(Subtitle: “Is it okay for a Pilates teacher to be fat?)
This is a question that I have been musing about for a long time, and wondering if it’s even appropriate to be asking it. Certainly it feels decidedly taboo, perhaps because as a society (combatting the tyranny of generally unattainable/false body images that are routinely shown in the media), in the guise of compassion, we seem to be finding ways of saying “It’s okay to be overweight.” The question might equally be “Can one have poor posture, and be a Pilates teacher?”, or “Can one be weak, and a Pilates teacher?” We could go on, with reference to endurance, agility, mobility and so on.
I’m going to stick with the weight question because the topic of overweight/obesity has such profound implications for our society, not least in terms of the likely costs to the NHS as the percentage of the population who are overweight steadily rises. The Centre for Disease Control (US) lists an array of potential health problems from cardio vascular disease, to orthopaedic and respiratory problems; and economic consequences, from direct medical costs, to loss of productivity and absenteeism. I understand that there are a variety of different mechanisms at work to cause people to store excess fat, and I am not at all interested in stigmatising overweight people (who are very often given very poor advice when it comes to weight loss – see previous post), but I am interested in challenging the notion that we should find excuses for people to remain overweight, rather than trying to address the problem.
So is it okay for a Pilates teacher to be fat?
Answering a question with another, what is the job of a Pilates teacher? I’m sure that there are many answers. My own choices in describing my work would be: To teach people good (efficient, controlled) movement, and to help them to be as healthy as possible. In the spirit of pursuing Pilates’ own aim of “whole body health”, I think we have to aim higher than addressing movement alone, and I have previously suggested that Pilates teachers might address nutrition. (As an aside, Kelly Starrett suggests that the human body, with the right movement, and the right lifestyle, is a “perfect healing machine” – an idea that I like a lot).
Paul Chek writes, in the introduction to his Ebook ‘The Last 4 Doctors You’ll Ever Need’: “Over and over again, I am astounded to find that the wellbeing of exercise and health professionals of all types show little if any improvement over the health of their own patients and clients.” At a recent gathering of Pilates teachers, I was struck by the number of people present with distinctly less than optimal postures. If I am really honest, I found myself thinking “Who would want to go to a teacher that looks like that?” I also know very well that economics often mean that time earning money is easily favoured over time working on one’s own body, just like the cobbler’s children having worn out shoes.
So, is it okay for Pilates teachers to be fat?
Here is where things get a little tricky. If I am to use my work to try to help people achieve optimal health, then I believe part of that is to try to embody optimal health to the best of my ability. And this point is important – I am not advocating legions of sylphlike ‘perfect’ Pilates teachers, and there are many different bodies that can be inspirational/aspirational for the spectrum of the population. I have a friend and colleague who is also a karate teacher, and I learned from her that one of the rules of the dojo is that you give as much of yourself as possible to the practice at any given time. So, there are many terrific Pilates teachers with a variety of physical limitations, spinal fusion, for example, and are able to fully embody the concept of whole body health, by giving of their best.
I had a debate with another teacher some time ago over whether or not it would be appropriate for teacher trainees to be examined in their proficiency at Pilates, along with their proficiency at teaching it. My position was/is that it may well be appropriate and, again, this has little to do with perfection. I fully accept the notion that you don’t have to be able to ‘perform’ a specific exercise in order to be able to teach it well. At the same time, if you’re in the business of teaching exercise, you ought to have a compelling reason not to be able to do something that you are expecting someone else to do. In other words, if you can’t demonstrate ‘The Snake’ on the reformer, because it’s quite difficult, what business do you have asking someone else to do it? If it’s good for your client, surely it’s good for you? (I can’t manage ‘The Squirrel’ on the cadillac, but I’m still working on it….)
And still there is no answer to the pressing question: is it okay for Pilates teachers to be fat?
The practice of Pilates doesn’t pretend to lead to weight loss, in itself (it may come peripherally, facilitated, for example, by increased mobility). So one might argue that, since it’s not an expected outcome of the practice, that there should be no expectation of the teacher having a particular bodyweight, or body fat percentage. But we want to be models of whole body health, don’t we? (Yes, the mechanisms of fat storage and release are complicated, and/but you also know that the client with the dodgy knee would really help themselves if they lost some weight….). So the fat question is not a straightforward one. I would say “ideally not”, and quickly revert to: ‘Can you have poor posture and be a Pilates teacher?’ Here the answer is unequivocal – No! If you’ve been teaching Pilates for years, as an enhancement to life and all it throws at us, and your head position is inches forwards of your shoulders, you are proof that Pilates doesn’t work. In our studio we are constantly telling clients that Pilates isn’t an end in itself, but a means of making everything else that one has to do easier. In other words, you can apply Pilates to everything you do. If you’re spending your day bent over people that you’re teaching, and you’re not applying Pilates principles to maintain a decent posture, is it remotely reasonable to hope for that from your clients?
I’m not pretending to be perfect, but I am trying to be better (another Kelly Starrett-ism is that ‘we need to be better at everything’ – that’s my goal). So, if you see me in the street, and you think I’m not ‘walking my talk’ then please let me know.