Strong Not Skinny-
Body Positivity - Life as a Plus-Size Instructor!
By Christina White, BS
Interviews with Katy Coffey and Sharlie Peterson
Original Article Published in AEA AKWA Magazine September 2020
Working in the health industry, we promote fitness and wellbeing. In the USA, it's big business; measured by revenue, the 2022 market for the gym, health, and fitness industry is estimated at $36.6B. Marketing campaigns are designed to enroll people on a fitness track to help improve their strength and physical appeal and to lose weight. Fitness brands usually have a physically fit spokesperson representing their company, hoping you want to look like them.
New members join a facility, review the scheduled classes, and prepare to take their first fitness class. They arrive early, stake a spot, and then gasp as the instructor shows up on deck. What? This instructor is plus size? The new member wonders - am I in the right place? Did I sign up for the correct class? Can this person give me a good workout?
Yes, yes, and yes! And guess what? That plus-size instructor might give you one of the best workouts you have ever had.
Despite progressive attitudes, a weight stigma is still associated with larger-sized people. From weight discrimination in the workplace, biased attitudes from health care professionals, negative stereotypes in the media, and barriers in interpersonal relationships. There is a belief that if plus-size individuals (like me) ate less, tried harder, or had more discipline, the excess weight would fall off. How often have I heard, "Why aren't you thinner, considering you teach so many classes?" Ouch!
Currently, more plus-size fitness instructors, athletes, dancers, and exercisers are using their voices in communities and on social media offering support and encouragement to not just plus-size but everyone. Several plus-size fitness instructors have become popular social media influencers, including Jessamyn Stanley of @mynameisjessamyn, a worldwide known yoga teacher and plus-size advocate; Louise Green of @louisegreen_bigfitgirl who has inspired many to begin running; and Jessie Diaz of @curveswithmoves who teaches body positivity dance classes in New York City.
In "Watch Out for the Big Grrrls" on Amazon, Lizzo, a plus-size entertainer, makes no apologies for her size and often speaks publicly about the challenges she has faced in accepting her body. She is not shy about citing bullying, negative media images of women, racism, and misogyny as factors in the difficulty she experienced in coming to love herself and her body. Lizzo's show features the tryouts and tribulations of backup dancers who applied for a 2021 tour spot. The plus-sized dancers who auditioned were amazing! They performed back flips, split jumps and proved they had the stamina to keep up with her hectic tour schedule. Lizzo's backup dancers inspire a new generation of dancers, many young females finally seeing a different representation. The backup group's Instagram account is flooded with messages from aspiring artists hoping to follow in the Grrrls' footsteps.
Lizzo changed the rules of the game by allowing only plus-size individuals to apply for the open positions. Is this fair? Is this legal? Did you know Michigan is the only state that prohibits discrimination against people because of their weight? Enacted in 1977, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on ten categories, including weight, in areas such as employment, housing, public accommodations, and public service.
Please do not get me wrong, I do endorse a healthy lifestyle, but there is a widespread belief that plus-size individuals face serious health risks solely because of their weight. Research on the connection between weight and health is complicated. Body mass index (BMI) is the most common measurement used to assess if a person is a healthy weight. BMI is correlated with metabolic health in population studies. Many individuals with a "normal" BMI can have cardiovascular and metabolic issues, while others in the "overweight" and "obese" range can be metabolically healthy.
At our most recent IAFC, I sat with Sharlie Peterson and Katy Coffey for a heartfelt conversation. Both women are very forward about their health and fitness journey.
Sharlie is the owner and master trainer of Shockwave Aqua Fitness, located in Topeka, Kansas. She holds three certifications and is preparing to add the AEA certification to her resume. Sharlie brings high-intensity, low-impact formats to her classes, such as Boot Camp and Aqua Jam, and can be found on Facebook: Shockwave Aqua Fitness and in videos on TikTok.
Katy is an AEA Aquatic Training Specialist, Master Trainer for both Aqua Body Strong and S'WET, and holds more than 15 specialty certifications for health and fitness for both general group exercise and aquatic fitness. Working just north of Boston, Massachusetts, Katy can be followed on social media under her handle @Aquafiitkate
In our conversation below, we talk about our experiences and how to improve the future, not only for other plus-size instructors but also for members who may need encouragement.
