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Illustration by Brittany England

All my life, I’ve navigated through the world with a plus-size body. The remarks people have made about my body used to shock: comments about my round belly or the food I ate, or the question of whether I ever thought to take part in any physical activity.

The comments made me angry at first, but, if I can be honest, each one coated me in sadness and somehow made me feel as if I wasn’t doing enough.

At the time, the thought of spending any considerable amount of time in a gym seemed terrifying. For so long, the way the fitness industry approached bodies like mine was filled with toxic notions, worshipping thinness and making health into some kind of moral virtue.

So for those of us with different abilities and sizes, finding a safe and supportive environment free of judgment and expectation can be a life-changing experience.

Many people seem to forget that all bodies are different and all bodies have different needs. Although I wanted to be physically active, the idea of working out made me incredibly self-conscious.

The last time I hired a trainer at my local gym, I explicitly told her I wasn’t interested in diet talk or weight loss. I explained that I wanted help with staying active, since my day-to-day schedule was quite busy. I figured she could help me with a regular routine, including guiding my form and technique in the gym.

When we’d been working together for weeks, I started to look forward to our appointments. The wall I’d built up inside myself about gyms being unsafe slowly started to crumble. The relationship I’d developed with her was becoming, shockingly, enjoyable.

Then, as I approached the weights area, ready to start our first set, my trainer casually blurted out, “I just don’t understand why you keep coming here if you’re not trying to lose weight.”

I was shocked. Horrified and disgusted.

For so long, I’d heard other trainers at this gym make questionable comments about other people’s bodies, and I’d chosen to ignore it. But what came out of my trainer’s mouth that day crossed a boundary.

It did not inform my overall health and well-being. It was straight-up body-shaming, and I canceled my membership immediately.

Research shows that exercise alone, while important for overall health, can do only so much for long-term weight loss, but has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression.

A body-positive trainer may frame all physical activities as feel-good activities. They might focus on your overall well-being rather than striving toward unobtainable body standards, like certain numbers on the scale.

But if they don’t also make space for people of color (POC) and trans, gender-nonconforming, and disabled folks, how positive is their approach? As more and more gyms and trainers start to proclaim themselves body-positive, we have to be skeptical and ask: Who do they represent and how?

Many people have often found so-called body positive spaces lacking, so it’s important to ask people in your community about their experiences — positive or negative — at their local gyms and which ones they recommend.

For example: For someone who is trans, making sure there are gender-neutral single-stall bathrooms can be important. People with disabilities of all kinds (invisible and visible) may look for space considerations like whether the door has a ramp or whether the trainer is able to adapt using visual training or other types of customization.

Remember: Finding someone who understands your needs, wants, and goals is imperative. Finding a body-neutral coach may also be your answer.

Questions you can ask your trainer:

  1. Do you understand the barriers people in bodies like mine face when approaching fitness?
  2. How have you helped clients like me in the past?
  3. What accommodations does your gym or studio provide to support a client like me?

One of the best parts about working with a body-positive trainer is that they can help you find your power and strength and, of course, help you appreciate your body for what it does fully.

When you decide on a body-positive trainer or gym, you get to decide what your fitness goals are and set the standards for how you want to push the boundaries for yourself in the gym.

When people no longer feel like they have to pressure themselves to lose weight or even discuss their weight at any time, the tension lifts.

According to a 2016 study, weight-neutral programs are a viable alternative to weight-loss approaches. The researchers found that a weight-neutral approach produced significant, lasting health benefits, including reduced LDL cholesterol levels.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t think there were still problematic aspects in the fitness community. But there’s something to be said for those days when I’m exhausted and I drag myself to my local body-positive gym in Toronto and there are other bodies just like mine surrounding me, working out in harmony together.

The trainer not only motivates us but also celebrate who we are and the bodies we are in. These may seem like small reasons for finding a body-positive gym and trainer, but to me, it’s so important.

Ama Scriver is a freelance journalist best known for being fat, loud, and shouty on the internet. You can follow her on Instagram.