When I tell people that I’m a “weight-inclusive” coach, I get a lot of confused looks and questions. Helping people with exercise, health, and body image without focusing on weight loss is still a relatively new concept for most people. This makes sense in a culture that insists that:
- What we put in our mouths is a moral issue and will either cure us or kill us.
- Exercise exists for us to atone for our food sins and beat our unruly bodies into submission.
- Only thin and conventionally attractive people should love and respect themselves, and everyone else should be working hard to become thin and conventionally attractive (no matter the cost).
The vast majority of personal trainers, dietitians, and health coaches still focus on weight loss as a way of improving health. But a traditional weight-centric approach can have unintended consequences.
The Journal of Obesity looked at the negative effects of a weight-normative approach vs. a weight-inclusive approach and found that “the weight-normative approach is not effective for most people because of high rates of weight regain and cycling from weight loss interventions, which are linked to adverse health and well-being. Its predominant focus on weight may also foster stigma in health care and society, and data show that weight stigma is also linked to adverse health and well-being.” (1)
When I first started coaching, I attempted to straddle the line between coaching for weight loss and a more body-positive approach, but I found myself constantly conflicted. Eventually I realized that trying to do both was making me unhappy and potentially confusing my clients, so I decided to step fully into weight-inclusive coaching.
At first it was terrifying to switch to a weight-inclusive model. Would anyone want to work with me? Would my colleagues respect my work? But over time I have found weight-inclusivity to be an effective approach for helping my clients improve their health and well-being, so I’m glad I followed my gut.
As a culture, we emphasize weight to the detriment of well-being.
Weight inclusivity is important to me as a coach because we live in a thincentric, fatphobic culture that prizes small bodies above all else, and there is no part of our society that this belief has not touched.
We are taught from a young age that the pursuit of the perfect body should be our life’s work and that we should fear fat. The thin ideal teaches us that we will not find love, not be successful, and not be happy until we have lost enough weight.
Almost all of the narratives about larger bodies on the news and in movies emphasize that they are something to be avoided, ridiculed, and overcome. Before-and-after weight-loss stories grace magazine covers and make up the storylines of entire TV shows. We cheer on celebrities to get their “pre-baby body” back.
Doctors prescribe weight loss as the solution for ailments from ear infections to ovarian cysts, holding up weight loss as a magical cure for almost anything (even though there is no proven method for long-term, sustainable weight loss). Even for patients in larger bodies with perfect blood work and no other adverse health indicators, most medical professionals will still insist that they lose weight. We have declared “war” on obesity as a society, pathologizing our peers.
This weight stigma has lasting physical and mental effects on people in larger bodies, and all of us, regardless of size, are negatively impacted by society’s unrealistic beauty standards.
Obsessing over our weight keeps us from living full lives.
Our fixation with trying to get our bodies to conform is damaging at best and downright dangerous at worst. Focusing on changing our bodies costs money, time, and energy, and taken too far, it can be detrimental to an individual’s physical and mental health. When we let the size and shape of our bodies keep us from living a life we love, there is a problem.
I have heard countless women say some variation of, “I will finally do x when I lose weight” where x could be wear a crop top, go swimming with their kids, ask out their cute coworker, or try a dance class. Yet I have never known a person who pinned their happiness on reaching a certain size and shape who was actually happy when they reached their goal.
I have seen people bring Tupperware containers to parties because the thought of breaking their diet was too much to bear. I have seen people continue to pursue a smaller body even with their hair falling out, period lost, and thyroid shot. I have seen people become reclusive, pushing away friends and romantic partners because of their pursuit of thinness.
Not having the body type that society deems acceptable can cause anguish, guilt, shame, and mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. It is estimated that more than 30 million people in the United States suffer from eating disorders (2), and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any illness. (3)
So many people are pursuing weight loss under the guise of health, but are using unhealthy behaviors to lose weight. What if we pursued health and feeling good as our main focus and just let our bodies do what they wanted to do?
What does it mean to be weight inclusive?
As a weight-inclusive coach, I don’t focus on the pursuit of weight loss as part of my work. I recognize that a person’s size and shape is determined by a number of factors, including genetic, hormonal, metabolic, social, behavioral, and cultural factors, many of which are outside of a person’s control. I also recognize that each of our bodies has a set point weight range of about 10-20 lbs that our bodies will fight to maintain.
If a client comes to me who has been dieting and restricting and their body is under their set point weight range, they may gain weight when we normalize their relationship with food and exercise. If a client comes to me who has been overeating and not moving their body much, they might lose weight when they discover the right joyful movement for them and get back in touch with their hunger and fullness cues. Because there’s no way for me to know an individual’s set point weight range or what effects their history with food and exercise have had on their body, I can’t guarantee how a client’s body might change if we work together.
