BY HILARY ACHAUER
From: CrossFit Journal
“Those women look manly. That’s too much muscle—I don’t want to look like that, like a man.”
The woman who made these comments in a class at CrossFit Rising Phoenix—formerly CrossFit Blue Bridge—in Shohola, Pennsylvania, wasn’t talking about her fellow members. She was referring to CrossFit Games athletes: women at the top of the sport, professional athletes who devote their lives to competing in CrossFit.
The comments weren’t directed at her workout partners, but that didn’t stop them from taking her remarks personally.
“We started getting feedback from the husbands of other women in that class, saying, ‘My wife now is worried about how she looks,’” Erin Ruppert, the affiliate owner, said.
The comments spread through the class like a virus.
Men and women began focusing more on weight loss, setting aside performance goals they’d previously been working toward. Movement quality in the class started to degrade.
“Everyone wanted to move as fast as this woman,” Ruppert said.
The coach fixed the problem by turning the focus back on performance and away from weight loss and appearance, and members returned to prioritizing form over speed—but it took work to undo the damage.
A comment about appearance—even a compliment—has the potential to affect everyone in the class.
When a coach tells one person to keep his knees out at the bottom of a squat, everyone in the class focuses on his or her own knees. When a coach tells a member, “Wow, you’ve lost so much weight; you look great,” everyone in the class thinks for a minute about his or her own weight.
Does this mean coaches should avoid commenting on appearance altogether?
Thomas Baker is the manager of CrossFit Sanitas in Boulder, Colorado. He’s been doing CrossFit since 2012 and started coaching in 2013.
Baker has a personal rule about commenting on a member’s appearance—he’ll only do it if they are friends.
“If I’m going to comment on their body whatsoever, I have to have (a relationship that’s) beyond a member-coach relationship at that point,” Baker said. “Otherwise it does kind of come off weird when you’re just like, ‘Hey you’re looking great.’”
Baker said if he doesn’t feel 100 percent confident about how a compliment or comment about a person’s body is going to be received, he doesn’t say anything.
“It is just so easy to say the wrong thing,” he said.
Baker understands how comments can hurt. He was skinny for most of his life and was called “chicken legs” and “beanpole.”
“I know how people who think it’s not a big deal to say something about somebody’s body can be misinterpreted by someone, even though you know it’s a joke,” he said.
Baker said he knows some women in the gym would love it if he told them they were looking strong, but he also knows some people might overhear a comment like that and find it upsetting, especially because he’s an authority figure in the gym.
If he finds himself in a one-on-one situation and has noticed a positive physical change in a member he’s known for a while, he might say, “Hey, Jesse, you’re looking great. Are you doing something new?”
That opens the door for Jesse to talk about any changes he’s made and for Baker to encourage him and his progress—and to move the conversation away from appearance.
Baker recognizes that people go to the gym to get healthy and strong and also because they want to look and feel good about their bodies.
“That’s a lot of people’s goals, and you don’t want to downplay those goals just because they are a little bit more objectified and aesthetically biased,” Baker said.
Dedication and hard work can often—but not always—result in a different physical appearance. Baker said he doesn’t want to avoid acknowledging the hard work that goes into a dramatic physical transformation just because a comment might be misconstrued.
“That’s why it’s just ultimately so important just to make sure you’re saying it to the right people in the right setting,” he said.
Part of the Culture
Chris Williams, owner of the 200-member CrossFit Tracy in Tracy, California, doesn’t have rules regarding commenting about weight loss or members’ physical appearances.
If he and his coaches—who are almost all women—notice a member has lost weight or added muscle, they say something.
“If we notice positive changes toward something they are attempting to do, we are going to acknowledge it,” Williams said.
Williams is confident in this approach because new members go through a six-week one-on-one on-boarding program before joining group classes. Williams said this gives the coaches a good sense of everyone’s goals, personalities and even their hang-ups or insecurities.
“I’m not going to turn to somebody that I know is trying to gain muscle—there are people who come to us that are tired of being underweight or undersized or incapable of doing things without waiting for the husband to get home. … We are not going to turn around and say, ‘You look pretty skinny today,’” Williams said.
Williams said he and his coaches make an effort to be in tune with members and their goals, and he teaches his coaches to treat each member as an individual.
“That way we can make sure that people are hitting their goals. If they are looking to lose weight and feel better and look better, we are going to acknowledge that. We want people to know the hard work is paying off,” he said.
He said he does think about the effect his comments might have on someone who overhears the discussion, but ultimately he thinks jokes and comments are part of the gym culture at CrossFit Tracy.
“As people are on-boarding at the gym, we joke with people, the members joke back with us … so generally if somebody is going to have that much of an issue with how we speak, by the end of the on-board they realize it’s not a good fit,” he said.
Williams himself has altered his appearance dramatically through CrossFit. He’s shed 100 lb. and said he’d like to lose about 100 more. Williams’ approach reflects how he’s dealt with his own experience being overweight.
“I think I’ve always had that jovial response to it,” Williams said.
When he’s trying to get a member to change a bad habit such as drinking too much or eating poorly over the weekend, he finds approaching the topic with humor breaks the ice.
