Interview with Louise Green on Body Image and Being a Plus-Size Athlete

Have you ever found yourself looking at the cover of a fitness or fashion magazine thinking, “Dang, I wish I looked like that,” or “I’ll never look like that,” or “I need to get in shape now. I look like a water buffalo”?

We all have succumbed to this negative self talk. Maybe even on a daily basis. But there is change coming and it’s led by a woman of empowerment, positivity, and who knows her self worth… and yours.

Louise Green is an award-winning body positive advocate, plus-size athlete and BigFitGirl_cover_RGB300dpi.jpgtrainer, and author of the new book, Big Fit Girl. She has been featured in SELF, the Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post, among others. As a plus-size long distance runner and personal trainer, she believes that ANY-body can be active, and is dedicated to helping other plus-size women to feel the same.

I had the opportunity to chat with Louise on what it means to be a plus-size athlete and how we, personally, can tackle body image issues and champion the body positivity culture in our own lives.

Do you mind sharing your story? Starting with where you were and how you got to where you are today?

Sure! I was like many women for many years – always trying to lose weight. And I was in this vicious cycle of dieting to be a thinner version of myself. And then failing and falling off that wagon. I would internalize that failure and feel really low about myself. That cycle went on for years. It was a decade or so of feeling like a constant failure. Until one day, I decided that I was going to join a Learn to Run 5k clinic. Though, I did that because I was trying to lose weight. I saw the runners on the front of running magazines and I thought, “Wow, they look lean. If I could [run] I could probably look like that too.”

So I joined the Learn to Run 5k clinic, which was very basic. On the first night, I was absolutely terrified to enter, thinking that I was going to be the biggest person, and the slowest and everyone was going to leave me behind. But to my amazement that night, our run leader stood before us and introduced herself and she was also a plus-size woman.

I was immediately taken back, because I hadn’t seen a woman of her size in any fitness media, or any media really, who represented fitness and health. And I’d certainly never seen anyone in leadership in that size of a body, so it really changed my perception quickly about what it means to be an athlete and what it means to be a plus-size woman.

So, I trained with the coach for 12 weeks and I crossed the finish line with her. There was something very different about that fitness experience. I had been going to the gym, to aerobic classes, and had trainers for years. But there was always that undertone of “Bikini season is coming! Let’s work hard!” That undertone of shame and that we were on this constant pursuit of conforming our bodies to a smaller version.

But there was always that undertone of “Bikini season is coming! Let’s work hard!” That undertone of shame and that we were on this constant pursuit of conforming our bodies to a smaller version.

And when I trained with [my running coach], she was all about power and athletics and she never mentioned any body conforming tactics at all. It was about being a super kick-ass athlete. 

She helped changed your perception on working out in general.

Yes, she completely did. During that 12-week experience, I don’t think I completely abandoned diet culture, but it started to take a back seat. What came to the forefront was, “Hey, maybe that doesn’t need to be the focus. Maybe me just showing up and being the strongest athlete I possibly can [be] in the body I have right now… maybe that’s the thing. Maybe I can live my athletic dreams without this constant pursuit of being smaller.” Which, as most women know, is very energy draining.

So going back a little bit when you signed up to do the Learn to Run a 5k, what was it that gave you the confidence to actually step out the door and go to it?

I get asked that question a lot. A lot of people want to know what pushed me out the door – that million dollar question that people sitting on the sidelines want to know the answer to. And the truth is… I didn’t have confidence. I didn’t do it out of confidence. What happened for me was [that] my misery around the way that my life was [then] started to surpass my fear [of going out] and [doing] it. Does that make sense?

Yes, that’s a whole other way of looking at fear than I had ever thought of before. 

Yeah, it got to the place where I was so completely unhappy with my life that I was at a cross roads. I said “I can stay here and live this way,” which wasn’t working and I hated every moment of it. Or, “I can buck up and try something new which I know is going to be terrifying and is going to take every bit of energy to walk through that fear, but what are the choices?”

