When I left the nonprofit sector to open a Pilates studio, I wanted to bring the values of empowerment, equity and self-worth to my business ethos and teaching principles. I wanted all to feel welcomed and actively encouraged to explore Pilates. I committed to body positive language and messages. I committed to avoiding images that would make people feel marginalized.
An honest conversation with a friend who has struggled with weight issues since her teens left me wondering if I was being naive in my attempts to buck the status quo.
What right do I have telling people to love and accept their bodies as they are when I’ve never felt diminished or shamed by society because of my weight?
I decided to take stock of the personal privilege I brought to the studio – primarily that of a person who has always moved through the world as a thin person.
Current research suggests that as many as 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with some aspect of their body. (And the percentage of men who are dissatisfied has grown as well over the last decade or so.) Suffice it to say that I’m one of those women and I have had to stave off internal negative thoughts.
I spent a good deal of my 20s and 30s not listening to the pain signals my body was sending me while I worked out vigorously five or six days a week. With so many news articles linking exercise and stress relief you would think running forever would make you the most balanced person in the world, right? Wrong. I experienced a frozen shoulder at age 25, not understanding that my exercise routine and feelings of self-doubt were to blame. Working at being thin became a crutch for handling stress in my life and masking a lack of self-confidence.
But despite this internal exercise hell I had locked myself into – and finally got out of in my mid 30s thanks in large to Pilates – I’ve never had to deal with the external pressure, shame, or stigma from a society that judges people who fall outside of the “thin” world.
I found self-described fat chick Ragen Chastain and her blogs Dances With Fat and IronFat, a blog about her work to prepare for an Iron Man competition. Chastain led me to Jeanette DePatie and Hanne Blank. And it has opened doors to nutrition professor and researcher Dr. Linda Bacon and the Health At Every Size movement.
As a feminist, I could recognize that mainstream media stokes societal discrimination but these experts have helped me to better understand the challenges larger people face in accessing movement and exercise — from confrontations from strangers who feel justified in commenting on others’ weight to finding exercise clothes that fit to creating safe places to run, swim, dance, do yoga — simply to liberate their bodies with movement. And they’ve helped me unlearn a lot of misinformation I had absorbed over years of reading magazines like Self, Women’s Health, Shape and Prevention Magazine. I continue to replace bad information with good science, intuition and empathy.
I understand now that listening to your body will help you find the wellness path that is right for you. As a Pilates teacher this is especially helpful in working with others who have different physical and emotional experiences than mine in movement.
I try to respect that what feels good, safe, and productive for me may not be so for another.
I have also learned a lot from my students — and learn more everyday! — about what healthful movement can look like and how it can work for different body shapes.
I’m not infallible in this work. I will never stop learning or needing to check my beliefs about what I believe to be true about health. I’m continually evaluating my failures and successes to get closer to what yoga teacher Marianne Elliott describes in an essay from the book Yoga and Body Image as “teaching without shame.”
And I don’t pretend to think that doing Pilates is in and of itself the pathway to empowerment, but movement can serve as a tool in that vital process. Tuning in to how your bones, muscles, fascia and organs feel in movement and recognizing the chemical reaction it inspires in the brain can be body-affirming.
And I do believe that the mark of a good Pilates teacher is not found in focusing on weight loss, buffing up for bikini season, or bending into some treacherous pose. A good teacher helps their students connect the mind and body and celebrate individual movement victories.
Only then can the real work of self-empowerment start to happen – no matter your body shape or size.
Jeannette DePatie: Certified personal trainer, advocate and author of The Fat Chick Works Out series
The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise, a book by Hanne Blank
Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, a book by Linda Bacon
Yoga and Body Image, edited by Melanie Klein and Anna Guest-Jelley
While this book of 25 essays looks at yoga, I found much of it applicable to the practice of Pilates.
Dances With Fat, a blog by activist, author and athlete Ragen Chastain