Have we ever felt that it's harder to be hired as an instructor because of our weight?
Sharlie: "Most gyms and fitness companies strive to have instructors fit their goal of what a body should look like. I constantly have had to fight that throughout my short career to even be taken seriously."
Katy: "In the fitness industry, image matters. When applying for fitness auditions, I have to think about what to wear and which outfit helps my confidence. While I have no doubt I will nail the audition, I'm also aware that the first impression is visual, and I do not fit the standard fitness mold.
Many years ago, at the start of my career, I had a disrgruntled member walk to the front of my ZUMBA class and announce to everyone that they hated me and my class because I was not motivational, as clearly by my weight I did not know how to take care of myself. That moment has haunted me for years.
Currently working for an elite boutique fitness company, and it's hard not to compare myself to other instructors. When branded uniforms are being passed out at training, I know I need to be in the first group to ensure I grab the correct size because very rarely do they order gear in XL."
Christina: "When the first interview takes place, sometimes those old insecurities get in the way, and I worry that I'm viewed as someone who cannot physically teach. I give myself the good pep talk, take a deep breath and tell myself, I can do this interview".
Have we ever felt discriminated or lost an instructor position because we are plus-sized?
Sharlie: “Unfortunately, yes. Three years ago, I worked very hard for a fitness facility resulting in tremendous growth in their aquatics program. However, the company promoted someone other than me because her image seemed to fit the facility better. It was hurtful. Prior to my out-of-town relocation, that same instructor wanted to have a conversation with me about my weight.”
Katy: “I have been at fitness photo shoots and removed from group shots because my size did not match bikini models. These same models were then given pool equipment for photos but had no idea on how to demonstrate the equipment in good form. Here I am sitting in the corner with years of experience but wearing a size 14 athletic swim attire and holding my tongue.”
Christina: “I was asked to become certified for a land class and was guaranteed a teaching opportunity, but it never happened. No reason or explanation, and the job went to someone brand new from outside the facility. Only when she moved out of town was I offered that spot. There is no proof that weight had something to do with it, but that instructor was younger and fitted more to the gym fitness standard than myself.”
How have we turned plus-size to our advantage?
Sharlie: “Some class members feel more comfortable participating in a class where the instructor relates to them. I strive to show people that ‘us big girls’ can move just as well as those who have already achieved most of their fitness goals.”
Katy: “I enjoy sharing my journey to help inspire the first steps of change. My journey toward health is daily, and I still have a long way to go. I don’t allow my journey to stop me because I am not at my destination. I currently teach a land strength class and have found that more beginners, health seekers, and plus-sized members are joining me because I am relatable. Week after week, they return and are now sharing that they are upping their weights, modifying less, and are finding daily NSV (non-scale victories) like walking with their children at Disney without having knee pain. Many have said that they are intimidated by other instructors and have told me that ‘you are real and inspire me to do this’. This translates to saying my size XL tank sometimes can break down barriers for students. If that’s what it takes to help inspire, then I am here for it!”
Christina: “Katy, I remember finding you on YouTube, and you inspired me to bring more charisma to my classes. I felt that I did not need to hide behind my weight and step up and enjoy teaching. It is great to reach a market that may have felt ignored or self-conscious. Having members who tell me they feel comfortable in my classes; it’s their safe space. I also remind my members they are beautiful now and that they get stronger every time they attend. One of my favorite workout shirts says, ‘Stronger Together’. I love that!”
Not everyone is working out to lose weight. Have we changed our vocabulary?
Sharlie: “There is no mention of what we eat during class. I remind my class that we are going to work hard and discover how capable our bodies truly are. If the conversation is about weight loss, it makes them extremely uncomfortable. Let’s focus on how strong and capable they can work! I always use the word strong. When you feel strong and capable in your workout, it becomes something you look forward to rather than something you feel you must do to achieve your goals. The longer you can boost your confidence, the better the mindset will be overall.”
Katy: “I’m super guilty of jokes about earning our peanut butter cups or Cadburys and am working on reversing that.”
Christina: “I no longer talk about working out hard as punishment for what we may have eaten and remind the classes to enjoy their holidays, especially Thanksgiving.”
How have we brought body positivity to our classes?
Sharlie: “I openly talk about my journey. My classes see my hips shake and how I move on the pool deck regardless of my size. Everyone is treated the same because people are more than a BMI percentage.”
