This article follows one fitness coach’s journey through three births and how her body and identity changed along the way. How much of your self-worth is based on what the scales tell you? We are not ‘bad people’ for judging ourselves, and others, on appearance - we have all been programmed to in numerous ways. Maia Nikitina talks about undoing those lessons and what she learnt as her body changed.
A lot of the time we are given fitness and nutrition advice by people who have never experienced what it means to be unfit, unwell, overweight or anxious about going to the gym. Many instructors often lack the life experience that would allow real understanding of factors that influence our fitness. If they have never been ill, struggled with motivation, anxiety, body image issues or eating disorders, can they really support those who come to them for advice?
I started working in the fitness industry in 2006, first as a fitness instructor, then as a personal trainer as well. I was twenty-five, and though I was by then a mother of two, I had never really struggled with staying what I thought was my ideal weight or level of fitness. I had had my own issues with food and a brief brush with anorexia as a teenager, but my body had remained fit and strong. That was the problem. I was younger or the same age as most of my clients or class participants.
I had exercised all my life, in one way or another, starting with acrobatics, trampoline jumping and dance as a child, sneaking into gyms for weight lifting as a teenager, and joining the gym as soon as I could as a young adult. If I could have two kids and remain slim, then so could everyone else, I thought. If they didn’t, they were simply lazy, or not committed enough, or else they were doing it wrong. Even after a back and a shoulder blade injury which began to plague me a couple of years into my work, I still didn’t get it. When clients said that they had put on weight after having a baby, I questioned them about the age of their baby. If it turned out to be more than a year, I secretly judged them for letting themselves go and blaming their baby for their own issues. Then, I got pregnant with my daughter.
From the start, the pregnancy felt like an illness. I had no energy, I felt sick and couldn’t eat, and then I began to crave sweets and pastries. I suffered from sciatica and so could not continue with my fitness work, or even with regular exercise. Then it got worse. After having an emergency caesarean, I took ten months off for maternity leave, but when I came back into teaching fitness classes, I felt sore, weak, and frustrated with my body. I had not lost all of the baby weight, although I had dropped a lot of it. My six pack was gone, my abs, pelvis and hips hurt when I exercised, and I was bigger than I had ever been. At first, I tried to work out as much as I could, but this wasn’t just about the exercise. I felt that my whole identity had been damaged. I had never realised how much of it had been tied to the way I looked, how much of my confidence had been due to my strength, or to being able to work out in just a bra-top, not a t-shirt, and to see envious looks as others stared at my flat abs.
I now had to shop for larger sizes and to give up certain shops altogether because they didn’t stock what I could wear. I was now size 16 but I felt much larger, and increasingly marginalised as I realised how easy life had been when I could walk into a shop and grab a size ten garment without trying it on. As months rolled on, I began to see how arrogant and ignorant I had been. I remembered plenty of occasions when my colleagues and I had laughed at or judged someone who had come to class after class and yet had never managed to lose fat. They probably headed straight for the chippy after the class, we had said. They didn’t have enough commitment, their execution of the movements had been bad, their nutrition had been pathetic, we had all laughed.
I gave up coaching, stopped going to the gym or working out at home and, eventually, I got into hot yoga. I was convinced that everyone was judging me as I walked into the yoga studio for the first time. I wasn’t the svelte super flexible girl I had been for most of my life and it took several weeks to begin the journey of positive acceptance of my body and of what it has done for me. Ironically, as I began to lose fat and return to the way I had looked before the pregnancy, I also began to accept myself on each given day, in each moment, and to be grateful to my body.
When I think back to my time in the fitness industry, I can see that it had tapped into my own body issues and turned them into something that I had considered my identity. I had been body shamed as a teenager; one boyfriend told me I was fat as we were having sex. I had been a UK size 8 at the time, but went into a spiral of not eating properly for several years in order to lose more weight. When I became an instructor, I thought that constantly exercising would ensure I stayed slim. Deep down, I hated my body unless it looked a certain way, and so I hated all other bodies that didn’t look a certain way.
Instructors are trained to motivate, to work out harder than everyone in order to be a role model. The insidious message in the fitness industry is that to be a great coach you have to be slim, toned, fit. What we need instead, as a society, is an environment where body positivity and compassion are more important than a six-pack or the number of press-ups one can do.