If we don’t stop and think about the words we speak or even write, we may inflict harm we don’t intend to, especially with regard to our clients’ bodies and self-image. Words have power, and we can wield them for the better or the worse in our fitness profession.

The Problem With January Gym Challenges

Recently, the gym where I work hung posters promoting our annual January “Lighten Up” weight loss challenge. Members can enter individually or as part of a team; prizes are awarded for greatest percentage of body fat lost.

While I am, of course, not opposed to setting goals for oneself in a New Year, the marketing team’s choice of words struck a negative chord with me. One poster read, “Get back into your skinny jeans!”

Do “skinny jeans” really define weight-loss-challenge success?

I admit to not knowing everything fashion-related, but my daughters have taught me that “skinny jeans” refers to the style with tapered legs and ankles. These jeans come in a variety of sizes, to cater to all female shapes…not just those with Size 0 proportions. I suppose the misnomer “skinny” comes off as more a body goal than a clothing descriptor and I find it more than a little offensive.

Living Proof of the Power of Words

To be honest, I am skinny, battling a lifelong challenge with Anorexia. Through the years, comments that others have made regarding my shape have been less than kind. Sometimes people think they are helping me by telling me “the truth” about my body, just trying to be thoughtful and concerned.

Seriously overweight individuals, too, hear such comments; both ends of the spectrum can feel a profound impact. Once spoken or written, words cannot be taken back. Their effects can linger, imprinting themselves on one’s brain and heart. It never seemed to matter that I won 24 competitive bodybuilding trophies; my battle is always there, sometimes triggered by “well-meaning” comments.

Clients with significant weight-loss goals already face scrutiny from society in general. Often just walking into a fitness center presents an anxiety-filled challenge for these individuals. By the time they come to us for training, most of them have gone beyond the pre-contemplative and contemplative stages of change; they truly desire a change and will work hard to make that a reality.

Why, then, must they be confronted with a poster about fitting into “skinny jeans”? For some of these folks, often women, losing their first five pounds is a momentous milestone, a success to be celebrated.

Wordsmithing With Caution

Our words carry more significance than we realize. Subconsciously our clients want us to cultivate and elevate their self-esteem, capitalize upon even incremental progress, and empower them to shine, regardless of size. They may tell us “I want to be in better shape”, and not even realize that these aforementioned details matter to them. The onus of realizing that is on us, the trainers.

I work with a woman who always says things such as “That wasn’t a good set” or “I can do better”.  She never allows herself to take pride in her progress, even after we had a heart-to-heart chat about it. My job is to cheer her on, assure her she performed better on an exercise than the week before, lifted a heavier dumbbell, or improved her balance on her “weaker” leg.

The first time she acknowledged that she has accomplished a set successfully, there were almost tears in my eyes! I said, “Good for you! You have allowed yourself to be proud of what you just did! That is huge progress for you, and not just with respect to the exercise!”

It was a pivotal moment for both of us. The longer she and I train, it seems, the more comfortable she gets with such statements.

The Positive Spin

In this client’s case, as with all of my clients, there is never a cause for self-shaming of any kind, so make a point to not feed into it should it arise. If a woman points to her upper arms and complains that all she has is ‘fat jiggle” and not muscle, I find a way to turn it in a more positive direction. Comments such as “Today I actually planned for you to do some triceps exercises,” drive her focus toward what is possible instead of what she sees and judges on her body.

Why spend an entire training session shrouded in a negative aura? Positivity fuels progress; shaming, on the other hand, leads to giving up. The potency of what we say and the manner in which we deliver it cannot be stressed enough.

Personal training is “the playground of hope” the exercises themselves acting as tools and toys to achieve dreams. Beautiful, smart, successful, and confident individuals come in all shapes and sizes. We must learn how to approach clients non-judgmentally and we must adopt an approach imbued with positive energy through our spoken word…because aspiring to fit in “skinny jeans” are simply not the key to a happy future and self-love!

Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!