Body Positivity: How One Woman is Changing the Fitness World

We all have times when we feel we’re not enough or we’re not worthy of love, but it’s just not true. I see body positivity as a large part of reinforcing that message. No matter what you look like, you are enough and you are worthy of love. 
— Shelby Lawson

An introduction from Tommy: I had the pleasure of working with Shelby on a brand video to promote her business and help spread her message of positivity and self love. The experience left me with a curiosity about the body positive movement so I sent Shelby a few follow up questions about who body positivity is for, what the movement is, what it isn't, more information on her story and how she is changing the fitness world for the better. 

Read her inspiring answers below!

(If you're an entrepreneur with a message there's a section of my site just for you.)

What is Body Positive Fitness and who is it for?

I define body positive fitness as fitness for everybody. Movement for a happy mind and a healthy body, not punishment for what you ate or what you look like. 

I see it as a rebellion against the idea that we only workout to get a more attractive body, and that health and fitness look a certain way. Both ideas are pervasive in the fitness industry. This way of thinking encourages us to come to fitness from a place of feeling like we’re not enough as we are, that “I’m going to the gym to fix my body” mentality. On top of that, the “ideal body” in our society is increasingly defined by photoshopped bodies or people who have had plastic surgery in addition to money to spend on every new beauty product. But, instead of just recognizing this, they attribute the shape of their bodies to hard work in the gym, sending us the message that we can achieve the unachievable if only we are dedicated and disciplined enough. 

It also leaves out the majority of our population that doesn’t have the genes or means to ever have the ideal body in our society and therefore might think “what’s the point of going to the gym?”

Instead, body positive fitness emphasizes all the ways that fitness can increase your quality of life. It’s movement based in self-care instead of self-loathing. 

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Tell me a little bit about BloomFit and your story.

As a 13-year-old, I envied the body I had had as an 8-year-old. Ridiculous.

I’ve always been kinda a string bean human being – when I was a little girl I was pretty much all arms and legs. So, I’ve always had a significant amount of body privilege; I never had to worry about not finding my size in clothes or being discriminated against in other ways because of my size. But I got the message pretty early on that having a thin body was good and having a bigger body was bad. I remember my friend being teased for having a belly as early as kindergarten, and when I myself hit puberty and had a little more fat on my body, I remember feeling very uncomfortable and wanting to go back to being be one of the small skinny girls. As a 13-year-old, I envied the body I had had as an 8-year-old. Ridiculous. 

I would wake up some days and play a game with myself: “How long can you go without eating today?” only to feel guilty when I finally gave into my body’s craving for nourishment.

In high school, I got really into the world of ballet. I went to an arts school where I was doing an hour and a half of ballet every afternoon, and for a couple years, when I thought that I wanted to be a prima ballerina, I was dancing up to another 3 hours after school. In that time, I was really uncomfortable with my body and desperately wanted to lose weight. I was already a really thin girl, probably 5’9 at 130 pounds, and still was convinced I had to lose another 10 pounds. I would wake up some days and play a game with myself: “How long can you go without eating today?” only to feel guilty when I finally gave into my body’s craving for nourishment.

When I graduated, I stopped dancing and went to Germany for a year to connect to my German heritage. I lived with a host family and was eating all the beer, sausage, and homemade Küchen (translation: freaking delicious cake) that was put in front of me. Needless to say, coming from a period of restriction, I gained weight. And I. Was. Horrified. This was the first time in my life that I wasn’t in control of what I was eating or how much I was exercising. Losing the weight became a preoccupation of almost every waking moment. As a result, I missed out on being fully present for a lot of experiences like day trips to castles and meals with my lovely host family because I was so worried the extra weight on my body. 

A year later, I came back to the states and began my first semester of college at ASU. I was so excited to finally be back in control of what I was eating and how much I was exercising so I could get back to the body I was used to. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working out to want to feel better and have a routine of movement, but I was still stuck in the mentality that fitness would bring me closer to an ideal body and that an ideal body would bring me closer to happiness. So, when I saw an advertisement for group fitness instructor auditions, I saw my opportunity. I would immerse myself in fitness, learn all of the industry secrets on how to finally eliminate my “problem" areas, and lead others to achieve their dream bodies. 

I realized that when I came to the gym hoping to shrink down or beef up a certain part of my body, it was hard for me to find joy in the workout.

