What is and isn’t Role Model for a Fitness Professional / Brand

As a fitness instructor or PT, how does your own lifestyle and physique matter?

In recent months I have seen so many Facebook posts debating this issue in a variety of ways and from a wide range of perspectives:

  • From an individual instructors point of view does it matter if you are, in less than perfect condition? What does out of shape even mean? What is too big or not fit enough? Can you go the opposite way and be intimidating or make people feel bad because of your physique or fitness? Is your lifestyle role model material and how do you balance your own real life situations with clients expectations of you?  Does any of that even matter or should people just mind their own business?
  • For Fitness brands – How should you select people to represent your brand? Should everyone look the same or should diversity matter? If diversity matters should that trump their ability to do the job?  Are there some shapes that should not be represented no matter what public opinion says because they do not fit your brand or what you want to represent (perhaps you view them as unhealthy)?

For myself I have been overweight, I have been very skinny and am now less skinny, more lean.  I’m not the strongest person in the world but could be described as reasonably strong.  I’m definitely a work in progress.

I have had a lot of positive feedback from members over the last year as they have seen my body become leaner and more muscular / defined.  I work in a gym where there are already instructors with very good physiques (far better than mine) who definitely inspire a lot of members.  Equally however for many (particularly females) seeing my shape change has created a dialogue about how I’ve done it and hopefully created a positive message that progress takes time and patience and doesn’t just happen overnight.  So for me for every member / client who wants their instructor to look like a Greek God there will be others who find more motivation from somebody who seems to be working on their own fitness at the same time. Likewise, I think people generally appreciate that instructors have real life problems too and perhaps they have been injured or ill and are coming back from that and may not be in their peak shape – that in itself can provide motivation and inspiration to people.

Physically therefore I think fitness instructors can be positive role models regardless of physique.  Here I think the most important element is how we promote health and fitness.  I tend to be about balance – we want to eat well and exercise  to feel good and give us energy but we have to allow ourselves room to live too, and unless we are training for a very time specific goal 80/20 is a good rule to live by.  How should you find that balance? For me there isn’t a right or wrong answer- what works for me may not for someone else.  If we promote sensible healthy habits and show that we live by these rules I think we are decent role models – why pretend we never let a cake or glass of wine pass our lips and provide people with unrealistic expectations for themselves, which just set them up for failure.  If we preach moderation but then over train ourselves or say you should eat everything in moderation but dangerously restrict our own calorie intake i don’t think that is great role modeling.

I think for fitness brands this issue is far more complex but the importance of presenting positive role models becomes even more important as these people will have greater exposure than your average fitness instructor.

These brands are businesses so how they select the people who will represent it naturally will depend on and reflect their values.  For some people diversity seems to be the key – customers want to see a mixture of ages, sizes, backgrounds to make a brand feel inclusive- they want to feel represented.  I tend to lean more to the school of thought that people should be selected because they are the best people for that job – not because they tick a box on an equality drive.  Yes sometimes this means that some groups are under represented but this highlights the issue of why some groups are more or less likely to succeed in certain roles (e.g. why there tends to be fewer women on boards in business etc.) .  Of course if people who are perfectly good for a role are overlooked because they are deemed too old, not skinny enough not attractive enough this would lead me to question that brands values.

It’s actually a more important marketing point than the mere morals of employment law however.  If you area large brand with a big following the type of people you choose to represent you say something about your beliefs.  Can you truly promote inclusivity and everyone being welcome in your world / sphere of the fitness arena if everyone who represents you is a size 8 and under 30? Do these people provide motivation – an inspirational image of what can be achieved? Or does it suggest to customers who are older or larger that they are inferior / do not fit in?

I appreciate this is difficult because if you are good enough to represent a big brand you are possibly at the top of your game – if you are at the top of your game are you therefore likely to be a certain age and size? Or does this train of reasoning exclude the fact that peak fitness isn’t limited to one size / shape / level and therefore there should be more diversity to show a variety of people a variety of ways they could work towards their fitness goals?

Finally, there is one particularly sensitive subject – regarding those people who are very very slim. I say this is sensitive as, the way I see it, there are different reasons someone could look very skinny.  Some people are naturally very slight- they can try all sorts and struggle to put on weight- should these people be prevented to rising to the top of their fields any more than someone who naturally carries weight and find it hard to lose it?  Some people this size however, will be small because they restrict their calorie intake in a way that is not healthy to promote.  Is it responsible of a brand to allow these people to be presented to potentially susceptible customers as role models?  How does one distinguish between the two?  How do you stop the audience from trying to aspire to a physique that may only be attainable to them through starvation even if the person in question is just naturally built like this (it’s a similar debate to that of the Supermodel one which has been ongoing for years)?

On the same token, is it therefore also irresponsible to promote people as role models if they are overweight?  Does this equally imply that this is a healthy aspiration?  Is this balance between not wanting to encourage people to be stick thin or overweight the reason that for some brands everyone ends up looking the same?  Is it possible to strike a balance?

To be honest whilst I know where I stand on individuals instructors being positive role models for their clients / members I’m not sure which side of the fence I sit for brands.  I am torn between wanting more diversity in who is represented within the industry but also against a drive for diversity topping all other aims within fitness.

I do think that in an industry that is largely focused on aesthetics this type of debate is unlikely to ever be settled.

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