Katy: “I like to speak about strength and functional fitness. Why we move and what we do in the pool, and how it assists with our day-to-day living. Obesity is a real concern in our world and understanding nutrition and how we should be fueling ourselves is both what I speak passionately about as well as keep learning for myself. The more I learn, the more I share.”
Christina: It’s important that everyone feels welcome in class and members recognize how strong they have become, how their endurance has improved, and how their energy is ignited”.
Did we grow up overweight? How did that affect us and how do we feel about ourselves now?
Sharlie: "I was always on the edge of being overweight, along with developing much earlier than my classmates. It led to low self-esteem and, honestly, brought on what I would later discover to be a food addiction. I still have some work to do! When I teach, I feel amazing. When I enter a gym or try to build my fitness company only to be laughed at for my size, I fight insecurities screaming in my ear that I'm not good enough. My goal is to realize that I am more than someone's opinion of me and that I am fit; I'm just not everyone's version of fit."
Katy: "No. Weight did not start until puberty and was linked to my polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). I have always been athletic and on the go. I played three sports through high school and have a very athletic family. My mom was a gymnast, and my father was a former professional athlete in the 70s. My brother recently retired from professional cycling and has many national and international accolades. I stick out like a sore thumb with both sides of my extended family, not due to my inability in athleticism but as a direct result of hormonal imbalance. I know my fitness journey inspires others. But I also know that it can derail me. I have this vision of what I should look like to do what I do at the national level. When I think about cameras on me or representing our industry, my fear can sometimes be crippling. Does it stop me? No. But it's something I have to navigate daily."
Christina: "Growing up as an overweight child and into adulthood is something that is very hard physically and mentally. It was not until my late teens that I began an exercise program. The pressure to be thin was so tough I did terrible things to my body by starving, binging, or taking diet pills. There were consequences, and while today I'm much healthier, it is extremely hard for me to lose weight. Now, I see in a different light. Fueling my body with what it needs and allowing occasional treats. If I'm hungry, I eat. While the person next to me has no clue of what I had to overcome, I remind myself that I'm 60 and, if needed, can teach four aqua classes in one day. I have completed several 10ks and two half marathons, and in the past two years, I have taken up ballet. My personal goal is to continue lowering my BMI, continue my healthy lifestyle, and be able to teach great classes!"
While there might be some prejudices out there against plus-size instructors, it’s important to keep striving forward. We must continue being persistent, whether asking for additional classes or seeking new positions. Our classes are packed with members who love our workouts and push their limits while having great fun.
It’s important to pay attention to the messages you send. Treating weight and health as if they are synonymous can encourage unhealthy weight-loss strategies and cause individuals to lose sight of the benefits of activities that do not lead to weight loss. Body acceptance at any size has health-protective effects that can encourage people to live a healthier lifestyle.
Don’t let being a plus-size discourage you or your members. Many of us have posted on social media the challenges we face and the victories we reach. When others share their struggles, we become stronger together. If you want to add more classes, keep asking. Want another job? Keep knocking on those doors.
Members love what we do. We are working together to build a healthy community. Inspire, motivate, and be positive! The important message is to love your body now.
Christina White, BS, is this year’s AEA Global Appreciation Award recipient. As a certified AEA and AFAP program leader residing in Athens, GA. Christina teaches at various private and public facilities. A regular contributor for AKWA magazine and believes everyone has an aquatic story to share. Friend her on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Dia.com. Our Favorite plus-size Influencers to Watch in 2022. January 1, 2022, Marge Hudson. Dia & Co.
Healthline, Jan 28, 2022. The Impact of Weight Discrimination of your Health and Well Being. Medically reviewed by Jason Daniel-Ulloa, PhD, MPH — Written by Rebecca Joy Stanborough, MFA.
IBIS World - Industry Statistics Gym, Health & Fitness Clubs in the US - Market Size 2002–2027 - Updated: October 24, 2021.
National Library of Medicine. The obese without cardiometabolic risk factor clustering and the normal weight with cardiometabolic risk factor clustering: prevalence and correlates of 2 phenotypes among the US population (NHANES 1999-2004)
Rudd Report. Weight Bias Policy Brief, 2017. Uconn Center. Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
Self. Sarah Jacoby. June 26, 2018. The Science of Weight and Health.