Body acceptance should be about a healthy dialogue and leaving space for all voices in the conversation.
You don’t have to go far to find an article about a mother making peace with her postpartum body. The voices we hear less are those of men and their struggles in accepting their body. I talked to fitness trainer Michele Burmaster of Body Positive Fitness Alliance and Real Body Stock Fitness Photos about the prevalence of body image issues in men and how trainers and parents can help address these challenges.
Many people consider body confidence to be a women’s issue. What has been your experience as a fitness trainer working with men?
I think it’s more common than most people are led to believe. I think it’s even more common than mainstream fitness is led to believe. There’s something about the approachability and the community and the environment that I run that allows men to talk to me about it.
We would be hard pressed to say that there is an individual who has never had a body image issue, regardless of their gender.
What is your approach in addressing body confidence with your male clients?
I use the same approach for women; it’s not that different at all. We start by focusing on taking pride in what we can do. As a business owner, I can create a controlled environment where that’s the absolute standard. We never compliment one another based on aesthetics. We compliment one another based on abilities, processes, and outcomes.
We focus on process and benefits, better bone and joint health, muscle mass, strength, ability to do things you were never able to do before and the sense of empowerment that comes with it. You are able to appreciate what your body can do and its abilities and through that process, we aren’t reinforcing unhealthy obsessions by focusing on something as arbitrary as aesthetic results. Or unpredictable as aesthetic results to be honest, it’s kind of like a brass ring when you talk about what you want to look like.
I don’t think anyone ever gets to a place where they are 100% non-critical of the way their body looks. To think we can continue chasing that and acting like it exists is super damaging too.
How can parents support healthy body image in boys to get ahead of these challenges?
Just like you would with girls, compliment the process and the behaviors versus the product or the aesthetic. Compliment their dedication to the sport and their achievements versus making comments about their bodies. One of the biggest reasons I try to avoid making comments about anybody’s body is because if we put the success in the aesthetics, then when the aesthetics change, it’s easy to then be a victim of having your success taken from you. The skills you are learning and the habits you are picking up along the way are going to stick with you. Those are the things you are working hard on.
It’s hard with kids, just by talking about their bodies is leading them to believe that their bodies are open for commentary. It strips them of their autonomy in making decisions about their own bodies. They are being told how they should feel about their bodies. There’s really no good that can come from it. There are so many other things we can use to help empower our kids. At that age, they don’t know the difference between having something naturally and having worked for something.
When they go through puberty and can’t even recognize themselves anymore, it can instill a lot of self-doubt. There’s a lot of “when everyone used to say this about my body and now they don’t, what does that mean about me?” Their bodies are not ours to talk about. There are a lot of other things that are worth praising that can produce much healthier results in the end.
Fitness Professionals have a specific scope of practice. When do you refer out?
I have taken the time to become well versed in the early indicators of signs and symptoms of having an eating disorder, exercise addiction and body image disorders. Those are the red flags I’m always looking out for. Somebody becomes outside my scope of practice with respect to body image when they are displaying signs of irrational emotional distress over what their body looks like, feelings of inadequacy even though evidence would show they are doing enough and they are enough. Anytime something is out of the ordinary, it’s not my job to try to fix it.
Trainers should do workouts. My job is to motivate and plan safe and effective workouts, to keep people engaged, give specific feedback. If something arises outside that general description, that’s when I need to refer out. If someone comes to me and says, “I absolutely hate my body and I’ve been crying for three days about it” I can’t fix that. Unfortunately, I think a lot of trainers are led to believe that they can. That’s completely outside our scope of practice. That’s something that would have to be referred out to a mental health professional.
Where do you suggest people get help if they need it?
NEDA’s website has a page specifically aimed at males and body image that gives very specific and actionable points that men can use to reflect on and use as a meditation and try to help them get to the root of the uneasy feelings about their bodies. They also have a hotline. I’m a big proponent of mental health care. I think everyone can benefit from talking to someone who is trained to identify why we do the things that we do and why we feel the things that we feel.
Body image issues can affect all of us, regardless of gender. There are things parents and fitness trainers can do to help. At a certain point, some of the heavy lifting is best left to mental health professionals. Body acceptance comes down to opening a healthy dialogue, and leaving space for all voices in the conversation. You can follow Michele on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Photos courtesy of RealBodyFitness.com