Along the way, though, fitness became so much more. I was feeling stronger and more capable in my body. I was creating this beautiful community through my classes. The after-work out high of teaching, watching students leave my class sweaty and smiling, was something that brought so much joy to my life. I was starting to realize all the ways fitness and movement increased my quality of life and my happiness outside of changing how I looked. I realized that when I came to the gym hoping to shrink down or beef up a certain part of my body, it was hard for me to find joy in the workout. But when I came to the gym working towards a specific strength or stamina goal (10 pull ups, half marathon), or even just to be silly and dance and move with friends, I was a lot happier.

At the same time, I was going through a little “awakening” though my studies. In particular, my first women’s studies opened my eyes to all the pressure women face to look a certain way, and all the ways that we are objectified and taught that beauty is our greatest asset. I had also discovered the body positive movement and people like @bodyposipanda and @scarrednotscared that were working hard to spread the good word of self-acceptance and body appreciation.  

I decided that I wanted to make my classes a place where we could talk about these struggles, I could share what I was working through, and we could work out together from a place of love.

As I was beginning my body acceptance journey, I was noticing that so many of my peers and class participants were struggling with the same things I was. I decided that I wanted to make my classes a place where we could talk about these struggles, I could share what I was working through, and we could work out together from a place of love. I started saying simple things in class like “there is no wrong way to have a body” and “we are here to take care of our bodies because we love them, not to punish them.”

One girl told me that the messages of my Thursday night class had helped her though anorexia recovery. We both cried.

For some, the messages really hit home. Students told me the positivity helped them to believe in themselves as they struggled with normal life and school challenges, and also to shift their view of fitness from something that they did just to get smaller or bigger, to the goal of feeling strong and comfortable in their own bodies. One girl told me that the messages of my Thursday night class had helped her though anorexia recovery. We both cried. 

This was really powerful for me. It felt good to share my struggles and connect to others to let them know that they’re not alone. I was excited to dive deeper and learn how to continue my journey towards body acceptance while spreading these messages of body acceptance in my classes. I thought surely there was a training out there that addressed the role that body image plays in fitness, and how we can make the fitness world more kind and inclusive place. 

I wanted something in my community, face to face, an experience where I could connect and share and learn with other people in the way that I did in my Thursday night class.

Well, I couldn’t find a whole lot. There IS the Body Positive Fitness Alliance that has been doing this work for a while and a Body Positive Yoga certification created by Amber Kanes – and both programs are wonderful. But I wanted something in my community, face to face, an experience where I could connect and share and learn with other people in the way that I did in my Thursday night class. 

I couldn’t find it, so I made it. BloomFit Training, LLC Est. Sept 2017. 

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How are you working to make the fitness industry more body positive?

I believe that change happens from within. The quote that guides me and is the foundation for the structure of my workshop is:

Without inner change, there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.
— Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams

So first and foremost, the work that I do is internal. It is a daily practice to remind myself of my worth, and to be kind and forgiving of my body. When I am actively doing this work is when I feel I have the space and energy to be able to spread the message that YOU too are worthy. 

In my classes, too, I work to use inclusive language, reminding my classes that the basis for our workout is self-care and to approach every movement from that place of love. I avoid “bikini body” language that puts the emphasis on aesthetics or food, as this can be very distracting and harmful for people who are working to form a healthy relationship with themselves, food, and fitness.

And finally, of course, with BLOOMFIT! My strategy with BloomFit is to start conversation within the fitness industry about body image, body positivity, and inclusivity. I really believe in the power of self-reflection and conversation with others as a way to learn and expand our empathy and compassion. I have created a day-long, 6-hour workshop in which we do just that. My hope is that as the workshop expands to more places, more people will understand the importance of this message, and will apply it to their lives and to their work as fitness professionals.  

What can fitness coaches expect in your certification workshop?

A whole lot of fun!!!! But really. You will move, you will have deep conversation, you will laugh, you might even cry. 

Going back to the content of that quote I mentioned, the first section of the workshop is all about you as an individual. Uncovering the societal and cultural messages that have formed your relationship with your body, and connecting with everyone in the room over the struggles we all face with body image. It’s really beautiful. 

The second half of the day is about going out in the world and making a change. We talk about what it means to be a “Body Positive Coach,” how we can be more body positive and inclusive in our work, even how to address body shaming. 

You will leave with a deeper understanding of yourself, the knowledge that you are not alone in your struggles, and a wonderful community to lean on and to support you in your journey towards self-acceptance and making this world a kinder place for every body. 

