When I was 16 years old, my mom hired a personal trainer in a well-meaning attempt to deal with my weight. It was at a gym that I'd never been to before, though I was no stranger to exercise. At the time, I was pretty overweight, and I'd tried in earnest to do the things that I thought would address the problem, but I honestly had no clue what to do.
Though I was a bit apprehensive, I embraced the idea of having someone with the experience and expertise to help me along my journey. It turned out to be one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.
I don't think he liked me much. Why? To this day, I'm unsure. I don't want to assume that it was because I was an overweight Black teenaged girl, but I don't think it helped that we had absolutely nothing in common.
He was a muscular white guy, probably in his late twenties or early thirties. Considering that we were in a wealthier, majority-white neighborhood that I did not live in, he probably hadn't had many clients like me. I was quiet and shy, but I did everything he asked of me, without complaint.
The workout would begin with a strength circuit, silently jumping from machine to machine. He'd adjust the weights, and I'd perform the movements. Next, he'd bring me over to the dreaded stairs where I'd have to run up and down for what seemed like ages.
These were the moments when my lack of fitness came to the fore. Those stairs would leave me winded, and I'd always feel like a pathetic mess after the fact.
Once it was all over, he'd plant me on one of the treadmills, tell me to walk for a half-hour, then leave. No praise, no discussion of how I'm improving, nothing.
The moment of embarrassment, when I decided that I sure as hell would not be renewing my contract once it was over, came during a review of my diet journal. As requested, I kept a detailed journal (as detailed as a 16-year-old could anyway) of the meals I ate during the day and presented it to him for review.
One day, I proudly handed over my diet journal, pleased with how many salads I'd managed to eat, confident that he'd see my efforts and be thrilled. Wrong.
He blew up at me.
Within view and earshot of other patrons, my trainer yelled at me and accused me of trying to sabotage myself. I was confused until he asked why the hell I would be eating a beef patty so high in saturated fat when I was trying to lose weight.
Now, at 16, I had no clue what the hell saturated fat was or why I should be avoiding it. I'd never had any nutritional counseling or education whatsoever. It wasn't something that was taught in school, and it wasn't something that my trainer had discussed with me. All I knew was that I should "eat better," and so I ate as well as I knew how.
I ate salads when possible and smaller amounts of everything else. But being of Jamaican descent and living in a Jamaican neighborhood, beef patties were ubiquitous, and it felt like such a normal and harmless thing to eat. I figured, hell, it's high in protein, right? Never in my wildest dreams did I think that having one beef patty would be such a problem.
I was humiliated. I felt smaller than I had already been feeling throughout the process, the smallest I'd felt since the entire thing started. I struggled, but I held back tears until our training session was over. I would continue to go to my training sessions for a few more weeks, but the tension between us never dissipated.
Once the training package had run its course, I told my mother to save her money because I would not be going back. I would continue to struggle with my weight and diet for many years after this, putting on much more weight than when I began. I was no better off for having had a trainer, and in some ways, in the emotional and mental ways, I was worse off.
My confidence was shot, and I felt like a hopeless cause.
I've heard many similar stories since then.
Stories of people shelling out their hard-earned cash to pay for training packages with trainers who were rude, dismissive, judgmental, and racially or culturally insensitive.
Trainers who resorted to verbal and emotional abuse instead of providing support.
Trainers who put their clients through the motions of working out without explaining why they were doing the things they were doing.
Television shows such as The Biggest Loser popularized this kind of training. Overweight and obese contestants were regularly yelled at, belittled, and broken down under the guise of building them back up stronger.
The contestants were subjected to disturbing weigh-ins where normal, healthy weight loss was treated as a failure while losing massive, unrealistic amounts of weight was celebrated as a success.
We now know that the long-term result of all of this was metabolic damage, not to mention any emotional or psychological pain.
Shows like The Biggest Loser perpetuate the idea that people who are overweight and obese deserve to be abused and humiliated. That they must pay penance for daring to exist in their fat bodies.
While there are many reasons everyone should eat healthier and get regular exercise, abuse, belittlement, and judgment are not the ways to go about it.
After years and years of jumping from gym to gym and tinkering with my diet, I was finally able to lose a substantial amount of weight on my own. But I resented the fact that I had to go it alone.
I had to do extensive research to successfully navigate the clusterfuck of nutrition and fitness misinformation that's out there.
Now, with fitness training and nutrition coaching certifications under my belt, I see much more clearly just how fucked up my experience has been.
It shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't be this difficult to take control of your own body. It shouldn't be this hard to be healthy.
But this is the environment that we live in.
As a nation, we don't know how to eat correctly, and it's by design.
We constantly hear about how obesity rates continue to rise. Yet the industries that promise to help solve this problem continue to profit.
The majority of working people toil day in and day out to afford a living. Busy and stressful lifestyles force people to prioritize financial survival over health and wellness, and billion-dollar industries - from food to fitness to pharmaceuticals - profit from that fact.
These industries keep people confused on purpose, and when people slip up and find themselves in a poor state of health, the entirety of the blame is placed squarely on their shoulders. It becomes your fault for being misled, misinformed, and unaware.
Too many personal trainers are guilty of putting profits over people, as well.
One scroll through Instagram will show you countless examples of "professionals" who approach fitness from a place of vanity and showmanship, who are just as misinformed about health and nutrition as the people they're trying to take on as clients.
People deserve better.
People deserve to be seen as individuals and understood for who they are in the context of their lives and the experiences they've had, not as stereotypes.
They deserve to have their needs and concerns addressed in a manner that is understanding and empathetic, not judgmental and dismissive.
They deserve proper guidance on living a cohesive lifestyle where movement is accessible, enjoyable, desirable, and safe, rather than painful and punishing.
They deserve to enjoy food confidently, knowing that they have the tools necessary to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families.
Unfortunately, I don't envision that the billion-dollar industries that profit from poor health will all of a sudden gain a conscience. Nor do I see our elected officials putting their financial positions at stake by facing these industries head-on.
Change has to begin at the grassroots.
As fitness and wellness professionals, we must provide our clients with proper knowledge and treat them with the respect they deserve.
Otherwise, people will continue to fall prey to the insidious traps of diet and fitness fads.
Author's Note: A version of this post first appeared on my Black Vegan Diaries blog in 2021.
Niv Mullings is a Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness coach from the Bronx, New York. After years of struggling with obesity, anxiety, depression, painful menstruation, and other chronic health complaints, Niv changed her life for the better through fitness and a healthy plant-based diet. Now she helps others to do the same.