Time to Get Skinny: How Words Connect Us

If any of you know me, you know I would NEVER say that it’s “time to get skinny” as a way to motivate you to do your exercises. But, I did indeed use this phrase with a group of Somali women when I was hired to teach a group fitness class for the teachers at an Islamic school in Rexdale.
These spirited women had their own ideas about what would motivate them each week. They wanted me to bring my scale on a weekly basis, weigh everyone, and help them “get skinny.”  I tried my very best to “educate” them on using the correct word, which would be “fit.” I could see an immediate disconnect. The more “correct” I attempted to be for the sake of their “health” the deeper the disappointment in their faces.
I realized that educating, fitness, correction, health – these are all subjective.


One lady told me bluntly, “Sister, we don’t want to be fit…we want to be SKINNY!” No matter how many times I told them it’s not about being skinny, and that skinny does not equate to being healthy, they just didn’t care. They wanted weekly weigh-ins and they made it into a game where they freely fat shamed each other as they stepped onto the scale. They would laugh at each other if one gained weight, and if a lady lost weight, well, she had a lot of bragging rights. It was pretty entertaining and as a coach, challenging. I did my best to contain myself – and I did – but, I also learned a valuable lesson.
Not everyone interprets words the same way. Different people are motivated by different terms. Those terms and methodologies may not be taught in textbooks or seen as politically correct.  I think it’s my job to adapt and relate to the people that I’m meeting and coaching – NOT the other way around.
Before I knew it, I was teaching them exercises to help them “get skinny.”  We would do some light cardio exercises with a skipping rope to get the blood pumping, dumbbell exercises for upper body strength, and step ups to develop the legs…and all of it, of course, to get skinny. It was amazing how much more connected to me they felt and how much more motivated they were to do the exercises when I used words they were personally connected to.
For them, “skinny” was not charged with the same amount of pressure and shame that I had been taught to associate the word.
Lots of health and fitness professionals create gaps between themselves and the people they want to help by trying too hard to educate them when that’s not what they’re looking for. People often want a solution to their problem to bring them away from their pain point. Sometimes, educating them (I hate saying that by the way; it sounds arrogant), is indeed necessary and helpful. Other times, they need you to relate and connect to them on a personal level so they don’t feel alone while exploring what their body can do.
I think many of us try to show our credibility and level of authority in fitness and health by using language that isn’t accessible to the average person seeking help.
If someone says, “I want to get bigger calves.” The best thing to say is “I can help you get bigger calves” (if you can).  NOT “I can assist you on developing a hypertrophy periodization program to enhance the muscular size of both your gastrocnemius and soleus.” Yikes.
This way of speaking is a systemic issue in the health and fitness industry. This is how they educate personal trainers to speak – this is how I was educated to speak and it’s ridiculous. It’s alienating and ultimately, unhelpful.
The more time I spend working with people, the less I care about presenting myself as an authority. I care about relating, connecting, and helping my clients actually achieve results. I want them to feel supported by me.
And if I have to use the word “skinny” to do this, so be it.