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Episode 80: Body Positivity in the Fitness Industry and Our Role as Messengers with Natalia Petrzela

in this episode:

Natalia Petrzela

Fitness Historian, Author, & Activist

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As fitness professionals, we have a lot more power than we think. Many of us have devoted followings of people that spend more time, money and energy with us than their doctors or therapists, spouses, or children. We have a real ability to help people re-think the way they think about themselves and who they can be in the world. When it comes to body positivity and feminism, what are the ideas, ideals, and attitudes that you’re modeling and encouraging in your studio or gym?

Join Shay Kostabi and Natalia Petrzela in this fascinating discussion on the history of feminism and body positivity messaging in the fitness industry, and the part we play today.

FCM Episode 080 Show Notes

Listen to this Episode:

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

• A brief history of feminism and the fitness industry
• The interesting evolution and contradictions around catch-phrases and terminology associated with fitness.
• How our fitness classes and studios are very important places to model excellent ideas, ideals, and attitudes- because they change the way people think of themselves and what’s possible for them in their lives.

Here’s the Episode Summary:

(15:22) Feminism in the fitness industry, and body positivity

For well into the mid-20th century, there were very dominant ideas that vigorous exercise would compromise a woman’s fertility, and would make women look like men. Exercising was seen as something that was crazy to do. It’s for the most part gone away, but it wasn’t that long ago!

(18:54) Key Term: Amenorrhea (uh-men-o-REE-uh) is the absence of menstruation, one or more missed menstrual periods

(21:00) Early fitness for women was revolutionary against the medical industry that was telling women what they should or could do or not do with their bodies, but simultaneously, perpetuated antiquated ideas of what women should look like- so fitness existed to for women to be thin, to look pretty, etc.

(21:40) The origins of terminology around women’s fitness

The first words you heard originating from the women’s fitness movement were “reducing” and “slenderizing”. These words are clearly about a women’s size and shape. 

The terms evolved as body ideals shifted as well as the goals for women’s exercise. You then began to hear words like “toning” “lengthening” “strengthening” which, funny enough are just euphemisms that mean the same thing! 

Today, we’ve moved away from language and phrases like “whittle the middle”, and more towards phrases like “self-care” and “feeling yourself” which has followed a movement with messaging about loving yourself and focusing on what your body can do, not what it looks like.

But women still have imperatives to be thin, but have become less comfortable talking about that. 

It’s caused difficulty for trainers, because they’ve had clients that desire weight loss, but as a trainer the’ve felt they’re not allowed to talk about that anymore, because someone might get offended. How do you match new norms with old mindsets?

Some women experience conflict because they want to be skinnier, but feel like they’re not supposed to want that.

(27:00) Everyone in the world has body issues.

You may look at someone who you think looks perfect, and they may feel completely differently about themselves. However, body acceptance runs a spectrum, and there are people who have bodies that are not within a cultural “acceptable” range that may experience a very different kind of life with heckling and loss of work opportunities on account of their weight. Everyone struggles with their own body issues, but there are some out there that don’t recognize the privilege they experience with the body that they have because it adheres to a cultural perception of what “body perfection” is. It doesn’t mean that who can and cannot speak about body positivity should be policed, but it’s important to be mindful of context when speaking about it.

(31:55) Where does the terminology come from?

Body positivity terminology isn’t purely a result of the fitness industry. It began largely with the fat liberation movement in the 1970s. People who had been marginalized by what their body looked like, and an outward reflection of their worth.

Feminists writing in scholarly journals and magazines in the 1990s had a lot to do with the change of terminology in the beauty industry, the diet industry, and the fitness industry. The fitness industry has been incredible with reducing the use of “diet talk” language, but at the same time you also see the “new lingo” and the monetization of it. For instance, the selling of a t-shirt that says “rebel girl” as part of a Memorial Day sale- which is the opposite of rebellious behavior.

(00:00) As fitness professionals we should push back against the imperative to be thin, and if you’re not thin, you’re not a good person.

It doesn’t mean that losing weight is a bad thing!

(36:35) As fitness professionals and studio owners, what should be conscious of when it comes to our messaging?

We don’t want to convey that a “bikini body” or “summer arms” are what people should have, but there are also people in our classes that desire those things, and that doesn’t make them bad people! 

Science is showing us that you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. It’s also showing us that you can’t spot-train parts of the body, so a lot of the language that we use around these misconceptions is starting to disappear. It also takes 7 days for alcohol to leave your body.

Action Tip 1: Keep up on your research!

Action Tip 2: For program developers- really think about why people are there. What are the goals of the program that you want to amplify for people?

The biggest consumers of fitness are over 55 years old!

The “hot body” motivation is very popular in fitness, but it might not necessarily be the goal of most of the people in your class.

Action Tip: Work on your tag-lines and one-liners. Think about what you want your people to feel.

(45:12) The proliferation of fitness as a luxury product and a high-value American export.

There are a lot of kinds of spending that became tacky after the 2008 recession. People are more likely too show off their $12 green juice and their $40 fitness class on Instagram than their expensive handbag. Socially we’re more willing to say “oh good for them, they care about their health”, even if it’s a luxury experience.

Fitness is now a product that we consume and is a status symbol.

(47:00) Miss Teen USA wearing Emily Hsu fitness apparel.

Yoga pants outsold denim in the US in 2017. Fitness apparel has transitioned to fashion. It’s progressive that teens aren’t parading around in bikinis that are meant to show off their bodies. Active-wear also suggests being active. At the same time, the only reason you can have leggings and sports bras be the apparel, is because they’re “sexy”. 

There are legging related protests all the time. High schools are banning leggings because they’re distracting to boys. Women are protesting by wearing the leggings anyway because they feel boys are responsible for what’s distracting them.

(52:55) One message to fit pros

“You have a lot of power- a lot more power than you think. A lot of you have devoted followings of people that spend more time, money and energy with you than their doctors or therapists, spouses, or children. I encourage you to take that really seriously… Think of yourself in a more elevated light to help people re-think the way they think about themselves and who they can be in the world. What are the ideas, ideals, and attitudes that you’re modeling and encouraging in your studio or gym?”

It’s not just the gym. It’s an important place.

Other References in This Episode:

Natalia’s Washington Post article on the term “Bikini Body”:

Jera Bean

This is Us

Emily Hsu Apparel

Well + Good Lululemon article:

Other articles by Natalia:

The Fitness Industry is Booming. Why are PE Classes Disappearing?

How “Empowered” Speech About Your Body May Mask the Same Issues

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