Given that, instead of prioritizing weight loss and aesthetic outcomes that may be unachievable (or may only be achievable through unsustainable and, ultimately, harmful means), I help clients practice thought and behavior change that is within their control. I treat each of my clients as unique individuals, and I do not assume anything about my clients’ physical, mental, or emotional health; athletic ability; or lifestyle based on their weight.
I view my job as helping my clients approach their health and well-being from a place of self-care and self-compassion. I have seen my clients experience life-changing benefits from adopting health-promoting behaviors, regardless of if any weight was lost.
My clients’ weight is the least interesting thing about them.
Let me be perfectly clear: I don’t give a f*ck what my clients weigh. I don’t care about their weight before our coaching relationship begins nor after it concludes. I don’t care about their body circumference measurements. I don’t care if they have an hourglass shape or how many stomach rolls are formed when they bend over.
What I care about is their relationship with food. Are they in touch with their hunger and fullness cues? Do they know what they like to eat and what foods are satisfying to them, or do they choose what they eat based on diet rules? Do they use food as their sole coping mechanism to deal with challenging emotions? Does food bring on feelings of guilt and shame, or do they feel neutrally toward food? Do they describe food as “good” and “bad,” or do they believe that all foods can fit into their diet?
What I care about is their relationship with exercise. Do they use exercise as a way to punish their bodies? Do they believe exercise is only worthwhile if it’s hard and it hurts? Do they move their bodies in ways that they enjoy, or do they only partake in exercise they are “supposed” to? Are they aware of the myriad benefits of exercise that have nothing to do with aesthetics, from improving mental health and mental clarity, to staving off disease and improving blood pressure and heart rate? Are they using good form in order to prevent injury and maximize effectiveness?
What I care about is their relationship with themselves. When they look in the mirror are they looking for themselves, or are they looking for a supermodel that doesn’t exist? Is their self-talk negative and distorted, or is it kind and compassionate? Do they show their body respect and care regardless of its size and shape? Do they have clothes that fit and are comfortable? Do they have coping mechanisms in place to deal with life’s stressors? How are they sleeping? Are they living a life that is in alignment with what they want, or do they feel held back by their body image issues?
One of my clients dreams of being a midwife and is dating a future firefighter. Another one of my clients loves Beyoncé like it’s her job. One of my clients just went through a tough breakup and is learning how her self-care has to change as a result. These are the details I care about when it comes to my clients, not their BMI.
Being a weight-inclusive coach means looking at my clients as complex, layered, unique individuals instead of as bodies to be tamed. Coaching in this way means that I understand that there is no beautiful, magnificent person waiting to appear when my clients lose weight – they are already those beautiful and magnificent people right now, as is.
Just because I’m a weight-inclusive coach doesn’t mean
I don’t have clients who want to lose weight.
The vast majority of my clients still desire weight loss (or weight gain in some cases) or other aesthetic changes to their bodies. Most of my clients wouldn’t complain if focusing on health happened to result in losing some weight.
This makes perfect sense. It’s pretty much impossible to go from revolving your life around getting your body to look a certain way to suddenly convincing yourself you don’t want that thing. In a society that objectively treats thin people much better than it treats people in larger bodies, the desire to be thin isn’t going to go away for most people, at least not without time and effort or until the culture changes dramatically.
And that’s okay. Do I still sometimes wish I had a six-pack? Sure. But I also know that the effort it would take to achieve one would not be worth the hit to my physical and mental health and that I have better things to focus my energy on than obsessive behaviors around food and exercise.
There is a big difference between abusing your body and mind to get your body to look different and wishing your body looked different but recognizing that your body still deserves respect and care exactly as it is right now. Wishing you could be smaller or look differently doesn’t mean you can’t start to prioritize how you feel.
When clients start working with me, they are committing to putting body change on the back burner for the time being to center self-care instead. But they know perfectly well that they can always go back to trying to lose weight should they want to. After all, the weight-centric model of health and wellness certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I believe that every individual should have autonomy over their own body, meaning if they want to pursue weight loss and aesthetic changes for the sake of weight loss and aesthetic changes, that’s their own business.
But I also believe that most people could use a safe haven from a world that tells them they will never be enough until their bodies are different. Most people could use the opportunity to work with a coach who wants to help them discover what optimal health and well-being looks like for them regardless of their size and shape. For many of my clients, the time they spend with me is some of the only time they are not being judged or shamed about their bodies. And that’s why I do what I do.