Body image issues as a fitness instructor

In my previous post I told you a little bit about my beliefs when it comes to nutrition, and also gave you a glimpse into the comments I get regarding my assumed eating habits as a (skinny) fitness instructor. Today I decided to share a few more thoughts and issue regarding body image as a dance teacher and a fitness instructor.

As a young female teacher, teaching both dance and various fitness classes, you are expected to have a certain body type. This is also true when you are a young male teacher, and to some extant also when you are an older teacher, but I do believe that the pressure is highest on young ladies. I won’t lie, we are all products of our culture, and when I imagine a dance/fitness instructor I imagine their body in a certain way. That is probably due to our false belief that strong, fit people are necessarily super lean, and that heavier people are bad a sports activities. This means that as an instructor you need to be aware of the fact that your body is under scrutiny. Sometimes it is only subtle, but at times students will comment about your body. I’m not entirely sure which is better.

As I teach various ages (from 3 years old to 70 year olds), I encounter different issues (which I will tell you about in detail in just a sec), which all have in common the fact that they make me very aware of my own body.

I have shared with you before the that I actually do have the “right” body type for both a ballerina and a fitness instructor. You might think this means that I encounter no problems whatsoever, but of course that isn’t true. It generates its own problems. Moreover, although I generally like my body, I don’t always feel secure about it, and when standing in front of a class commenting about your appearance, that can be tough.

3-6 year:

My little ones are the sweetest! I teach them pre-ballet and the magical thing about them is that they have the spontaneity that we, as grown ups, have lost. They can simply come over and hug my leg in the middle of class for no apparent reason. But it has its downsides too. Youngsters can often comment about your looks, though it can be flattering and adorable that your students tell you that you are really pretty, it will also make you conscious about your looks, and it might be slightly embarrassing or just not correspond with the way you feel about yourself at that moment.

Pre-teens and teenagers:

Unlike the younger kids and adults, pre-teens and teens don’t normally comment on my appearance. I am not sure if it is because they are too embarrassed to do so, but you can often tell that they are very preoccupied with their own bodies. For instance, when I teach ballet, the dress code is a leotard with straps and light colored stockings. A lot of girls have a hard time following this dress code and I have to tell them quite firmly to take off the T-shirts and shorts they wear over their leotards. They also comment quite a lot about how uncomfortable they feel and sometimes even about the fact that they are fat and ugly (which of course most of them aren’t), or they might even say that think I find them fat and ugly(!). As a teacher I feel that the fact that I have the “right” body for ballet, isn’t always a plus. It can be discouraging for some of the girls, and it can also make them feel more conscious about their bodies. Some, I am sure, feel I judge them for not having “perfect” ballerina bodies. While my pre-teen and teenage students say nothing about the way I look, they do talk about my physical abilities when I demonstrate something. Although I try to show them the correct way to perform an exercise, I try not to show off. I try to inspire my students, but not do anything that might make them feel as if they aren’t good enough. When I teach kids I never wear revealing clothes, I wear leggings and try not to wear tank tops with thin straps. I also comment a lot about the fact that I trained hard for many years before being able to do what I can do. I often ask myself whether or not I should talk about body image. Unless a certain girl comments about it, I never say anything, and when I do it is always reassuring. I do, however, feel that sometimes a discussion about dancing and body type is avoided out of fear of not being PC. I believe that neither students or teachers benefit from that, as we all know what the stereotypes are, and though I have yet to talk to my girls about it collectively, I am considering to do so.

18+ (women):

When it comes to women, I usually teach either Pilates or aerial yoga. Young women will often comment about their bodies, especially during aerial yoga, which is often a slightly smaller class (depending on the amount of hammocks the studio has). They might also comment about my body. A couple of months ago I was teaching an aerial yoga class when one of my students said out loud “why are you so much skinnier than me?”. Ironically, this specific student is really skinny and fits within the popular beauty ideal. When I told her she has a really beautiful body, the other girls in the class started talking about how perfect my body was. On the one hand, of course it was flattering, but on the other hand it was extremely embarrassing.  There I was, in the middle of my own class, feeling super conscious about my body, having ten women commenting about it. When class was over I felt invaded. I felt like my body shape really shouldn’t be the focus of my students’ attention. I know they meant no harm, and thought they were saying something nice, but at that moment I felt like I was stripped from my other skills and my authority as a teacher.

I do have the “right” body, compared to the modern ideal body type for women. I normally like my body, but A) sometime I too feel fat, ugly etc. B) this doesn’t give other people the right to comment about it. I know I am privileged to be on the good side of this, but it still feels really bad at times. I wish my students (and myself), could stop focusing so much on how fitness contributes to our appearances, and start focusing on the way it makes us feel – more competent, stronger, more flexible, more free, happier!


[Photo by Nitzan Samuel]

Enjoy your weekend,

~ Lir

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