Today I chat with Karen Preene (@deadlifts_and_redlips), BSc (Hons) in Exercise and Health, qualified Personal Trainer, Health and Fitness Coach, non-diet, weight inclusive, Health at Every Size (HAES) fitness provider from the UK.
In this piece we talk about mental health, white supremacy in the fitness space, and how to provide alternatives to 12WBT’s after your lightbulb moment upon realising “Oh crap! Diets don’t work.”
Sasha: What was your relationship with movement growing up?
Karen: Growing up my relationship with movement was based around fun and play. We would be outside a lot. Most of our games with friends included movement of some form; running, dancing, bikes, roller skates, gutterball, tennis. The list is endless really. It was always about fun, joy, and connection. It was never about “energy expenditure”. Some of my really precious childhood memories are swimming with my Dad and long walks with both my Nans. Plus, growing up, my Mom didn’t drive and we would choose to walk more often than catch a bus.
Sasha: How did these experiences of “fun” and “play” help foster your relationships with your dad, nans, and mom? How did it make you feel?
Karen: I felt safe and valued. I remember feeling quite capable of trying new (sometimes) scary things. I have a really distinct memory of being scared to climb up and over a climbing frame, but with my Nans gentle coaxing and reassurance, I did it! The walks always provided time to talk too. I’ve got fond memories of all that time spent together. Both of my Nans and my Mom have passed away, so that time together feels even more precious.
Sasha: It sounds like you had a lot of formative character building moments through movement. And, lots of relationship strengthening moments too, which would have fostered feelings of community and closeness with your family. When did diet culture first intervene?
Karen: Diet culture definitely first intervened in my early teens. Although, I had internalised fatphobia earlier than that. Growing up, my sister and brother were always larger than me. Their food choices were usually policed by my family. Whereas, I was smaller than them, so no one ever questioned mine. As a teen, I quickly realised that the popular girls were thin and attractive. I’d never felt attractive but I had a thin body and so that became my entry into acceptability. I may not have had “the face” but I made sure I had “the body”. Writing and reading that back to myself — it actually makes me feel so sad to type out. I remember skipping lunch at school because that was easier to get away with than trying to skip meals at home. I became used to the hungry, empty feeling in my belly. I equated my hunger and emptiness to thinness. This feeling stayed around for the following decades. If I felt hungry, I knew I was in a calorie deficit and therefore working towards thinness.
“I became used to the hungry, empty feeling in my belly. I equated my hunger and emptiness to thinness.”
Sasha: What did the feeling of “thinness” being “hungry and empty” do to your sense of self worth and personal development during this time?
Karen: This is a hard one to put into words because I’m not sure if I’ve explored this before. However, I can tell you that I definitely had a superiority complex that existed alongside an extremely low self-esteem. I believed I was ‘better’ because I was thinner and yet I had zero confidence or self-belief. Those feelings also kept me distracted. I was constantly chasing thinness. I was preoccupied with everything that was involved in maintaining thinness. That often made me a shitty friend and a shitty sibling to my brother and sister.
Sasha: Your ability to reflect on that and share is really refreshing to read. I think the experience can be really nuanced. Through having thinness, we are told we are amazing and that feels great. We feel important or better. And, it looks like we should feel good on the inside too. But, as this validation from being thin is external, we worry and lack personal confidence. So, our internal validation skills still need work. (In tangent to mass cultural change around what it means to be thin.)
How did you get into the fitness industry?
Karen: I got into the fitness industry when I ended an abusive relationship. I immersed myself in fitness and (even more) dieting. Unfortunately, I discovered Jillian Michaels around the same time I left this relationship and she became my ‘fitspiration’. I had been into exercise of some kind for most of my adult life and my abusive ex always told me that I’d “never amount to anything”. With those two factors, entering the fitness industry helped me feel like I was standing up to him. Also, at the time, I was one of those exhausting thin people who believed “if I could do it, then everyone else could”. I identify this “if I can / you can too” approach now as my white saviour complex of wanting to ‘save’ fat people.
Sasha: It sounds like the Jillian Michaels approach would have been a really helpful coping mechanism for you during a really difficult life stage. How do you feel these approaches in the industry disproportionately target people in moments of vulnerability? For me, reading your words, reminds me a lot of the concept of the “revenge body” or revenge success in general.
Karen: Yes! I believe at the time, it was a coping mechanism but now I also realise that it kept me from healing. I was trying to patch up all of my broken pieces by ‘fixing’ the outside because that’s all I’d ever known. And when I think about it in that way, I can absolutely see how the fitness industry often targets people in positions of vulnerability. I think the industry definitely taps into these vulnerabilities with their language and marketing.
“I can absolutely see how the fitness industry often targets people in positions of vulnerability.”
Sasha: What did your experience in the fitness industry look like?
Karen: In the beginning it was fantastic! I fit the bill. I was thin. I was fit. I had the #noexcuses mentality of most fitness trainers of that era. And, I really did enjoy delivering fitness to people. I don’t have the experience of working in a commercial gym. My fitness classes were delivered in the park or at the kickboxing gym where I trained. With my thinness, fitness, and old approach, I imagine that I would have been accepted with the gym setting at that time. However, as my fight with depression became more prominent and the stress of being a single parent took its toll, I began to miss training sessions at kickboxing. Despite training 5–6 times per week on top of covering classes for almost 2 years, I was labelled as a ‘slacker’ for letting the team down. This was the beginning of my realisation of how toxic the ‘health and fitness’ industry could be. Then, when I took on my first PT clients, I quickly realised that I could not conform to the fitness industry in its current form. It was at this point that I decided to further my studies and began a full-time degree in Exercise and Health.
Sasha: That is such a relatable story into the fitness industry. I think a lot of fitpros, especially the white / thin / fit / no excuses ones thrive in their environments. But eventually, the unsustainable nature of it comes out for all of us. You came to this, I’m going to call it the “Jillian Michaels” approach, from a place of needing to feel powerful after a painful relationship. But, as you found your power and independence, it sounds like you started to see the cracks in the system a little bit too. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the role of mental health in fitness. Lots of people pursue fitness goals “for their health” and yet, following the fitness script of lots of exercise and dieting skips a really important part of well being: your mental health. What are your thoughts and experiences with that?
Karen: I would say it’s a follow on from what I mentioned earlier; its like skimming over the cracks. We don’t deal with the deeper issues. I think fitness certainly has a role in mental health, but as a tool for managing symptoms rather than a ‘cure’ like some fitpros would have you believe. If I’m honest, I feel quite duped by diet culture. I thought fitness and thinness were tools of empowerment, but the opposite is true. Equating thinness and fitness to worth dis-empowers us. We reduce ourselves to body parts and how many calories we burn. In the end, this can begin to have a detrimental effect on our mental health. So the thing we thought was helping us be better people, is actually the thing that is keeping us from living our best lives.
“If I’m honest, I feel quite duped by diet culture. I thought fitness and thinness were tools of empowerment, but the opposite is true. Equating thinness and fitness to worth dis-empowers us. We reduce ourselves to body parts and how many calories we burn.”