing them?
  • Are the weight limits on your equipment too low?
  • Do the artwork and marketing materials in your space only reflect one body type?

Depending on what you discover, make changes, or reach out to the person who has the power to make those changes at your place of work.

Also be aware that many fat folx have had bad experiences with fitness culture and gyms. Don’t be afraid to ask your clients about their past experiences with fitness and find out if there’s anything you can do to make them feel more comfortable or welcome in your space.

4. Be Mindful of Your Language

Be thoughtful about the language you use to make sure you’re not putting bodies in a hierarchy. A lot of the common language that coaches use is steeped in fatphobia and the erroneous belief that having a thin body is better or healthier.

Be considerate of how you speak about your own body in front of clients and on social media. Avoid making comments about “feeling fat” or describing why you don’t like certain parts of your body as that will invite body comparisons between you and your clients. I’m certainly not asking you to lie about loving or accepting your body if you’re not there yet, but you should aim to model a positive relationship with your body — one that is based in gratitude and how your body is deserving of respect no matter what it looks like.

At the same time, you need to do the deep work of unpacking your internalized weight stigma and the biases that you have been socialized to have against different kinds of bodies. Even if you say all the right things, if you don’t address your deep-seated beliefs about fat folx, you will continue to do harm.

Don’t make comments about your clients’ bodies either, not even things that you perceive as complimentary. Compliments can be a great way to encourage and support your clients, but they should be based on a client’s non-physical traits, such as their performance, hard work, or dedication.

Complimenting your client’s weight loss or muscle gains could accidentally reinforce the idea that certain bodies are preferable and imply to them that you think they look better now than they did before. Even a seemingly innocuous “You look so great!” in reference to your client’s body changing could be very triggering.

Lastly, nix “motivational” language that is steeped in fat shaming from your fitness vocabulary. It is rare to attend a fitness class or a personal training session and not hear the instructor or coach talking about burning off calories or meals, how bikini season is coming up, or how a certain exercise will blast fat or create “long and lean” muscles.

These kinds of statements miss the mark and assume that the only reason people are exercising is to change their bodies, which can be very off-putting for clients with different goals. Coaches should work to disrupt the paradigm that our bodies are our worth, not feed into it. 

A fat black woman in a tshirt smiles with her head resting on one fist, sitting on a white sofa

5. Center and Lift Up Marginalized Voices

Last, but certainly not least, remember that no matter how size-inclusive your coaching is, you will never be an expert in the experience of being in a fat body.

However, thin and straight-sized coaches have an important role to play as allies to fat folx in the fight to make sure that all people receive equal treatment regardless of their body size. Sadly, because of our society’s erroneous beliefs about fat bodies, the voices of thin people are often more likely to be heard and believed on these issues

That’s why it’s extremely important that we not speak for or over fat folx about their lived experiences. Instead, we need to use our platforms to elevate and amplify the voices, stories, and work of those who are marginalized and mistreated (without taking up too much space of our own).

The Work of Being Size-Inclusive Doesn’t End

If you do the things on this list, you will be well on your way to becoming a more size-inclusive coach, but the work to be inclusive in all areas is an ongoing process.

The best way to make sure you’re being size-inclusive remains to listen to and learn from fat folx directly. Follow them on social media. Read their work. Purchase the books and courses they create.

Also, understand that even if you are the most size-inclusive coach in the world, some fat clients will feel most comfortable hiring a coach who looks more like them, and that’s OK. Are you in connection with coaches of different sizes that you can refer out to? If not, fix this.

Every person deserves the opportunity to develop a healthy relationship with exercise and food, regardless of their size. While the health and fitness industry has notoriously been unfriendly to fat folx, you can play a part in making this industry more inclusive and body-positive for everyone.

 

[Note: This article was originally published on Girls Gone Strong, and I have since updated it. You can read the original HERE.]

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