My Pilates instructor doesn’t have an “ideal” body. Don’t you have to be thin to be fit?

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I’m left thinking about it for days: a new client comes to one of my classes, and pointedly looks me up and down with the question “is this the kind of body you get from Pilates?” written all over her face. The client is almost always slender, and I understand her concern. I’ve never been naturally thin, but for much of my life I obsessed over diet and exercise in order to maintain a socially sanctioned body size. In fact, though there were many other factors involved, part of the reason I became a Pilates instructor was so that I could get paid to exercise, improving my chances of staying as slim as possible. In our society, it can be difficult to tease apart intrinsic and extrinsic motives for being physically active. We tend to be very focused on what exercise can do for our appearance, and perhaps not focused enough on how it makes us feel and what it can allow our bodies to do.

Don’t get me wrong: exercise does improve metabolism, which can help us reduce body fat. We burn calories while we’re moving and, when it comes to strength or resistance training, we increase or maintain muscle tissue, which is more metabolically active than fat tissue. This means that resistance exercise like Pilates, when practiced regularly, helps us burn more calories day to day—even when we’re at rest. While this is one good reason to stay active, and while physically active people will in general have less body fat than people who don’t exercise, the reality is that body composition depends more on genetics, hormones, and diet than on the type or amount of exercise we do.

Extra weight doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lazy

About four years ago, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis—an autoimmune condition in which the body mistakes thyroid hormones as harmful invaders, and attacks the thyroid gland in order to slow or shut down production of these hormones. This diagnosis explained many of the symptoms I was experiencing, including weight gain. Nobody wants to find out that their thyroid—the master gland of the metabolism—is on the fritz. But as someone who battled (and eventually conquered) an eating disorder in my twenties and thirties, this news threatened the fragile truce I had established with my body.

It also made me more compassionate and less judgmental—both of myself and of others. I was living proof that extra weight is not always the result of a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. Though it’s still difficult sometimes, I decided that the extreme (read: disordered) measures it would take to get closer to my preferred body weight aren’t worth it—not least of all because of how distracting and all-consuming it is to be obsessed with a number on a scale. I prefer to be obsessed with things that actually matter to me—namely my grandchildren, my vocation, and my plan to visit every region of Italy at least once.

Pilates teacher ≠ Insta model

Sharing a bit of my story may seem to imply that a Pilates instructor needs a “legitimate” excuse for extra weight. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As the field of movement science has grown and evolved by leaps and bounds over the past few decades, so has the profession of teaching movement. Nevertheless, vestigial notions remain of movement teachers as little more than entertainers. It’s not called out often enough, but as Pilates instructors, our bodies tend to be objectified as monuments to the discipline we teach—and like most objectifications, this one is inaccurate and misleading.

An instructor whose body doesn’t conform to an imagined ideal may still be perfectly capable of helping you reach the goals you’ve set for your own body. This will depend on the instructor’s aptitude, education, and teaching experience—not on their body composition. Most movement professionals these days have extensive training and a wealth of knowledge; gone are the days of weekend certifications. Instead of looking at Pilates teachers as aspirational ideals, look at them just as you would any other health professional, where credentials outweigh cosmetic appeal (pun not really intended!).

What do you want your body to do, and how do you want it to feel?

Everyone needs and deserves to move their bodies in a way that feels great for them, but many heavier people (or people who think that they are too heavy) feel alienated and uncomfortable in “fitness” settings. This should never be so. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of vanity, but a Pilates studio should be less a place to showcase how bodies can look in skin-tight leggings, and more a place to celebrate how correct movement makes us feel and what it enables us to do.

Instead of thinking of movement as a path to thinness, you may want to focus on movement as a way to make sure you can do the things that matter to you for as long as possible. My personal list, as suggested above, is very specific: I want to be able to pick up my grandchildren and to run and play energetically with them; I want to be able to take long walks and clear my head so that I can work effectively; and I want to have no difficulty being a tourist on my annual trips to Italy—which means walking for miles on cobblestone roads every day for weeks on end, staying on my feet day after day at museums and archaeological sites, and hauling luggage up and down multiple flights of stairs in 16th century buildings (elevators, if they exist, rarely work in Italy). To me, having a body that can do these things with ease matters a whole lot more than having a body that fits into my clothes from 2010.

Move well, be well

I’m not saying that it’s easy to appreciate my body for how it moves and feels rather than how it looks. In fact, when I get one of those up-and-down looks from a new client, my discomfort points to how far I still have to go when it comes to prioritizing functional fitness over aesthetic appeal. If I have trouble staying focussed on the true value of movement, how much harder must it be for a newcomer to the Pilates studio? It’s encouraging, though, that for every new client sizing me up critically, at least two tell me directly that I make them feel more comfortable in the studio. This means that they’re on their way to moving well and feeling more comfortable where it matters most—in their own skin. And that, friends, is what it’s really all about.