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Fitness Coaches Guilty of Perpetuating 'Fat Oppression,' Profs Warn

exercise trainer spurring on a girl during her dumbell push-ups

Two professors at Oregon State University (OSU) recently published an academic article warning that personal trainers and gym instructors are guilty of perpetuating “fat oppression” and “anti-fat bias” while on the job.

Published in the journal Fat Studies, the article was written by Vicki Ebbeck, a professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU, alongside Shannon Austin, a graduate teaching assistant at the school.

In their article, Ebbeck and Austin argue that fitness instructors are guilty of fat oppression because they often work with gym-goers to help them become more active. Exercise, they warn, is “often promoted as a way to manage, control, or manipulate body weight.”

There are numerous ways that gym instructors reinforce fat oppression, according to Ebbeck and Austin. For example, some fitness coaches may encourage clients to “burn that fat” during a workout, or believe that normal weight is “important to one’s health.”

Even when clients yearn to lose weight, fitness instructors may risk perpetuating “anti-fat bias” if they fail to warn their clients about the "advisability of even having weight loss goals,” according to Ebbeck and Austin. In agreement with the general outlook of the Fat Studies journal, they foreclose upon any possibility that health is linked to body weight.

They maintain the ethos of health-denialism, despite hundreds of academic studies finding that obesity increases one’s risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a host of other chronic health issues. Grounded in public health concerns instead of social justice theory, these studies are generally considered valid by the overwhelming majority of Americans.

Nevertheless, Ebbeck and Austin warn against the promotion of exercise as a means for weight loss. They also highlight that fitness instructors’ bodies are problematic, since most “benefit from thin privilege” and fail to “responsibly and respectfully work toward destabilizing thin-centric norms.”

To fix this, they encourage fitness coaches to engage in “self-compassion exercises.” By becoming more compassionate towards themselves — such as through “affectionate breathing” or keeping a personal journal -- fitness coaches would, ideally, become more compassionate towards their clients. No word on how these “affectionate breathing” exercises will help clients get more fit and healthy, though.

The article was published in the most recent issue of Fat Studies, which featured articles on how small desks cause a “hostile environment” for fat students, on how fat people move through time differently, and on the shock a professor felt after learning that most women fear gaining 100 pounds.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen