Michael Mantell by Michael Mantell

Ahhh, summer is almost here. Newspapers and magazines, in fact the entire media, seems to have found a seasonally sensational way to fill space…and your client’s heads. Articles about the “Hottest Celebrity Beach Bodies of 2014” and “How to Get Your Beach Body On in One Month” help fuel unhealthy expectations about bodies, size, shape and how women and men “are supposed to” look.

For the media, this is serious financial business. For mental health professionals and fitness coaches, it’s also serious business. While the former are, unwittingly, promoting body-image disturbance, we strive to promote optimal health—mind and body.

Clients with body-image disorder, also called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), display persistent and intrusive dissatisfaction and negative preoccupation with an imagined or even a slight “defect” in their appearance along with anxiety over their lack of muscularity. For some, BDD can be so controlling that it affects their work performance and social relationships, not to mention their reluctance to come to a gym or other public facility to exercise.

Beach body articles, similar media and cultural influences, and Barbie and GI Joe dolls certainly aren’t helping your clients, male or female. These unrealistic ideals are unattainable and dangerous for many. Yet, statistics suggest that 80 to 90 percent of women are unhappy with their mirrored reflection.

It’s mandatory that while we focus on promoting exercise, health and fitness, we consistently and unrelentingly use positive, proper and sensitively focused language.

We know that clients of almost any size can be fit—but do clients really believe that?

The research on trainers’ own body-image issues suggests that what trainers believe about themselves and portray in front of clients has an impactful role, right alongside the language that trainers and coaches use with clients about size, body type and appearance.

When training a client, constantly looking in the mirror while complaining about your own appearance, for example, can only have a negative impact on clients struggling with their own body-image issues. Perhaps it’s time to de-emphasize the attention given to “beach body bikinis” “ripped abs” and “shredded muscles,” and instead focus on being self-accepting, authentic and real, 12 months a year. Did I say “perhaps”? No, not perhaps, IT’S TIME. And here’s how.

In his excellent 1997 workbook, Body Image Workbook: An 8-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks, Thomas F. Cash, Ph.D., uses empirical research to help everyday readers increase body-image satisfaction and decrease emotional distress. I recommend you consider this book as a resource for your clients who display any body-image concerns. These steps are useful to keep in mind when speaking with clients about body-image disturbances.

1. What is your client’s body image? What goals does he or she have to improve erroneous beliefs about his or her body size and appearance? Who and what does your client want to be at his or her best, and is this realistic?

 Ask your clients, “Are you worried about how you look?” “If you are, do you think about your appearance a great deal and wish you could think about it less?” Follow up with, “About how much time per day do you think you spend thinking about how you look?”

Inquire about his or her main concern, “Is your main concern that you aren’t thin enough or you might become overweight?” Of course, you’ll want to learn, “How has this affected your life?”

Asking these types of questions is entirely appropriate to learn more about a client’s body-image issues, according to experts. It’s valuable to see how your client sees him or herself in the mirror and these questions may help.

2. What are the causes of your client’s discontent with body size and shape?

 This addresses the “why” and includes comments from family and friends, the media, comparing themselves to others (perhaps in the gym), current irrational ideals your client holds in his or her mind about physical appearance and similar sources. Discuss these things to help your clients see how these outside forces are impinging on their lives through their thoughts. These issues will touch on positive and negative feelings your clients have about their bodies from the messages they’ve received throughout life.

Are you unwittingly focusing on the wrong messages by what you and your client track? For example, if weight and inches are main factors logged into a journal or on an app, you may be conveying that’s what counts most, as if the scale and tape measure can give permission to feel good about oneself. Measure subjective factors with a simple, “How am I feeling about myself today?”and “What am I telling myself about me today?” The same goes for your initial assessments with a client. Don’t assume that all clients are okay with having body-fat measurements. It may be that other, more comfortable, measures should be included at the outset to take the focus off size, shape and appearance.

3. Hearing faulty thinking and negative self-talk.

This seems to be a key source of much body-image concern. What your clients think about their bodies and how they evaluate their appearance is a critical piece of understanding for the advanced health coach. The link is what you think, after all. Are your clients engaged in “all or nothing” thinking? For example, “Since I’m not a beach body queen, I’m a total loser,” or “Since I don’t have bulging muscles like that guy over there, my body is weak.” Perhaps it’s “emotional reasoning” that you hear in your clients when they say, “I feel so ugly so I must be,” or “I just feel fat so that’s why I know I am.” Or perhaps it’s “mind reading” that you bump into when your clients say, “I know they think I’m too heavy to wear this,” or “I can tell they are thinking I’m ________.” You may hear clients “compare and despair,” when they compare themselves to you, or others in the fitness center. Helping clients focus on their own performance, their own progress, and their own reality is most helpful. Frequent comparing leads to increases in negative body image. When you hear these types of cognitive distortions it’s time to help your clients challenge them (THEY challenge them, YOU don’t). Ask your clients if the beliefs they hold about themselves are True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and/or Kind. Ask your clients what they might say to a dear friend who believed those same thoughts. Wonder with your clients why they don’t say the same things to themselves. Ask your clients if they can think of alternative beliefs that might be more accurate and if they see value in adopting them instead of the inaccurate beliefs they’ve held onto.

Help your clients nurture their inner selves while they focus on exercise. Ask your clients what they think would help them think differently about themselves while they workout. If you haven’t seen Jean Kilbourne’s award winning documentary, Killing Us Softly, or read her “Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, it’s time you do. It will help you to become more sensitive to these issues. The behavioral dimension—what your clients do that reflects negative or positive feelings about their bodies—is another important area to reflect on with them.

Would staying off the scale help? Would limiting mirror checking time help? Would spending time with friends and family who have healthier body images help? Would learning how to catch, challenge and change erroneous beliefs about shape, size and appearance help? Would unlinking self-esteem from waist size help? Would expanding the definition of health and attractiveness help?

There are many ways to help clients with negative body image. It starts with the language you use and the trust your clients have in you. Trust = being Truthful, Respectful, Understanding, Sensitive and Tightlipped.

Finally, consider sharing some of Belleruth Naparestek’s affirmations from her book, A Meditation for Relaxation and Wellness, with your clients.

1. I thank my body for all it has done for me in the past and all it will do for me in the future.
2. I am learning to trust my body and to make good use of the information it offers me.
3. I am aware that with each breath in I am sending precious oxygen and rich nutrients to the places in my body that need them.
4. More and more I can understand that my body is my ally, my oldest friend, and steadiest companion.