How I Protect Myself From Eating Disorder Triggers as a Fitness Instructor

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My first foray into fitness was in the mid-1990s. I was an impressionable high schooler completely disconnected from my body, and I was easily lured by the socially constructed aesthetic ideal I saw marketed everywhere. I was convinced that obtaining a sculpted, smaller physique would fill my hollow sense of self.

I truly believed that step aerobics, “toning” classes, and the two sports I already played, topped off with extreme dieting, would solve all of my problems. Spoiler alert: It didn’t solve any of them (of course). It actually created many more instead—including an eating disorder and an even more fragile sense of self.

Yet here I am 25 years later, still involved in an industry whose noxious breadcrumbs led me down a very dangerous path.

So why am I still here? It’s not because the industry changed—it’s still known for its ability to foster unhealthy relationships with body image, food, and eating. It’s still known to place emphasis on a certain kind of body. It’s still filled with triggers. But it turns out I actually learned some valuable lessons while trudging down its path, including how to tune into my own internal GPS instead of following or chasing someone else’s hazardous cues and breadcrumbs.

It also turns out that defying the physical ideals, harmful rhetoric, and short-sighted and discriminatory imagery that initially baited me has helped me fall in love with movement. And then movement helped me fall in love with myself. This defiance has become part of my mission, and this deep relationship I have with movement is why I choose to be here in this industry and why I fight for it to be more welcoming.

But the “how I stay” is the hard part, especially as a fitness instructor and “influencer” who’s surrounded by these eating disorder triggers every single day. With a history of toxic thoughts and unhealthy behavior patterns, I have to be proactive about how I navigate and exist in this space.

Here’s how I do my best to protect myself from falling into old detrimental patterns. Reading through these may help you be more empathetic about the words you choose or the behaviors you engage in, even if you haven’t had a history of eating disorders. And they may also be useful things to consider if you’re new to fitness or just starting to dabble—you don’t need to be engulfed in the industry to feel triggered by it.

1. I do not participate in weight-loss or body-shaming conversations.

Period, full stop. I will never tell you that it looks like you lost/gained weight, or that I think I need to lose weight. I will also not respond to these kinds of questions except to tell you that fitness is not about how you look. I don’t know what is going on with you and your health or your life, and I also don’t want to either inadvertently or purposefully contribute to that kind of external validation. I know all about this because I used to live for comments about how skinny I looked. It did nothing but make things worse.

It might seem extreme, but I won’t even be a third party to these conversations. This means I have to be very aware in public places like locker rooms (the hardest, IMO), gym lobby areas, the moments in between classes, etc. I try to get in and out of these places quickly before I overhear something. Because the truth is, I will never unhear it. The reality of having a history of eating disorders is that you may tell me your name eight times and I might still forget it, but if I overhear you say something in a locker room about your body, it will take intentional effort to stop the snowball of thoughts about my body based on your comment about yours. I hate to admit that, I hate that it’s true, but I’ve had to learn to be brutally honest with myself.

And COVID-19 has made these types of conversations even more plentiful—all of a sudden people feel like it’s okay to talk about COVID weight gain or loss as something we are all experiencing. I have realized there is almost no space clear of the possibility of weight talk. So I’m on extra alert, and my ducking and dodging is getting very sophisticated.

2. I am very particular about the classes I take and how the instructor motivates participants.

If they talk about an exercise being good for a better-looking [insert body part here], there’s a pretty high chance I will never return to their class. And if it becomes too much during a class, I might leave. Yeah, I am really that strict about it. I have to be.

Comments about looking a certain way to get more dates at the bar, to go on vacation, to be ready for summer, or to wear a dress or a bikini are not motivating for me—they are actually potentially dangerous. I know that those words will linger in my head and fester. I also know that someone else may internalize them and go home to engage in some very unhealthy behaviors.

This also means I won’t speak like this in my classes. I may talk about body parts in relation to which muscles to engage, how it can help with other types of movement you do, or where you might feel something, but not to what the aesthetic results will look like. You might hear some F-bombs (from me or my music), but I truly feel this is far less detrimental than what I have heard about bodies in classes before.

