Do body size and shape define health? This subject is gaining more attention than ever, with strong opinions on both sides. The “plus-size” label has evolved to include women’s clothing starting at size 8, which happens to be the average size range of millions of women. I remember when “plus-size” meant size 18 and up. Over the past few decades, women’s fashion has experienced the manifestation of “smaller” sizes like 0 and 00.
A few years ago, controversy developed regarding plus-size model Ashley Graham. Ashley, a size 16, was featured in a magazine spread that traditionally featured much thinner models. Ashley’s appearance incited former model Cheryl Tiegs to publicly shame Ashley for “glamourizing” an unhealthy lifestyle. It appears the former model would have you believe that Ashley isn’t healthy or active. In fact, Ashley’s lifestyle is being both active and healthy, as is the case for many plus-size women.
As a successful 5’8”, plus-size fitness professional, in the off season I weighed 190lbs and wore sizes 8-10, with XL upper-body clothing. The sport I competed in was women’s bodybuilding. Competitions made it necessary to decrease my body fat far below healthy levels temporarily. It was difficult for me to stay ultra lean and sustain the level of training necessary to compete. This places me in a unique position to coach plus-size clients. I am a plus-size fit-pro, which enhances my ability to design unique adjustments for all bodies.
This brings me to the issue of plus-size health and fitness. Is it possible to be healthy, fit and plus-size? Many studies to date confirm it is. Researchers have found that plus-size people who are active and follow healthy eating guidelines are at lower risk for disease than thin individuals who don’t exercise and have poor nutrition.
Succumbing to pressure from external sources, many people are shamed or driven to seek the next fad diet or cleanse, hoping this is the one that will change their body so they can finally have a happy life. Yet often those who are quasi-successful end up falling back into old, familiar patterns and end up feeling they have once again failed to attain what would be considered an acceptable body. In reality, these people have not failed, but have fallen prey to social pressure to look a certain, unrealistic way.
More than ever we are seeing an increase in classes and instructors able to service this group of people arriving on the fitness scene. Larger people are finding tailored programs that cater to their needs, encouraging them to become—and stay—fit and healthy.
Like the rest of us, athletes come in all shapes and sizes. Would you consider a woman who trains six hours a day overweight because of her shape? Some sports favour larger, stronger females, but we don’t hear very much about discus or shot-put athletes. Most corporate sponsors aren’t looking for this kind of athlete for product endorsements.
Those of us who were never petite or thin by nature must manage our expectations when it comes to self image. By directing our energy and attention to achieving health at any size, we actively support healthy self-esteem. We all need a well-balanced healthy lifestyle, as well as patience and persistence. Otherwise, we may forever feel pressured to reach a goal weight we’ve never previously achieved—one that in fact may be unrealistic and even unhealthy for our body type.
Statistics show that only a low percentage of those resorting to commercial weight loss methods remain at their goal weight over time. The weight loss industry is now worth over $20 billion in the U.S. alone. Approximately 85% of those who seek these programs are women and each will average four to five attempts to lose weight in a 12-month period. Repeated failure can have devastating consequences on your self-esteem and bank account, and the stress can also affect your relationships with family and friends.
Innovative health experts are backing away from the oversimplified notion that “thin equals healthy” and redirecting the focus to health through a balance of nutrition and movement—recognizing that all movement matters. I frequently receive research supporting the reality that “fit and healthy” comes in many shapes and sizes. If we foster health and wellness first, we can finally celebrate all bodies.
Become active without the pressure of conforming to society’s ideal. To accept yourself just as you are, start by practicing gratitude for all the positive things about your body as it is. The difficulty is to really see yourself as perfectly OK just as you are. Mastering this acceptance will open up your whole world.
When a person adds exercise to their routine, it expands their thinking, making it easier to engage in life’s opportunities. We must stop depending on validation or feedback from other people. Becoming more active for your own sake and choosing new classes to join or new routines increases your fitness, but also leads to improved health and better self-esteem.
Negative thoughts and shaming yourself causes a sense of defeat, further damaging your self-esteem and motivation. Negative self-talk or self-deprecation is also one of the hardest behaviours to eliminate. Find some positive quotes or statements that have meaning to you; write them on Post-it notes or small pieces of paper and place them where you will see them throughout the day. This type of emotional support and encouragement is effective due to the repetition of positivity and will help alter your self-talk.
We may have developed behaviours that keep us from participating in events and celebrations. We promise ourselves that “when I lose weight, I will take a trip south.” Instead of avoiding most social situations using convincing excuses, wear something fabulous and go!
A crucial step to developing new habits is to schedule time for them just like any other regular appointment. You’re more likely to follow through with tasks like food preparation, cooking and exercise if you book time in your schedule. This is time reserved for you to take care of yourself.
As a health coach, I guide new clients through an initial 0-day program. Consistent exercise for 90 days and a realistic nutrition plan help form positive habits and help you gain momentum toward an achievable goal. Consistency alone will make it easier to stick with your new routines. You will feel more competent and experience positive gains.
Trying to whittle your body down to an “ideal” or “acceptable” size is a questionable paradigm.
Those of us who have struggled to conform, over and over, know this ideal is failing us. Try to live—really live—as the healthiest version of yourself just by moving more and eating healthy most of the time. The outcome may just surprise you.
Pat Wallace has 35 years in the fitness and health industry. She is an ACE certified
health coach specializing in plus-size fitness at Maritime Physiotherapy. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in OptiMYz 903