For Coaches: Weightloss is Not a Transformative Goal
For my fellow coaches: consider reading this before supporting clients with weight-related resolutions. This blog was originally published Oct 2020 on the International Coaching Federation website. With the new year approaching–-and bringing along a myriad of weight loss resolutions-- this feels relevant to post again.
If you search #transformationtuesday (which I don’t recommend), you’ll find thousands of “Before and After” pictures side by side. The story goes like this: In “Before” the body was bigger; the person was unhappy. In “After,” the body is smaller; the person is happy. They are on their way to their best life.
Image description: a cartoon Minion participates in Transformation Tuesday. I'm using this image because it's less activating than the real ones. Though still kinda a bummer...
This is a cultural narrative that we have collectively bought into. We interpret weight loss as a sign of transformation. As coaches, we are in the business of transformation, so shouldn’t we support weight loss?
Smaller is not always better. There is increasing evidence that intentional weight loss not only doesn’t work, but it is also harmful. Roughly 95% of intentional weight loss programs result in weight return or weight gain within five years. In my personal life, I’ve lost weight when I’ve been depressed and gained it back when I’m living my most stable and thriving life. The valorization of weight loss also contributes to eating disorder prevalence. Nearly one in 10 Americans have an eating disorder, which is a “mental illness” with one of the highest mortality rate. To me, this paints a clear picture that we have a responsibility as coaches to stop encouraging weight loss as transformation.
Cultural narratives, however, run deep. Despite the evidence, there is a trend in health and wellness coaching to view clients’ weight loss as a sign of positive transformation. I get it: We all want to see our clients thrive, and when we’ve been taught over and over that weight loss is good, it’s hard to question it. But we cannot help our clients reach their greatest potential unless we also challenge the inequitable systems that hold us all back. As coaches who believe in tackling forms of injustice, including racism, sexism and homophobia, we must also begin to address size-based prejudice within our coaching.
Image description: a butterfly sits among the chrysalises. Weight loss has nothing to do with this guy's transformation.
I invite you to challenge weight loss as an outdated measure of transformation. As a body liberation coach, I support my clients by promoting unconditional acceptance of their bodies.
So, what do we do then, when a client says they want to lose weight?
1) Get Curious about What Weight Loss Means to the Client.
It’s different for everyone, though there are a few common responses:
“I want to be desirable and find a romantic partner.”
“I want to feel in control of my life.”
“I want to feel the way I did when I was younger.”
“I want to be healthy.”
2) Coach Them on that Deeper Desire and Remove Emphasis on Body Shape and Size.
I offer the following example questions for coaching to those deeper desires:
For the Client Who Wishes to Find Love
You can support your client to see themselves as worthy without having to change their body and coach them in making an action plan to find partnership.
When do you feel how completely awesome you are?
What do you hope your future partner will love about you?
Imagine telling future generations the story of how you met your partner.
What’s the first step you can take towards finding a partner? What’s stopping you from doing that today?
For the Client Who Wishes to Feel in Control
What does control mean to you?
In what ways has control served you? In what ways has it been a disservice?
What supports you when you feel out of control?
What would it mean if you never felt completely in control?
What rituals help you relinquish control?
For the Client Who Wishes to Relive Their Younger Self
What was it about that time that felt great?
How can you bring a piece of that into the present moment?
In what ways have you changed and grown?
For the Client Who Wishes to Feel Healthy
Brush up on the teachings of Dr. Lindo Bacon, who reminds us that we can all pursue health, no matter our size, and that in fact “losing weight” doesn’t automatically mean “getting healthy.” Then help the client create a plan to gently invite in joyful health practices.
What does health mean to you?
In what ways do you feel unhealthy? Is it physical? Emotional? Spiritual?
In what ways are you already healthy? How did that come to be?
Lastly, we increase our power as coaches when we do our own body-image work. When we model what it looks like to show up in the world as people who are comfortable in our bodies and who believe that we’re all worthy and loveable, we will be more effective in this work.
If you have clients wishing to lose weight, try asking what that really means to them and go for the deeper transformation. The juice comes from the underlying desires, not the presenting agenda.