Zumba Class

When Your Body Image Becomes Your Business Card

The fitness industry is booming. But is it promoting fitness and health? Or is it promoting an unhealthy preoccupation with body image? Writing for The Lily, Nicole Chung reflects on this dilemma. Becoming a fitness instructor, she got herself into great shape. However, she found that her body image issues grew worse than ever as a result.

Normalizing the Abnormal?

We hear and read a lot about what the norm should be. Recently in the U.K., Nike touched off a storm of moral panic with mannequins. The offense? Large bodies in fitness clothes. It’s not an uncommon reaction. “We want to be careful and not cross over into norming unhealthy weight,” said the CDC’s Suzi Gates to a recent panel about health communications at the National Academies.

This is tricky territory. If fitness is all about image, it easily becomes disconnected from health. In fact, for many people it can become unhealthy, as Chung describes:

I started having conversations with other fitness instructors about this phenomenon: of feeling I needed to look a certain way for my job. They expressed that they had felt that same pressure. When they focused mainly on their appearance instead of their athletic ability, they started developing unhealthy habits, too, they said.

Inclusive Fitness?

Should we be “norming” body types? What does that even mean? For people who have ever struggled with weight or eating disorder or body image issues, the meaning is quite clear. Your body is not OK. You are abnormal. You are unwelcome in many fitness venues that indeed are all about image. Health is secondary.

But the unfortunate truth is that obesity is prevalent. People have not chosen this condition. It’s a genetic inheritance that an unhealthy environment triggers in susceptible individuals. The average BMI in American adults is now 29 – just a tad shy of the level that signals obesity. It is what it is.

So a fitness industry preoccupied with body image is repelling a large swath of public. And research tells us that weight bias is quite common among fitness professionals.

Cosmetic Health

David Hutson’s research suggests that “your body is your business card” in the fitness industry. A fit appearance confers moral and health authority. Based upon aesthetics, consumers are seeking health advice from people who may or may not have a complete understanding of human health.

Fitness and physical activity are indeed important for physical and mental health. But cosmetic approaches can be quite unhelpful. As the fitness industry has grown, it has become more segmented. Some segments continue to promote unrealistic body images. Others are tuning into body diversity and fitness at every size.

We hope this latter approach will become more dominant for the sake of our health.

Click here for Chung’s essay in The Lily.

Zumba Class, photograph © Fort Meade Public Affairs / flickr

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October 13, 2019

One Response to “When Your Body Image Becomes Your Business Card”

  1. October 13, 2019 at 8:15 am, Mary-Jo said:

    So True. I think even HCPs — doctors, dietitians, nurses — judge each other, based on weight and appearance. Moreover, when the people in health care leadership roles emanate this bias, it spreads into the general population sentiment. Continuing to seek and educate on a greater understanding of the disease of obesity, hopefully, will end the hurt and damage in all this.