Samantha Gambino, PsyD by Samantha Gambino, PsyD

Body shaming is when a person expresses unsolicited, mostly negative opinions or comments about someone else’s body or their own. While body shaming is usually associated with fat or skinny shaming, it's much broader in scope and includes being shamed for the size and shape of any or all body parts (e.g., height, hair texture, amount of hair or facial features).

The irony of body shaming is that it is not always meant to hurt someone's feelings or cause harm. A person can be body shamed unintentionally or inadvertently by a close friend, partner, family member, exercise professional, health coach, healthcare professional or anyone close to them, sometimes even with the best of intentions.

The Most Important Thing Exercise Professionals and Health Coaches Can Do

As an exercise professional or health coach, the best way to help your clients with body shame is to be aware of your own feelings around physical appearance, body image and shame. Tuning in to your emotions and experience allows you better to understand yourself and your relationship with your body. This knowledge is essential to truly understand your clients' body shame.

Areas of Self-reflection

Body shame develops in different ways and can be a response to one's personal experiences, family history, societal messages and cultural values. Therefore, it is vital to understand the following:

Your personal experience and relationship with physical appearance and body shame:

  • What are your beliefs and biases about body size, shape and physical appearance?
  • How have your beliefs shaped you and your relationship with your own body?
  • How does body shame affect you?

The family messages you received about physical appearance and shame:

  • What family messages did you receive about body size and shape?
  • What meaning did your family assign to physical appearance?
  • Were you body shamed as a child?
  • How influenced are you by societal messages and cultural values around physical appearance?
  • Do you tend to compare yourself to society's ideal of how a body should look?
  • What businesses and brands do you follow, and how influenced are you by their messaging around physical appearance, body ideals and fatness and thinness?
  • What are your cultural values around body shame and physical appearance?

Understanding Your Reactions

Through self-reflection and combining the pieces from family history, culture and societal messages, you will gain an in-depth understanding of your body shame story. This insight will help you understand the feelings that get provoked when you notice a client engaging in body-shaming behavior. For example, suppose you had an overly critical parent who constantly critiqued your body. You may have felt defenseless against this judgment. These feelings, in turn, could make you feel protective of a client who comments negatively about their own body.

Understanding your feelings about body shame is essential because emotions create automatic reactions. As an exercise professional or health coach, it's important to slow this process down because how you respond could set off a chain reaction in your client. Given this domino effect, it's helpful to ensure that your instinctual responses are well understood to avoid an impulsive and emotional reaction. Instead, your response can come from a place of understanding, empathy and support.

Observe yourself and ask yourself the following questions when confronted with a client who is engaged in body shaming themself:

  • Do you seek to protect them from their harsh inner critic (i.e., tell them not to be so hard on themself and that they're too critical)?
  • Do you feel pulled into caring for your client and making them feel better about themself?
  • Do you secretly agree with them and say nothing?
  • Does this become your problem, leading you to rework their training program to target their body concerns?
  • Do you feel nervous and make jokes to lighten the moment?

All of these responses are normal. It's human nature to want to comfort someone when they are down on themselves. However, this is not always the best way to respond to someone who body shames because it can feel dismissive and devaluing.

Keep It in Context

Research shows that body dissatisfaction begins at an early age. A study conducted with preadolescent children ranging in age from 9 to 14 years old found that 51% of girls and 36% of boys wanted to be thinner, while 21% of the boys wanted to be larger, compared to only 7% of the girls. These findings suggest that while body dissatisfaction manifests itself differently for preadolescent girls and boys, it starts at a very young age for both sexes. This is important to understand as a trainer because, when a client presents with body shame, there may be years of history behind these feelings. 

When any belief starts at an early age, it is well engrained. That is how the mind works; it seeks out information to prove certain beliefs. Therefore, these beliefs feel like facts to your clients. Knowing how the mind works is important because then you can understand that when a client body shames themself in front of you, there is nothing you can say at that moment that will change a long-standing belief. If a client comments, "My butt is so fat!" a sincere response such as, "That's not true, you’re exaggerating," can be felt as dismissive and judgmental because they have believed this to be true for years and years.

Do Your Inner Work

  • Notice your automatic response to your body-shaming clients.
  • Imagine what it would be like and feel like to respond differently when a client body shames.
  • Get comfortable sitting with these uncomfortable emotions.
  • Let uncomfortable feelings become familiar so they become easier to sit with.
  • Take care of your own emotional health so you can stay regulated in the face of stress.
  • Mentally and visually rehearse the exercise of not springing into action when your clients body shame themselves.
  • Practice this over and over, because it is hard to inhibit an automatic response.
  • Remind yourself that changing behavior takes time, practice and patience.
  • Prioritize your own self-care during this process.

Empathic Statements as a Response

Here are some empathic, yet neutral ways to respond to your body-shaming clients. The goal is to mirror back and validate what you heard.

  • “Those are big feelings to grapple with.”
  • “It’s not easy having so many different feelings about your body.”
  • “Feelings about our bodies are so complicated.”
  • “Having parts of yourself that you really don't like is so hard.”
  • “I can hear how frustrated you are with certain parts of your body.”

A Final Word

In the same way you speak to your clients about things taking time to change, and that change is a process, remind yourself of this, as well. It’s tough to change an automatic response, so try giving yourself the same grace and compassion your clients will need to change their body-shaming ways.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, check out Strategies for Coaching Clients Toward a Healthier Body Image and Are You Inadvertently Playing the Shame Game With Your Clients?

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