It was like a “rock bottom moment”?

It was absolutely a rock bottom moment.

So what kept you coming back?

What I found when I got there, which was this woman who was so amazing and welcoming and so body positive. I had such a good fitness experience there. Had I shown up that night and it was some guy in his twenties, like an elite olympic runner or someone who knew nothing about my struggles and pushed me to the degree where I felt like barfing, I would’ve never gone back. At that moment, I was so on the cusp of, “Can I really do this? Is this something I’m going to be able to do?”

But what I found when I got there was something so profoundly changing for me that it propelled me to keep going. That’s why in my business everything I talk about is focused around the fitness experience people have when they arrive, because [that moment] can literally be life changing.

So you mean you’ve structured what you do in such a way that when a person walks through the door they feel so welcome they don’t want to be anywhere else? 

They feel so welcome and I’ve really made a community out of it. I have various parts of my business and one of those parts is a boot camp where the women know what it feels like to show up on the first night. Everyone I work with is kind of in the same boat, right? So they’re very welcoming to people who are new.

I facilitate a vibe where everyone is welcome. No one is left behind. It becomes a tribe of [championing] one another. When people feel comfortable it takes down this huge barrier for them. Also, in the language I use, which was the language used with me during my run coaching, there is no undertone of body shaming, tank top season, or bikini season coming. Or putting the fear of God into people that, “You’re not going to look good this season because you haven’t worked hard enough.”

Louise_-114-Edit.jpgIt’s not about aesthetics, it’s about athletic achievements.

That’s what my coach did for me. So, I always offer a really wide range of modifications and make it really ok if you’re at the bottom rung of those modifications.

And it even comes down to the way you present those modifications. When you go to a lot of classes there are often not a lot of modifications given at all. So the person who can’t do the full burpee is standing there awkwardly feeling like an idiot. Or the modifications are “Here’s how you do a burpee. If you can’t do a burpee, you can do it this way.” But I always present the exercise in the lowest, modified form and if you want to step it up, you can. It’s a small reverse in psychology that is less shaming for people.

I like that. That sounds like my type of boot camp right there. Which leads me into my next question. I’m a runner, but I typically like to run alone, because I’m scared of working out with other people, or trying a new fitness class that I might not be good at. How do you suggest I, and I’m sure others face this, grapple these fears and do that workout class that scares us?

Some people are lone exercisers. Maybe that’s who you are. But if you have this innate desire to be in a community of exercisers that’s different. I feel like a lot of times people’s fears around exercise are not unwarranted, but they’re usually inflated. When people come to me and say, “I’m so out of shape. I really let myself go.” And then when they actually [do the workout class] it’s not [nearly as bad as] they thought it was going to be.

Often we make our fears much bigger than they really are. If you have that desire to be in a community of exercisers, put yourself out there one time just to see how it feels and how it goes… give yourself your opportunity to just see. Because when we don’t put ourselves out there we’re making a lot of assumptions about an unknown situation.

I found a part in your book extremely interesting. You talk about what it means to be an athlete. Can you talk a little more about that? Maybe define what you envision an athlete to be and how we can become athletes?

Well, I work with women on a weekly basis who show up three times a week and most of them are plus-size. We do a full 60 minutes and my classes are really intensive. There’s never any standing around. It really is a full 60 minutes of boxing, med balls, weights, etc. To me, that speaks volumes about being an athlete.

When we look in the dictionary at the word athlete, it says “a person who is proficient in fitness and sport.” I believe our society has created its own meaning of the word athlete just as it has with its meaning of beauty. We have this idealistic picture of an athletic person, which is usually a 20-something caucasian who is lean and ripped. We’re cutting out a very significant portion of the population from the word athlete. To me, if you’re doing athletic things, you’re an athlete.

I know you touched on this briefly before, but can you share your view on how media portrays body ideals and body images?

