6 Things Fitness Instructors Should Do to Become a Better Fat Ally

Outright body shaming is a form of anti-fat bias that’s no longer acceptable (and never should have been) in the fitness space—health comes in all shapes and sizes, and if exercise is really about wellness, it should be motivated by self-care and satisfaction, not shame. But helping clients take care of themselves and discover the joy of movement requires something more: working toward fat allyship.

Being an ally to clients in larger bodies goes beyond abolishing fat-burning talk, food-earning comments, and threats of the impending swimsuit season. In my experience, the best allies don’t feel like they’re allies at all. Instead, they consider themselves members of the communities they serve. Otherwise, well-intentioned attempts at allyship can become another form of othering, where you see the group you’re trying to support as inferior in some way. This can create a barrier to understanding what that particular community needs.

As long as an instructor feels as though they are somehow superior to the people they’re training—smarter, fitter, healthier, better, really anything -er—then they will always have difficulty aligning with their clients’ needs. That’s why it’s so important for trainers to be aware of how certain biases and blind spots may be standing in the way of creating a sense of shared community.

As a fat yoga teacher, I’ve seen first-hand the power of shared community and allyship when it comes to fostering body acceptance. When we treat each other like family, we have more empathy and less judgment, which leads to true understanding and growth. And since trainers have a great deal of influence over their clients—and the greater fitness world—I believe they have a responsibility to set this compassionate tone.

Here are six ways straight-size fitness instructors—and all trainers—can challenge their anti-fat bias and create a more inclusive, welcoming space for clients, regardless of body size.

1. Offer a variety of movement styles.

If your clients have a range of training methods at their disposal—from high-intensity moves to more restorative and conditioning exercises—they can tailor their workout to wherever their body’s at today (not how it once was or how it could be in the future), which is essential for developing a sustainable, enjoyable movement practice.

2. Create online options, if you’re able.

Even before the pandemic forced us indoors, virtual fitness classes offered anonymity and emotional safety that I’ve found crucial in establishing my own wellness practices. Many people are scared to go to in-person classes and training sessions: They’re afraid of feeling judged or being yelled at by someone they barely know. If you offer digital options in addition to IRL training, not only will you reach a wider audience, but you’ll also provide accessibility to folks who may live close to your practice, but would have never stepped foot in your space.

3. Present—and validate—modifications.

Offer a variety of methods that allow clients to adjust your techniques to meet their body’s needs on a given day. And, just as important: Make it clear that every version of every movement is equally valid, no matter how heavily modified. Treating modifications like an easy way out is a common, subtle form of body shaming that can leave clients feeling self-conscious and anything but motivated.

4. Be as flexible as possible.

Think about time as a variable, not a constant. Sometimes a workout can be discouraging if it’s too long or seems too advanced. By offering a variety of durations that can work for a wide range of bodies and lifestyles, your clients can always meet you where they are, not the other way around. 

In that same vein, be sensitive to the fact that people’s activity needs vary day to day. A client’s workout plan may need to be adjusted depending on what’s going on in their life in terms of their schedule, body, relationships, personality, etc. That means they might need to train on a schedule that varies from your personal needs and beliefs. Make it clear to your clients that whenever they decide to train and for however long is perfect—there’s no absolute number of training sessions per week (or month, or year) required to reap the positive rewards of physical activity.

5. Offer a range of financing options.

If you’re able, I recommend giving away something for free online, even if it’s just TikTok or Instagram workouts. Sure, it may cost you in terms of time and production, and your clients will need internet access to participate, but free digital sessions might be the most affordable and accessible of your offerings.

It’s also helpful if you can charge on a sliding scale (where you adjust your fees based on a client’s income) when possible, so more people can take part in your services.

6. Show yourself compassion.

If you’re gentle with yourself and respectful of your own body, you will intuitively know how to be in alignment with your clients. In my experience, the hate we fling at others is almost always a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. You know the softest, most sensitive, most tender part of yourself? The part that you often hide behind a shell or mask in order to get from point A to point B? When in doubt, remember that your clients are bringing that part of themselves to their workouts with you. Be kind to yourself, and you’ll know just how to treat everybody else.

See more from SELF’s Future of Fitness package here.