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When I was a personal trainer in New York City, I helped people lose weight.
I called what we did “fat loss” at the time, because it seemed more accurate and objective (and positive) than “weight loss,” even though I still used what I now know to be inaccurate and coded language to discuss weight, bodies, and worth.
My clients mostly just wanted to “tone up,” or “lean out,” or “tighten up,” or “slim down.” Sometimes they wanted to “look better naked,” or “improve their body composition,” or “have their clothes fit better.” Occasionally, they wanted to “look healthy” or “look fit.”
All of these coded phrases meant that we had to add some muscle and subtract some fat from their bodies. All of these phrases implied that smaller bodies are better than larger bodies.
I don’t use phrases like this anymore.
Sometimes, I helped people lose body fat in a healthy and sustainable way, through lifting heavy weights, making mindset changes, replacing old self-care habits with new ones, and unpacking fears and beliefs about what it means to prioritize self-care.
There were times that this felt empowering for both my clients and myself, like when one client told me that he cooked healthy meals with his kids for the first time over the weekend and they talked about how certain foods fuel them better than others, or when another client told me that she finally felt confident enough to buy a sexy outfit and go out dancing with her friends.
I was proud of my clients’ progress, both physically and mentally/emotionally as they achieved their goals.
I even found fat loss empowering when my job was to help an already-thin model or actress get down to a very-thin size to walk a runway or red carpet, or when I got to help an already-lean guy get ridiculously shredded for a shirtless role.
I loved seeing my clients reach their goals, even when the methods we used to get there weren’t particularly healthy or sustainable, because they were extremely purpose-driven and highly motivated. I told them what to do, they did it, they got great results, and they gave me all the credit.
It was f*cking fun.
The truth is that fat loss itself is an interesting puzzle, starting out easy for most people, and then getting harder and harder as a person’s body fat percentage drops below their natural set point.
I would always ask my clients: Which trades do you want to make? Do you want to give up alcohol or dessert? Can you spend money on supplements and special food or do we need to do this on the cheap? What mindset tricks will minimize the urge to give in to cravings?
I liked the puzzle-solving aspect of fat loss, but among my trainer peers, I was already known as a bit of a rebel.
I often refused to let my clients weigh themselves, banned most of them from doing cardio while we worked together, and didn’t tell them what to eat.
Instead of congratulating my clients on how great they looked as they lost weight, I focused on how hard they were working and how strong they were getting, and praised their internal qualities like humor, kindness, courage, and curiosity. I already knew something about helping people pursue and celebrate fat loss didn’t sit right with me, but I hadn’t figured out exactly what yet.
That information crept in during sessions with my clients for whom fat loss didn’t work.
For a significant chunk of my clients, striving for fat loss led to all of the negative effects (fatigue, brain fog, lowered immune system, mood swings, and a decreased metabolism) without actually leading to weight loss.
This was f*cking torture.
It was hard enough with clients who didn’t follow through with the habit change goals we set together, either because they were misinformed or unrealistic about their values, priorities, habits, body, and lifestyle. (Like a new mom telling me she would just get more sleep, or a CEO working 80 hours a week promising to do all her own meal prep.)
For these clients, pursuing fat loss was just impractical.
But due to the way our culture talks about fat loss (and, I’m ashamed to admit, the way that I also talked to them), these overstretched and overstressed clients blamed themselves for failing to stick to their impractical plans.
Every time someone set a goal they couldn’t achieve, they blamed themselves for being lazy, weak-willed, self-sabotaging, stupid, broken, or bad.
For what it’s worth, that kind of shame-based self-image over time tends to lead to weight gain for most people, not weight loss. Which means that, on top of the metabolic damage and binge-y backlash done by dieting: the harder a person tried to lose weight, the less likely weight loss became.
It was heartbreaking and frustrating. I knew my clients unfairly blamed themselves, and that I was somehow part of the problem by normalizing and supporting their fat loss goals in the first place.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
The worst was when a client followed all the rules, lived in what should have been a caloric deficit, worked their asses off in our sessions, and gave up things like whole food groups and social connection, all to reach their fat loss goals, and it just…didn’t…work.
I dreaded the sessions after these clients stepped on a scale or went shopping for new clothes, when they would cry and ask me: Why isn’t this working?
Sometimes, these clients blamed themselves—as if more effort, discipline, restriction, control, and sacrifice was the answer. Sometimes, they blamed me, and said I didn’t know what I was talking about. Sometimes, they blamed their bodies for being broken and evil.
The one place they never put the blame was on a society that had taught them fat loss was the key to happiness, fulfillment, and self-worth.
These conversations were the opposite of empowering. They were brutal. My clients felt helpless. I felt helpless. We would sometimes just sit together in grief and anger and disappointment and desperation.
I had nothing to offer except, I’m sorry.
What I meant literally was that I was sorry it wasn’t working. I was sorry it was so frustrating and disempowering and painful. I was sorry they were in such agony.
But more than that, looking back, I was sorry that I ever said I could help them lose the weight in the first place.
I was sorry that I ever gave the impression that weight loss was a matter of effort and discipline. I was sorry my confidence and support seemed to reinforce the lie that fat loss was worth all this pain.
What I know now is that striving to lose weight tends to decrease feelings of confidence and self-worth, and increase anxiety and insecurity in the majority of people.
Ninety-five percent of diets eventually fail, over half will gain back more weight in the end, and dieting decreases your metabolism, which makes it harder and harder for a lifelong dieter to carry a lower body weight.
This is the situation my crying clients often found themselves in. Despite eating tiny amounts of healthy foods and living a super active lifestyle, years or decades of trying to lose weight prevented them from being able to lose weight.
Striving for weight loss makes most people fatter, unhealthier, less happy, and far more critical of themselves.
This paradox is exactly why I stopped helping people pursue fat loss, and eventually went on to get my life coaching certification and become a body confidence and self-acceptance coach.
It’s also why I teach my clients to stop trying to lose weight, even when they still really, really, really want to. (This is totally normal.)
It’s why I refuse to speak in coded language anymore, or to uphold the false idea that small bodies are better, healthier, or more attractive than large bodies.
I refuse to support goals that I know only a small percentage of people can achieve, or to set my clients up to feel worse about themselves in the end.