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The Body Positive movement focuses on bodies and body image, but the core of it seems to be about self acceptance. How do you encourage others to accept and love themselves?

Yes, definitely. The Body Positive Movement has definitely become a wonderful platform for talking about self-love, but I also think it’s worth noting that the movement originates from the “Fat Acceptance Movement,” a movement that aimed to end discrimination and bias against people in larger bodies. So, while it has become a movement for everybody, I think it’s important to remember that there are some bodies whose struggles move past trying to find self-acceptance and include trying to gain societal acceptance and respect. 

On that note, no person is exempt from struggling with self-acceptance. I know people in larger bodies who are very strong, confident, and are influential activists and practitioners of self-love, and others who in all senses line up with what is considered the “ideal body” in our society but really struggle with themselves. 

So, one way that I encourage people to accept themselves is though sharing my story. I hope that people who are struggling through the same things that I have can recognize that they’re not alone and that it is totally possible to come to a place of love after so many years of self-deprecation.. .

Another strategy is to educate. I know that it was very helpful for me in my self-love journey to understand the science behind why diets don’t work, the history of beauty and how much the “ideal body” has changed overtime, and the fact that there are so many industries that profit off of our insecurities and have an incentive to keep us chasing an unrealistic body. Once you learn about these things, it’s easier to look at a poster of a photo-shopped woman and think “I don’t need to look like that, she probably doesn’t even look like that.”

And the last way is through conversation. Every single person I have talked to about my mission has a story to tell. Whether it’s their own patterns and struggles, or watching a loved one struggle with an eating disorder or other unhealthy behaviors, this issue touches all of us. Though bringing it to the light and understanding that we’re not alone, we can support each other and remind one another that we are worthy of self-love. 

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What can fitness coaches do create a welcoming, body positive environment for their clients?

I think the number one most important thing that coaches can do to make their classes more body positive is to take a look at themselves. Take a look at how you feel about your own body and your relationship to fitness, and the experiences that have created those feelings. From there you can better understand how your own stuff comes up in the language of your classes. Are you telling your class that they need to get a bikini body before summer, or do squats to get an insta butt because that’s what you think you need for yourself?

Body acceptance is a daily journey. But when I was able to really critically look at myself and how I felt about my body, and when I made the commitment to work towards a healthy relationship with fitness, food, and myself, the messaging in my classes changed drastically. I was working  on my own to start exercising from a place of love, and that translated into the environment of my classes. 

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What is the one question you are asked most about body positive fitness and how do you like to answer it?

Does Body Positive Fitness mean I can’t talk at all with my clients about weight loss or appearance?

No. I understand that changing our bodies and aesthetics will always be a part of fitness, at least as long as we live in such a looks and youth obsessed society. I also understand that losing weight or reaching aesthetic goals for some people can be a way to feel more comfortable in their own skin, gain more societal acceptance, and be able to do more of the things they love to do. 

What Body Positive Fitness DOESN’T do is assume that everyone’s goal is weight loss and a “better looking” body. If you think about what happens when you sign up to work with a personal trainer – they weigh you and they take your body fat percentage. Basically, giving every person a blanket goal of weight loss or fat loss. Some people don’t want to lose weight, or even necessarily want to know their weight or body fat percentage.

So, in the workshop, I always say that our job as Body Positive Coaches is to 

  1. Be open to any goals our clients may have outside of weight loss or body shaping and 

  2. Communicate to our clients ALL the other wonderful benefits of fitness that can increase your quality of life outside of weight loss and looks based goals. 

What is the one critique about Body Positivity you hear the most and how do you respond?

Doesn’t Body Positivity promote obesity? If I accept my body as it is, then what will motivate me to better myself?

No, body positivity doesn’t promote being overweight. It DOES promotes the idea that those in “obese” bodies should be allowed to exist in their bodies without facing discrimination because of their size. I don’t see those two as being related as we allow people invisibly suffering from a number of health issues to exist freely – just as long as they fit our society’s idea of what constitutes a “normal body.”  

For me, accepting my body and coming to a place where I can even CELEBRATE my body has made me want to take my health and fitness even more seriously. I would say I am the healthiest I’ve ever been, and that’s because I am eating and exercising and living and breathing from that place of love. <3

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If you'd like to connect with Shelby and bring her workshop into your program you can follow Bloomfit on instagram and find more details at bloomfittraining.com.

(My partner and I are extremely proud to collaborate with Shelby in an upcoming Yoga Teacher Training!)

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Tommy Mac