3. I avoid labeling food and exercise as good or bad.

I don’t label foods as good or bad or how someone eats as “being good today” (or bad), because this is what filled my consciousness while I was in the throes of my eating disorder. I’m also not a fan of labeling movements or workouts as “fat-burning” or “slimming” or anything of the sort. Same goes for class names. I don’t mind body-part focus (like Upper Body, Lower Body, or Core), but when a class or program is labeled by its aesthetic promise—Six-Pack Abs, anything shred-related—I have to stay away. The great news, though, is that this has led me toward some amazing modalities, classes, and coaches in which form, function, solid movement patterns, and athleticism take the front seat.

4. I’m not afraid to mute or unfollow certain social accounts.

I just know that as I scroll my feed, there are certain things I cannot afford to see. Before-and-after transformation photos, posts where people criticize their own bodies, the peddling of products related to weight loss, any comments about people being lazy because they don’t work out or eat a certain way, memes or posts about COVID weight gain, or anything of that nature need to be banished from my sight.

I instead seek those who are body neutral, super real, and extra candid and who aren’t afraid to call B.S. on industry and societal ideals. I will quickly hit “follow” on accounts that promote healthy relationships with body and mind, dietitians who specifically counter this weight-loss-focused culture, fitness accounts that are focused on function over aesthetic, and accounts that speak up for inclusion.

5. I am very specific about the brands I choose to work with.

If they have diet, weight loss, bikini, booty, six-pack, or anything of the sort in their title or as part of the ethos of the brand, I won’t move forward with them. I’ve turned down product deals, articles, and features because I just couldn’t be involved, and I will continue to do that without hesitation. Now, I cannot always control article headlines, which may change before print, for pieces I ’ve been quoted in or photographed for, or have contributed to. But when I can help it, I most certainly do.

6. I check myself regularly.

I am well aware that my thoughts, behaviors, patterns, and emotions can quickly become unhealthy. I can’t exist in a hole where I’ve banished all eating disorder triggers away from me, so there are still many that come across my world daily. If I can catch myself in the act of a negative thought pattern, I can generally talk myself out of it, which often includes taking a moment (or many) to reframe my thoughts from what my body looks like to what my body can do. The longer I let a negative thought sit, the more likely it is to snowball.

7. I listen intently to my body.

I find that the more in tune I am with what my body needs, the better off I am overall. This helps me prevent injury, nourish and replenish myself with the proper fuel, get sufficient sleep, get adequate body care, and take care of my emotional health. It helps me be more precise with the actual self-care that my body needs instead of altering my behaviors to achieve an external ideal. For example, if my body needs fuel, I give it fuel instead of overthinking what I “should” or “should not” be eating.

8. I stay consistent with my therapy.

My eating disorder was rooted in trauma—and I know I’m not alone in that—which means not only do I need to stay on top of the behavioral manifestation that ensued, but I also really need to consistently go at the root of the issue as well. This is a lifelong process that ebbs and flows, and consistently checking in makes a huge difference. Checking in with a professional is ideal and can be life-changing. But I also know that not everyone has the ability or means to access a therapist. If you don’t, try to find online or library resources created by professionals to get some insight or look for groups of people dealing with similar issues.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is. But I’d rather put in the extra effort in preparation or prevention than have to unwind or undo some potentially dangerous behavior patterns down the line. I’ve been there, done that, and learned my lessons in a way that I still carry with me. Movement is incredibly healing for me, and so the benefits of keeping that a priority in my life far outweigh the extra bit of work it takes to protect myself from triggers. There is a thin line between the healing powers of movement and the detrimental impacts of fitness culture, so I just have to stay sharp enough not to cross it.

If you’ve experienced something similar, my hope for you is that you get the help you need, and that you do whatever you can to protect your mental and physical well-being. And if you are someone who has never considered how your conversations or comments might affect someone who has dealt with eating disorders, all I ask is that you think twice before blurting something out, especially in locker rooms or bathrooms when you don’t know who might be hearing you.

 

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