I Need You to Know: Fitness Is Not One Size Fits All

"I hope one day we can look back at weight-loss centred approaches and say, we knew better so we did better," says body-positive fitness trainer Kelsey Ellis. 

A lot of kids dream of one day standing on an Olympic podium, but for me it could’ve actually happened.

My childhood bedroom was covered with a rainbow of winning ribbons and medals, from the bevy of sports I played, that confirmed I was a star. At night I closed my eyes and dreamed of becoming an Olympic athlete. In the afternoons, I trained.

I was on my way to becoming a competitive third-base softball player. My life path was being paved, affirmed through years of validation from my friends, family and coaches for my athletic success. My body felt made for sprinting around the bases and hitting a pitch out of the park. But the recognition I received also linked my value and self-worth to my athletic performance and, more importantly, my body.

I was what a lot of people referred to as stocky. Unlike the tall, lean athletes I was surrounded by, I was five feet two inches, curvy and had strong, muscular thighs. I envied the girls with long, slim legs that didn’t touch when they walked. I may have been a star athlete, but the body I saw in the mirror didn’t match what I thought was fit. It felt like that was confirmed when, at 14, my doctor told me I needed to lose 10 pounds. I was already training every day, but two weeks after that appointment, I joined a gym. That’s when my first attempts at getting healthy (read: getting thinner, restricting my food intake and endlessly researching weight-loss regimens) began.

What I lost 

My body obsession followed me into my late teens even after playing for Team Canada in the 2006 Junior Pan American games and scoring a full ride to play softball at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. Moving 3,000 kilometres away from home to the United States—and  navigating systemic racism and teammates who resented me—was beyond hard. Two years later, I was home with my tail between my legs. My dream was slipping through my fingers.

By 21, what started as wanting to get back to being physically fit turned into looking a certain way. My unhealthy weight loss led to positive attention from friends, family and potential romantic partners. I could only accept myself if others accepted me. I had to become smaller, and I did.

(Related: How I’m Managing My Eating Disorder During Coronavirus)

My disordered behaviours, like over-exercising and obsessing over the scale, led me into the fitness industry. I started working as a trainer at a commercial gym in Vancouver. Using my client’s height, weight and general behaviour patterns, I created individual body profiles solely used to sell weight-loss programs. I hated seeing my client’s faces drop when our computer system told them they were unhealthy based on only a few metrics, such as the flawed body mass index (BMI).

I remembered being in their shoes, feeling that my body, no matter how fit, wasn’t good enough unless it looked a certain way. I was still struggling, and I couldn’t bring myself to instill those same insecurities in people coming to me for help. Despite upper management’s instructions, I told clients not to worry about these ‘flaws’ and instead, show their body compassion. I wanted them to notice their bodies getting stronger instead of smaller.

Body Positive Fitness Kelsey Ellis Feature2Photo: Abby Lawson

My turning point 

After seven years in the fitness industry, I decided to go back to school to become a holistic nutritionist and life coach in 2017. I had reached a point where I couldn’t eat without tracking every calorie and it wasn’t just affecting me anymore, it was affecting my closest relationships. Something had to change. 

While studying, I came across the concept of intuitive eating and an alarm went off in my brain. It was exactly what I’d been searching for—an internally guided approach to eating and exercise that centered self-care without judgement. I learned about listening to my body, eating when I’m hungry and moving in ways I enjoyed and didn’t hurt.

(Related: How the Pandemic Helped Me Embrace Weight Gain and Intuitive Eating

I began working part-time at an integrative health clinic in Vancouver teaching workshops on emotional eating, and part-time at a new fitness facility training clients from a non-weight focused approach under my own business Bodylicious Fitness, launched in 2011.

My business has since grown and evolved into Healthy With Kelsey, where I offer group and one-on-one coaching in fitness, holistic nutrition and emotional eating recovery. I help my clients let go of chronic dieting, body shame and disordered eating behaviours using the 10 principles of intuitive eating. I look at actual indicators of health, like blood work and daily behaviours, instead of assuming that certain body types are unhealthy just by looking at them. And no, I won’t be weighing you.

Changing what fitness looks like

Through my business, YouTube channel and Instagram community, I teach what I wish I’d been taught: that wellness, health and fitness doesn’t look a certain way. I center non-weight related goals, like completing that 2K run you had your eye on or letting go of calorie counting. I help my clients find what makes them tick, whether it’s dance, hiking, swimming or weight lifting, and we measure success by a level of connectedness with the body, not numbers on a scale. 

Over the years, I’ve witnessed so many different body types excel in athletic performance, have outstanding bloodwork, and yet still experience the wrath of the diet industry. Some of the world’s best athletes, like Serena Williams, still get body shamed despite proving their athletic prowess time and time again. It lights a fire under me to continue disrupting an industry that does so much harm, and leaves out so many people.

I hope the fitness world starts including different bodies doing things they love, and that we move away from prioritizing weight loss and move towards body joy. Mostly, I hope that dieting is one of those things we look back at in 10 years and can say, we know better, so we did better.

This story is part of Best Health’s I Need You to Know series of candid, first-person essays from women and gender diverse individuals reflecting on a specific lesson they’ve learned about their own health or the health care system. To pitch an essay for this series, please email [email protected]

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