Is it just me, or is it difficult to tell who is a fitness model and fitness professional online anymore? When scrolling mindlessly through social media, my eyes glass over as I flick through the same staging, poses, and lighting to the point that I no longer recognize the model and the trainer. (I’m not sure who popularized the style of pose where a fitness model lifts their shirt and stares at their abs, but they need to know they don't have to keep checking – their abs are still inside.)
Fitness models and professionals are very different; one is paid to look fit, and a professional has the knowledge and expertise to get you, the average person, fit. That doesn't mean a fitness professional can’t look chiseled and lean; likewise, a fitness model can know a great deal about getting fit. However, to look good under the glare of the camera, fitness models tend to have rigid diets and fitness regimes to maintain the intense physique required by their job. But today, from initial appearances alone, the line is beginning to blur.
It seems that more fitness professionals are posting more photos and videos than fitness models traditionally would. It got me thinking: Are fitness professionals pressured by themselves or their clients to conform to this demanding physical ideal.
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It’s understandable if this is true. With algorithms dictating what we see and content being produced at an unparalleled clip, every trainer is just trying to get recognized and book more clients. And sometimes the only way to grab people’s attention and draw them towards your content is to flash some skin. If the pressure exists to show your physique, then a trainer may feel pressure, whether subtle or obvious, to try and create an image those potential clients respond to the most.
As a personal trainer, my mantra with my female clients was that ‘Strong is the new skinny’. The idea behind this mantra is to reject the notion that you should endlessly attempt to shrink and embrace muscle and power to improve your confidence. Through my group fitness classes, my clients built triceps muscles that flashed in t-shirts, back muscles that rippled in backless dresses, quadricep muscles that flexed through trousers and abs that could murder even the toughest core challenge. I loved watching these women become proud of their strong bodies. It wasn’t just about becoming strong though. It was also about systematically dismantling years of programming that we are never enough, no matter how slim we become.
Falling victim to the comparison trap
However, I can readily admit that although I advocated for my clients not to compare themselves to others, I fell victim to the comparison trap more than I would like to admit. I judged myself harshly against what I saw online. It got me thinking: In a world where we support body positivity and being healthy at any size, how do fitness professionals feel about any perceived pressure on their bodies?
More and more fitness professionals online have been sharing their personal stories to show they also experienced body shaming, low self-esteem, or struggles with their fitness goals within the industry. A recent example, Alice Liveing, a fitness influencer, spoke of her progression from being very lean at the cost of being chronically over-exercised and under-eating to a larger yet much healthier body. And yet, even after her honesty, she posted a message she received from a random internet bully who told her she was now “fat”.
Karena Dawn from Tone it Up was the subject of online discussion boards dispassionately discussing her weight gain. Dawn, who now also runs the Big Silence, a mental health platform, admits that she went through a depressive period during COVID when her fitness was not her priority, and yes, she gained weight.
According to the Australian Institute of Fitness (AIF), “Clients expect personal trainers to look fit and role model their profession. This is very subjective. Is it leanness? Muscularity? BMI? It is certainly not specific. In fact, many people/clients will have many different ideas of what ‘fit’ looks like.”
Swetha Subbiah, co-founder of Sisters in Sweat, agrees with both sentiments. Subbiah says clients will gravitate to the trainer whose aesthetic they most want to emulate. Therefore, being and looking fit is essential. Clients want to know the secret to get from A to B, and your physique proves that you figured it out, at least for yourself. However, what a client defines as ‘fit’ will differ for everyone.
The trouble with chasing aesthetic fitness
Louise Carter, a group fitness instructor and nutritional advisor, cautions that the trouble with those who chase aesthetics is that they “also focus on the physiques they want now rather than how they want their bodies to function later” and that social media won’t share that level of depth in this highly complex conversation of fitness, health, body image and aesthetics.
Attempting to achieve the prototypical chiseled leanness can result in trying punishing fitness programs that can sometimes affect your bone and joint health and your ability to reproduce, recover from stress, and sleep at night. However, a split second of viewing a reel or a picture doesn't adequately convey this complex discussion of trade-offs and benefits. This is why Carter is passionate about sharing her struggles and achievements with her clients, so they can see how their fitness programs can fit into real life with conflicting priorities, while still achieving their goals.
Open, vulnerable communication needed
Achieving this level of a personal relationship with your fitness professional is crucial to changing opinions and shifting mindsets.
Ananya Mukund, a Pre & Post Natal yoga instructor, said that because she has always been ‘petite and thin’, the comments she has always received is: “Oh, but you don’t need to do any yoga” or “This must be so easy for you.” “Especially now that I have been through pregnancy and childbirth and am a new parent, the assumption is that I have magically bounced back because I teach yoga,” Mukund says but she adds that the perception is changing slowly. “Clients, especially if they are going through similar experiences like childbirth, are significantly more empathetic of their trainers than they would have probably been ten years ago,” Mukund notes.
We need more trainers like these who can create a balance with their clients— of aspirational images of what a fit lifestyle can achieve and the real-life perspective behind their gym uniform. An aspirational physique may be part of the job, but the personal connection behind the idea of personal training is also a muscle that requires building. I advise any fitness professional posting content on social media, who feels the stress and pressure to conform to an arbitrary standard, never to be afraid to be open and appropriately vulnerable with your clients; you may notice they are much more empathetic than we realize.