I'm a Personal Trainer and My Job Triggers Me To Binge Eat

I became a personal trainer to help other people build healthier relationships with their bodies, but in the process, I was undoing everything I had done to help myself.
Publish date:
August 4, 2014
body, personal trainer, fitness industry, binging

I can tell you the moment I realized my career as a personal trainer wasn't going as duckily as I had planned: About six months into the job, during a break near the end of a 14-hour day, I snuck out to the local ice cream shop for a brownie sundae. I deserved it, I told myself: I'd come in early that morning to train a few people, then spent hours writing programs and e-mailing potential clients, then met new member after new member for introductory sessions to the gym.

Like most days, I found myself at the club from sunup to well past done sundown, even though I was only “working” (read: seeing clients) for seven or eight of those hours. I rushed back to the gym to hide in the break room and devour my treat, but just as I got to the door, one of my weight loss clients, glowing from spin class, emerged.

"This is Kat, my personal trainer," she told her friend. I stuck the bowl behind my back, hoping she wouldn't see it, or the peanut butter sauce dripping down my fingers. We talked for a few moments longer, and then I shuffled inside, ashamed.

That was over three years ago. I'd like to say the hidden eating stopped there, but it didn't: instead, I found myself swinging by CVS for a bag of Cadbury Mini Eggs (no, not the single-serving size) to eat on the way home or running to Trader Joe's on my break to finish off an entire box of granola. I felt like a fraud. The number on the scale got higher, past the realm of "overweight" and into "obese," not even settling once my personal training business flourished and I no longer had to worry about whether clients would trust me with their health.

I decided to become a personal trainer to help other people build healthier relationships with their bodies, but in the process, I was undoing everything I had done to help myself.

* * *

I didn’t have an easy relationship with food growing up. My mother -- well-meaning as she was -- jumped from nutrition trend to nutrition trend, attempting to find ways to help ease our family’s problems with diabetes, depression, autism, attention deficit disorder -- pretty much anything that was going wrong in our lives. We all struggled with our weight.

I remember standing on a scale in the doctor’s office at the age of seven, the office light a hazy yellow in my memory, and hearing him tell my mother I shouldn’t put on any more weight for a few years. I was a stocky kid, always one of the tallest in the class, already wearing adult-sized clothes and shoes. The family went vegetarian, then ate every Omega-3 blessed food available, then skipped dairy and wheat (before it was cool), then replaced sugar with xylitol -- and so on.

In high school, I starved myself down to tiny proportions, then gained the weight back by driving to the grocery store for king-size candy bars and cookies filled with frosting. I would skip breakfast and lunch, drinking Diet Coke all day long (thanks, Georgia public schools, for the easy access), then went to bus tables at a local Italian joint where I would eat endless slices of focaccia and pieces of cake that had mysteriously broken (ahem) over the course of the evening.

Finally, in college, I took up running, reasoning it was better to eat a five-scoop peanut-butter-cup sundae at Friendly’s and go for a run than it was to just eat the sundae sans exercise. And thus, exercise started off for me as a give and take: burn as many calories as possible to make up for the cheese fries and Smirnoff Ice.

I never skipped runs, sometimes went back for a second in a day, even when my knees hurt so much I could barely limp home or my feet burned with every step I took. (A friend said to my then-boyfriend, “I saw Kat running the other day. I didn’t know she runs.” Boyfriend replied, “Yeah, she runs over 30 miles a week.” Friend: “Wow, she doesn’t look like she runs that much.” Boyfriend: “She eats a lot of candy.”)

Sometime in grad school, I started lifting weights. I reasoned, I’m a big girl anyway. Might as well be big and muscular, rather than big and flabby.

My perspective magically shifted. The excitement of seeing myself add more plates to the Olympic bar for my squats, of realizing I could do REAL pushups, of finally getting to a point where I could sort-of-kind-of complete a chin-up, made me realize that I could be happy with my body, no matter my size. I learned that I could stop weighing myself, didn’t need to count calories, and everything would be okay.

I entered the fitness industry thinking I would be one of those visionary women who tells others to stop worrying about that mythical six-pack or tricep definition or the girth of their thighs. I would tell them that if I, a bookworm since my earliest memories could find a place in the gym, they could too.

I took a job at a women’s gym that supposedly avowed these same values. And the staff are supportive of one another, in many ways. We congratulate each other during workouts for reaching personal records or executing an exercise particularly well. We try to encourage clients to focus on routines that will help them move better and feel better, not just whatever will burn the most fat. Maybe that’s why untangling my feelings has gotten so difficult.

Because, in spite of all the positivity, there are still comments about who’s eating (or not eating) what. There are still comments about how people decide to exercise. You can still overhear people saying about new staff members, “That person doesn’t look like a trainer.”

While “thin” was now a bad word in the fitness industry, it had been replaced by “lean” and “strong” and “healthy” in such a way that they, too, became binaries of judgement. There was never any acknowledgement that assessments still, ultimately, centered around appearance. People hadn’t stopped talking about weight; we just talked about body fat and muscle mass as well.

