Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Trainers develop program to beat body shame

Consequences of criticism can be devastating – and long-lasting

Zita Dube-Lockhart (Personal Fitness Trainer ’16) and Toni Harris (Personal Fitness Trainer ’16) are on a mission to change how people view their own reflection. The two trainers recently launched a new workshop, the Body Shame Detox, tackling why so many of us criticize the way we look.

The free, three-hour program was developed by Dube-Lockhart as a safe, welcoming group to help participants better understand what body shame is, why it manifests and help participants become more resilient against those thoughts.

“I believe everyone is affected by body shame,” she says. “Everybody has been made to feel inadequate.”

Body shame is the feeling of criticism – either of yourself or from others – based on appearance. It’s not just about weight or size and affects all genders, races, body types and sexualities. And both trainers know from experience just how devastating it can be.

Dube-Lockhart experienced crushing bouts of body shame as a new mother. After several unsuccessful attempts to lose weight through yo-yo dieting, the mother of two found herself “drowning in life” and in need of change.

It was only after realizing extreme approaches weren’t going to work that she was able to lose weight. It required shifting her focus from weight and diets to how she felt.

“I was so deeply ashamed. I didn't seek out any help.”

“It wasn't until I … focused entirely on resilience that my body started to respond positively to changes,” she says. “I decided to move and eat, because my body needs to move and needs fuel. I wound up losing a hundred pounds.”

But the shame didn’t disappear with the weight. In fact, people congratulated her husband about her new size, telling him he must be happier in their marriage due to her being thinner – not exactly a vote of confidence, Dube-Lockhart says.

Harris was brought on board to help facilitate the workshop after living with body shame most of her life. She was considered morbidly obese from the age of eight, and struggled with bullying due to her size. As an adult with children, she didn’t feel like she could be a role model or keep up with her kids while overweight.

“I was so deeply ashamed,” she says. “I didn't seek out any help.”

It’s those experiences with body shame that empower the trainers to have frank, although supportive, conversations with others going through similar struggles.

Body validity

Linden Couteret attended the first workshop after struggling with body shame since she was 12 years old. The NAIT learning adviser tried numerous extreme diets, in some instances losing 100 pounds in six months only to regain it all and then some.

“I’ve literally damaged my body trying to fit into an acceptable one, to a body that wouldn’t have that shame,” she says.

One of the most valuable lessons Couteret gained from the workshop was the concept of “body validity” as a means of finding acceptance.

“Your body is valid, and your experiences are valid,” she says. “There are a lot of days I don't like my body, but that doesn't mean that it's not valid. That doesn't mean it doesn't work, deserve respect and deserve to live.”


Feeling unwell about the wellness industry

The Body Shame Detox also opened Couteret’s eyes about the impact culture – including social media and the health care, beauty and wellness industries – has on body image. “There are a lot of people making a lot of money off of us hating ourselves,” she says.

“We've commodified not only the body's appearance, but … the entire trend and desire to move towards wellness.”

The wellness industry – defined as activities that promote physical and mental well-being –  is a $4.2-trillion market, more than half of total global spending on health and health care. The industry grew 12.8% over the last two years, with sectors such as fitness, anti-aging, nutrition, traditional medicine, wellness tourism adding to the total.

“We've commodified not only the body's appearance, but we've commodified the entire trend and desire to move towards wellness, this really abstract concept,” Dube-Lockhart says.

Not just about weight

Body shame doesn’t discriminate, adds Dube-Lockhart.

“We think about body shame from a weight perspective, but we have to think about body shame in terms of race, gender and sexuality,” she says. “There’s an aesthetic for what gay men are supposed to look like or what is considered pleasing as a black woman.”

In her role at NAIT, Couteret is mindful of intersectionality and the unique experiences of the students she supports. For instance, telling a trans person who experiences discomfort because there’s a mismatch between their assigned sex and gender identity to start liking their body isn’t helpful.

“Telling them, ‘Your body is valid and how you feel about it is valid,’ means a lot more.”

Shifting culture

Body shame is only getting worse and it’s becoming a global problem, Harris says. While it’s not reasonable to think that society is going to change overnight, there are small things everyone can do to help.

“Education is a big piece of it,” she says.

“Fat's not a feeling. Let's pull this back. What are you actually saying?”

One simple change is to purge your social media, Dube-Lockhart adds. Unfollow those who make you feel bad about yourself. Also be mindful of the things you say. You wouldn’t speak to a child in a way that makes them feel terrible about their body, so why say those things to yourself?

“Speaking kindly to others creates patterns in the routine of speaking kindly to ourselves,” she says.

Couteret says she’s eager to help others see themselves in a better light. For instance, when someone says, ‘I feel fat,’ she’s quick to respond.

“Fat's not a feeling. Let's pull this back. What are you actually saying?”

The future

Other changes are more complicated and systemic, but not impossible. The fitness industry, for example, can change basic things like how gyms take on new clients. “They can't automatically assume that everybody wants to lose weight, nor should it be offered as a measure of progress,” Harris says.

The fitness fashion industry could also offer more choice in women’s clothing sizes, which often don’t come in sizes larger than 12 – a microaggression that leads to body shame, she adds.

Dube-Lockhart and Harris hope to grow the Body Shame Detox beyond the sessions hosted at Generate Fitness, possibly including schools. Follow their Facebook page to see when the next workshop will be held. Sessions are free, although $25 donations to DiversiFit, a fitness program for autistic children and their caregivers.


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