When I was 16 years old, my mom hired me a personal trainer. It was at a gym that I'd never been to before, though I was no stranger to exercise. At the time I was quite overweight, and I'd tried in earnest to do the things that I thought would address the problem, but I honestly had no clue what to do. Though I was a bit apprehensive, I embraced the idea of having someone with the experience and expertise to help me along my journey. It turned out to be one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.
I don't think he liked me much. Why? To this day I'm unsure. I don't want to assume that it was because I was an overweight Black teenaged girl, but I don't think it helped that we had absolutely nothing in common. He was a muscular white guy, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, and considering that we were in a wealthier, majority white neighborhood that I did not live in, he probably hadn't had many clients like me. I was quiet and shy, but I did everything that was asked of me, without complaint.
The workout would begin with a strength circuit, silently jumping from machine to machine. He'd adjust the weights and I'd perform the movements. Next he'd bring me over to the dreaded stairs where I'd have to run up and down for what seemed like ages. These were the moments when my lack of fitness really came to the fore. Those stairs would leave me winded and I'd always feel like a pathetic mess after the fact. Once it was all over, he'd plant me on one of the treadmills, tell me to walk for a half hour, then leave. No praise, no discussion of how I'm improving, nothing.
The moment of embarrassment, the moment when I decided that I sure as hell would not be renewing my contract once it was over, came during a review of my diet journal. As was requested of me, I kept a detailed journal (as detailed as a 16 year old could anyway) of the meals I ate during the day and presented it to him for review. One day, I proudly handed over my diet journal, pleased with how many salads I'd managed to eat, confident that he'd see my efforts and be thrilled. Wrong. He blew up at me. Within view and earshot of other patrons, my trainer yelled at me and accused me of trying to sabotage myself. I was confused until he asked why the hell I would be eating a beef patty, so high in saturated fat, when I was trying to lose weight.
Now, at 16, I had no clue what the hell saturated fat was or why I should be avoiding it. As a matter of fact, I'd never had any nutritional counseling or education whatsoever. It wasn't something that was taught in school, and it wasn't something that my trainer had discussed with me. All I knew was that I should "eat better", and so I ate as well as I knew how. I ate salads when possible, and smaller amounts of everything else. But being of Jamaican descent and living in a Jamaican neighborhood, beef patties were ubiquitous, and it felt like such a normal and harmless thing to eat. I figured, hell, it's high in protein, right? Never in my wildest dreams did I think that having one beef patty would be such a problem.
I was humiliated. I felt smaller than I had already been feeling throughout the process, the smallest I'd felt since the entire thing started. I struggled, but I managed to hold back tears until our training session was over. For a few more weeks, I would continue to go to my training sessions, and the tension between us never dissipated. Once the training package had run its course, I told my mother to save her money because I would not be going back. I would continue to struggle with my weight and my diet for many years after this, putting on much more weight than when I began. I was no better off for having had a trainer, and in some ways, in the emotional and mental ways, the ways that I now know matter the most, I was worse off. My confidence was shot, and I felt like a hopeless cause.
I've heard many similar stories since then. Stories of people shelling out their hard earned cash to pay for training packages with trainers who were rude, dismissive, judgmental, and racially or culturally insensitive. Trainers who resorted to verbal and emotional abuse instead of providing support. Trainers who put their clients through the motions of working out without explaining why they were doing the things that they were doing, only that they must do it if they want to reach their goals.
This kind of training was popularized on television shows such as The Biggest Loser where overweight and obese contestants were regularly yelled at, belittled, and broken down under the guise of building them back up stronger. Their bodies were put on display in disturbing weigh-ins where normal, healthy weight loss was treated as failure while losing huge, unrealistic amounts of weight was celebrated as a success. We now know that the long-term result of all of this was metabolic damage, not to mention any emotional and psychological pain that was endured.
Shows like The Biggest Loser perpetuate the notion that people who are overweight and obese deserve to be abused and humiliated. That they must pay penance for daring to exist in their fat bodies. While there are plenty of reasons why everyone should eat healthier and get regular exercise, abuse, belittlement and judgment are not the ways to go about it. After years and years of jumping from gym to gym and tinkering with my diet, I was finally able to lose a substantial amount of weight on my own. But I resented the fact that I had to go it alone. I had to do extensive amounts of research in order to successfully navigate the clusterfuck of nutrition and fitness misinformation that's out there. Now, with fitness training and nutrition coaching certifications under my belt, I see much more clearly just how fucked up my experience has been. It shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't be this difficult to take control of your own body. It shouldn't be this hard to be healthy.
But this is the environment that we live in. Decades of processed food products being normalized as daily fare. A fast food restaurant on just about every corner. Convenience foods sold as viable substitutes for home-cooked meals because if you want to pay your rent you have to spend obscene amounts of time working, and who has time and energy to cook after working 40+ hours a week? Public health messaging that tells you that if you just move more, you'll lose more, and everything will be fine. Diet companies that profit off of nutritional ignorance by promising you that their particular brand of trash or their proprietary method of starvation is exactly what you need to eat to lose weight. A government that's been co-opted by industry lobbyists who purposely obscure any attempt to tell you the truth - that eating their addictive products is making you fatter and unhealthier, and no amount of exercise in the world can offset a poor diet. As a nation, we don't know how to properly eat and it's by design.
We keep pretending like we don't know how obesity rates continue to rise, but the answer is right there, plain as day: as the majority of working people toil day in and day out to afford a living, they're forced to prioritize financial survival over self-care, health and wellness, and billion-dollar industries - from food to fitness to pharmaceuticals - profit off of that fact. People are kept confused on purpose, and when they slip up and find themselves in a poor state of health, the entirety of the blame is placed squarely on their shoulders. It's their fault for being misled, for being misinformed, for being unaware.
This is a cop-out that will continue to exacerbate the spiraling health conditions that we're experiencing as a nation. There are too many people suffering to continue to categorize this as simply a matter of individual willpower. Because the needs of industry are placed above the needs of the people, people are forced to be extra discerning about who to trust when it comes to nutrition and fitness advice. It is unfortunate that there seem to be more entities concerned about making a dollar than making a difference. One scroll through Instagram will show you countless examples of "professionals" who approach fitness from a place of vanity and showmanship, who are themselves equally as misinformed about health and nutrition as the people they're trying to take on as clients.
People deserve better. They deserve to be seen as individuals, to be understood for who they are in the context of the lives they've lived and the experiences they've had, not as stereotypes. They deserve to have their needs and concerns addressed in a manner that is understanding and empathetic, not judgmental and dismissive. They deserve proper guidance on how to live a cohesive lifestyle where movement is accessible, enjoyable, desirable and safe, rather than painful and punishing. They deserve to be able to enjoy food confidently, knowing they've been armed with the knowledge necessary to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families.
Unfortunately, I don't envision that the billion-dollar industries that profit from poor health will all of a sudden gain a conscience. Nor do I see our elected officials deciding to put their financial positions at stake by facing these industries head on. Change has to begin at the bottom. Until enough fitness and wellness professionals take it upon themselves to ensure that they're providing their clients with proper knowledge and treating them with the respect that they deserve, people will continue to fall prey to the well-established, insidious traps of diet and fitness fads.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. Proudly hailing from the Boogie Down Bronx. My lifelong passion for social justice issues led me to earn a BA in Sociology from Columbia University. Currently I'm an NASM Certified Nutrition Coach & Personal Trainer with a love of all things plant-based. I'm just here, eating my plants, minding my business, and trying to find a peaceful path in a hostile world.