So from the moment I decided to become a trainer to about three months into my new position, I told myself I had to make sure I looked like a trainer. I counted calories to help myself lose the 15 pounds that had accrued since I started at the gym as a salesperson. And it worked: I dropped 20 pounds and found my way to pant sizes I hadn’t worn in over a decade. My new clients told me, “Oh, you’re one of those people who never has to worry about your weight, aren’t you?”

* * *

For the longest time, I blamed the work environment on my relapse into binging. Too long hours, I reasoned, too much time on my feet -- never mind that I worked just as many hours between work and school (if not more) when I was in grad school, including multiple hours in retail.

I talked to therapists and registered dieticians, looking for answers. One told me to go through my entire family history to find the weak link. Another told me to sit on a bench outside of work after I left and pat myself on the chest and arms, to help keep me grounded in my body and aware of what I was doing when I walked into the CVS candy aisle. The dietitian suggested lighting candles and rubbing lotion on my hands, then dismissed me after two sessions. Nothing worked: I found myself hating exercise, even, because it was the only thing that kept me from being a total fraud so I didn’t allow myself to slack.

Yet I worried about what my clients thought of me: before a new person joined my weight loss group, I’d wonder whether they’d see right through me. The company’s method for teaching weight loss includes counting calories, which is a tried-and-true method for many people to lose and maintain weight loss; but it was a method that made me insane, and I still don’t feel comfortable telling people to nit-pick the details of their diets.

I told myself that maybe I just needed to be more confident in my body as it is. I bought workout clothes that showed off my butt and dresses that made me feel pretty. I replaced negative self-talk with affirmations about the features I liked about myself, about my strength and friendliness -- I became the embodiment of every self-help article out there.

Still: I ate. And ate. And ate.

* * *

One day, one of my co-workers asked me to train her twice a week to help her lose the 10 pounds she’d gained since starting at our gym. She’s a slip of a person: tiny and muscular, and a whopping 90 pounds lighter than me. Ten pounds would make her an even hundred pounds lighter than me. You know, just to make the calculation clear.

She had joked with me for weeks before that: "Can I pay you money to just follow me around and slap the candy out of my hand?”

Have you met me? I thought. (She obviously had. We’d even baked cookies together.)

It amazed me that someone like her could trust me with this question I struggled with myself. I imagined her realizing two weeks in that I have no clue what I’m talking about and promptly leaving me for one of our co-workers.

But those sessions ended up invigorating me, reminding me a bit of what I love about weight lifting, as we worked on progressing her deadlift from her body weight to 20 pounds above her body weight to her boyfriend’s body weight. I loved working with her on the logistics of getting towards an unassisted pull-up and handstands and jumping off the ground in various permutations. And once I started talking to her, it made me realize: it wasn’t just me.

It turned out many of the people I respected struggled with the same issues -- maybe not to the same extent as I did, but to some degree. Others were just plain overwhelmed by the question of what people would think of their food choices. One co-worker even admitted that it took her months to eat her lunch in the break room. Instead, she’d sneak down to the dimly-lit boiler room, and eat her meals huddled by trash barrels and unused weight machines.

* * *

It’s funny, oftentimes when you hear people who’ve just started a career in the fitness industry, they’ll quip, “Well, now I work in a gym, so I’ll have to get fit, right?” They mean it, of course, in the sense that if you are already at the gym, it won’t be too tough to get a workout in before or after your shift. They think if you’re surrounded by people eating healthy, you’ll be inspired to choose salads over Easy Mac.

But instead, you find yourself approaching the idea in the opposite way: feeling guilty about the missed workout, worrying about whether someone will call you out when they catch you eating a bagel with butter for breakfast.

The hardest part for me has been acknowledging that as much as I would like to believe that appearance doesn’t matter to me, that weight doesn’t matter to me, that what others think doesn’t matter to me, they do. I am not a person who can close my ears to what others say indefinitely. I have tried to believe that as long as I do not outwardly say I care, I can pretend I don’t. That it will go away, disappear into that space between the refrigerator and oven where utensils go to die.

As it turns out, getting a job at a gym turned out to create the same triggers as what started my binging as a teenager: worrying that I could never follow the best diet or the best exercise plan laid out in front of me, conscious of my size in comparison to others, desiring approval from someone, anyone. Choosing the job is almost like a form of repetition compulsion, chasing after the ideas that have hurt me in the past, trying to prove mastery over them and myself. Saying: I am healthy, I am fit, I am athletic.

These days, I find my mind wandering to this scene in the movie "Center Stage" (hey, I work in a girl’s gym, which means we play girly movies a lot): One of the dancers is struggling with an arrogant director. An instructor catches her dancing late at night, and, after telling her to get used to working with asshats, she says, “No matter what happened in class, in performance, last week, five minutes ago…if you come back here,” the instructor indicates the barre, “you’ll be home.”

While not the same kind of bar, I find myself in front of the squat rack more these days, a weighted Olympic bar on my shoulders, finding my way home through lifting.