The prototypical fitness instructor is a formula you may be familiar with: one part DJ, one part cheerleader and three parts aspirational human. On the surface, it’s easy to place fitness instructors — whether it be an Instagram celebrity with millions of followers, or your favorite one at the gym — into a category of their own. The fitness industry has been built on human potential and betterment, after all, so it’s no surprise that the people peddling the product are expected to have attained the unattainable, too.
I’ve been teaching cycling classes part-time for almost a year, and I’ve recently been reflecting on my experience in this world.
I hold myself to an unsustainable and unattainable standard: As I’ve put my body on display in class, the gap between a realistic view of myself and the part of me that succumbs to curated snapshots on Instagram has grown. And while I know that for the most part I “look” fit, a perfect storm of pressure from social media and my own cultural upbringing has made my body image issues worse.
It’s no secret that the boutique fitness industry struggles with diversity and inclusivity, especially when it comes to physical looks. The majority of its marketing materials tend to show the same instructor: a conventionally fit, white person. And we don’t just see this in boutique fitness, but in health magazines, streaming workouts on YouTube and paid subscription services, such as Peloton. There may be a smattering of diversity in the fitness world (well-known social media influencers Cassie Ho and Jessamyn Stanley come to mind), but it’s not enough to quell the idea that to be an inspiring fitness instructor on any scale, it helps to be white or white-passing, conventionally attractive and have visible abs.
Although being a cycling instructor has exacerbated my self-criticism, I’ve never really been comfortable with my body — I’ve always been in the mindset of “I just need to lose five more pounds.” My parents never restricted my diet, but I grew up hearing things like, “I think for someone your height and size, 110 pounds is a perfect weight.” I remember my Korean family friends and grandparents praising my sister when she unintentionally lost weight.
When I started working out after college, dabbling in running and bootcamps, what I heard from my family members wasn’t the praise I expected. Instead, they made comments along the lines of “you’re getting bulky in the legs” and “your body changed.” Even as the fitness industry refocused their mass message to embrace body positivity — to say that strong was the new sexy — I felt the farthest thing from that.
When I started training to become a fitness instructor, one of the first thoughts that ran through my head was that I needed to look like a fitness instructor. (The perpetual “I need to lose five pounds” loop was still playing, too.)
At that point, I still prescribed to the flawed thinking that a fitness professional’s appearance ought to be part of their resume. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve had thoughts like this: “Well, if the instructor isn’t in shape and they do this workout, it must mean they aren’t good at their job.”
In an attempt to get the flat stomach and derriere that Instagram-famous fitness trainers boast, I started working out almost every day and found my diet slowly becoming healthier according to Western standards — I replaced rice for quinoa and dabbled in protein bars and protein powder. Sure, I lost weight. My family members made positive comments about my body for the first time in a long time — the ultimate stamp of approval in my Asian American brain.
But every time I looked in the mirror, I still focused on other parts of my body that I thought jiggled too much. When I set up my class, I’d check out my side profile in the mirror: I was trying to figure out how much I’d have to suck in so that no part of my stomach would spill over my microphone belt. I started working out my upper body more than usual, because it’s visible in class at all times. As someone who had long been anti-scale, I gravitated toward checking my weight when I went to the gym; I’d feel a sense of accomplishment when I saw the number go down.
The most ironic part? When I was teaching a class, purely in the moment, I never thought about my body in a critical way. It was only when I was away from the bike that I felt I needed to prove my worth through my body.
I started having conversations with other fitness instructors about this phenomenon: of feeling I needed to look a certain way for my job. They expressed that they had felt that same pressure. When they focused mainly on their appearance instead of their athletic ability, they started developing unhealthy habits, too, they said.
It was this vulnerability — which, admittedly, I struggle with more than even the most difficult of fitness classes — that helped me realize we need to remind ourselves of why we work out. Some people do it for health reasons, but for many, a sense of accomplishment is involved: the exhilaration of doing your first push-up on your toes, not your knees; the runner’s high you get after crossing the finish line.
I’ve decided to focus on these positive changes within my body — not the changes on the outside. I uninstalled Instagram from my phone — my Explore page was sprinkled with “fit-fluencers” that were only doing more harm than good — and reminded myself why I wanted to teach in the first place. Boutique fitness and the wellness industry have changed the way we look at health by selling “an idealized version of you.” And sure, our elevated self might be slender and sculpted, wearing branded athleisure while posing for sweaty selfies, but we neglect to focus on the mental strength and positive mindset behind the image.
So here’s who I am, or who I hope to be, as a fitness instructor: someone who doesn’t gloss over the mental, emotional and physical work that goes into self-improvement. Instead of closing myself off, I’m leaning into my class and engaging with my students on a more personal level. I’m striving to learn people’s names, details of their lives. I want them to feel seen and valued as a person regardless of their body. I’m changing how I talk about physical achievements and banning any “fat talk” in my life, in and out of the studio.