“Sometimes a joke is the best way to get this message across, and someone will think about that and say, ‘Oh shit, you’re right,’” he said.
Williams doesn’t make fun of people with his jokes, but he said he likes to keep things lighthearted to help his members avoid getting too serious about things like losing weight.
Ultimately Williams trusts his coaches not to say anything harmful and spends time communicating with his coaches about each of the members as individuals.
“When we know we are dealing with someone who needs to reverse their relationship with food or their relationship with fitness or their relationship with muscle, we are very careful about what we say because we don’t want to trigger a negative reaction,” he said.
Ruppert, the owner of CrossFit Rising Phoenix, makes an effort to give process-based praise if she gets into a discussion about a member’s appearance. Often used by teachers, process-based praise focuses on the process, not the person, and emphasizes hard work, perseverance and grit.
Ruppert used this technique when, excited about their weight loss, a few newer members approached her with their before-and-after photos.
“When they showed me (the pictures) I said, ‘Wow, you’ve really put in a lot of work and it shows. You’ve been so consistent in coming five days a week and really trying to work on your movement and putting forth a lot of effort, and you’re getting the results that you wanted.’ So (I put) it back on them and match it to their goals,” she said.
Ruppert also avoids adding descriptors that assign positive or negative value when talking about appearance.
“For example, say it’s a female member and she’s doing pull-ups: She’s got a tank top on and I can see her back. That’s not a view that women typically get themselves. And so my comment is going to be ‘wow, the muscles on your back are really popping today,’ as opposed to ‘your back looks great,’” Ruppert said.
“They can take it how they want,” she continued. “If their goal isn’t to increase the muscles on their back, then I haven’t said that this is a desirable thing and as your coach, I’m attaching this expectation to you.”
Ruppert realizes she is an authority figure as a coach. If she congratulates a member for losing weight, she’s attaching value from her point of view, which she said can affect the person she’s addressing as well as anyone who overhears the conversation.
For that reason, Ruppert said she tries not to initiate conversations about weight loss. If a member comes to her excited about weight loss, she will encourage that excitement, but she won’t ever start the conversation.
She also noted that weight loss is not always a positive or desired outcome.
“I had a member recently who went through a separation from his partner and he lost weight very quickly. You don’t always know that the weight loss that you are observing is because of the work that they’re putting in or because they’re dialing in their diet or (if) it’s because they have something else going on that maybe they’re not sharing with you,” Ruppert said.
It could be that the person is experiencing overwhelming stress that led to weight loss, or that he or she had a relapse of an eating disorder.
“So now because of the way that our culture is, if I say, ‘You’ve lost weight, you look great,’ we might be reinforcing a habit that we don’t want to reinforce,” Ruppert said.
She also makes an effort to talk about markers of health other than weight loss with her members.
“I don’t need to weigh you and I don’t need to see your bloodwork to know that if you are coming in here and putting in the work and you’re putting more weight on the bar and you can run faster and you can do all these things better, that your biomarkers are improving too,” she said.
Another reason Ruppert avoids commenting on weight loss is because she knows that if clients have lost a significant amount of weight, they are going to get comments about the transformation from everyone else in their lives.
“At work, when they go to school, the other gym members—everybody else is going to say, ‘Wow, you lost so much weight. What’s your secret? You look great.’ Let’s be the people who are reinforcing the work that they did in order to reach that,” Ruppert said.
She also understands that losing weight can create complicated feelings.
“Maybe they put on the weight as a reaction to being sexually harassed,” she said. “That’s actually a really common thing in women. They feel protected, they feel insulated, and it’s not my job to attach value to that armor.”
If someone has lost weight or added muscle, Ruppert will look at that athlete’s performance and direct her compliments there.
“I don’t even have to connect that to the weight. I say, ‘Oh my gosh. You got your first pull-up. That’s amazing. You’ve worked so hard for this.’
“‘Yeah, I think that losing the weight helps,’ they’ll say. And I can say, ‘I’m sure that’s part of it, but you’ve also gotten really strong,’” she said.
A compliment from a coach to a member about her physical appearance could be the motivation she needs to avoid eating a bowl of ice cream that night. Or, it could cause her to lose sight of her performance goals and derail the progress she’s made.
That well-meaning compliment could also be overheard by a woman stretching quietly on the floor nearby, a woman who came to the gym so she could stop thinking about her weight just for one hour of the day.
There’s no perfect road to take, no easy answer. Every affiliate owner must figure out what works best for his or her coaches and members.
“This stuff is hard,” Baker said. “Like with everything, it’s so one-on-one and individualized.”
Ruppert thinks the issue transcends the individual members.
“I’m not trying to foster a culture of ‘we value smaller,’” she said. “I’m trying to foster a culture of ‘women can take up space.’”
And no matter how many hours a trainer has spent coaching members in the gym, he or she is likely not knowledgeable about everyone’s pasts—pasts that could include eating disorders, abuse or just long and troubled relationships with food.
Whatever the strategy, a gym should have a unified approach that’s consistent with the culture of the affiliate and creates a welcoming, supportive and enjoyable space for all members.
About the Author: Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness content. In addition to writing articles, online content, blogs and newsletters, Hilary writes for the CrossFit Journal. To contact her, visit hilaryachauer.com.