I think that it goes on from what we just talked about in athletics. Fashion magazines are only showing a small population of the woman and she has a strict and specific look. I think that that strict and specific look is very rampant throughout fashion media and magazines, and it’s become such a narrow ideal.

I’m in my 40’s now, so I’m on to it, but when I was in my 20’s and a teen, I wasn’t aware that this was happening in our media, so I basically internalized it as, “I’m defective. I can’t get my shit together. I’m a failure.” I couldn’t mirror what I was seeing.

When I was a teenager we didn’t have social media as [we do] now. The young women now are bombarded in a way that even if you have strong role models in your life, the media is coming at you at such a force that subliminally, consciously, and unconsciously you cannot help but be affected by it. And it’s scary.

I also think it’s a major reason why so many young adults face depression and anxiety, eating disorders. They’re trying to fit into this mold that’s too ideal and isn’t real. 

Exactly. I have a 9-year old son and there is tons of talk with kids his age who have anxiety. I think we’ve become a much more anxious society.

Wow, 9, that’s so young. So to combat all of this, how can we follow in your footsteps to be the change and start promoting body positivity? 

I think that’s the positive thing with social media. We now have the capability to be media generators through podcasting or your blog, for example, through instagram, etc. If you have a laptop you can be a media maker. So we actually have the power now to change the media and many people are.

I think it also comes down to what we consume. So, if we’re seeing really negative media towards women, I suggest people stop consuming it. If we unlike the page and stop buying from them, then they’re going to have to take a second look at what they’re doing. It’s about creating our own media that’s very positive and getting the word out there. And trying to overshadow those messages and not participating in media that’s damaging.

It take a lot of guts to go counter culture and it’s baby steps too, but if we all do it together it’ll make a huge change. 

There’s been such an incredible change over the last 5 years in how the world is viewing Louise_-196-Editlarger bodied women. There’s been such a movement of body positivity that I never saw 5 years ago.

That’s hopeful! For those of us who struggle with body image issues what do you do on a daily basis or what did you do on a daily basis to help you overcome those struggles? 

For me, exercise has played such a huge role in that simply for my mental health. Exercise is an incredible tool for me.

Exercising regularly not only makes me feel body positive, but mentally positive.

That really has been my saving grace. There have been times where—even just recently, when I was launching my book—I literally hadn’t moved my body in 2 weeks and I was in the worst head space. I need exercise as a lifeline. It’s part of my mental and physical health. So getting up and doing exercise most days (some more than others) keeps propelling me forward to a positive state of mind.

I know that feeling and know a lot of people who do, as well. There’s something so powerful in the simple movement of your body. You’ve touched on the body positive community earlier, and I see it all over Instagram, but I don’t know if my followers know much about it. Can you talk a little bit about the community and movement? 

There’s a huge movement of women out there who have joined in this larger body positive movement. There are so many women who are done with what’s being dished out in the media and I think it’s a group of women who are giving a voice to what is actually happening.

There’s an inner working [in the media] and it’s all about making money, really. It’s about creating this woman who we all want to be like, so that we will buy the anti-wrinkle cream, we’ll buy the diet pills, we’ll buy the make up. It’s all about making money and bottom lines at the expense of the self esteem of young women and men.

Men too. The standards for young men have changed incredibly in the last 10 years, as well. There’s pressure for them to be successful and look a certain way and be that guy who can provide.

For women I think it’s more about how we look and, inevitably, we’re going to age and some of us are going to gain weight and they really prey on those aspects for women to buy products. I think this body positive movement has had enough of it and is starting to talk the talk of self acceptance and loving the skin you’re in and abandoning that buy in to the media.

I kind of look towards your book as the manifesto for the body positive movement. Can you share a little bit about the book? What prompted you to write the book and what we can find within it?

I wrote the book as an extension to the services I provide and the conversations that I’ve had with women. They feel sidelined by fitness and beauty culture, especially those who are living in larger bodies, which if you look at the statistics around North American women, 67% of North American women are considered a size 14 and over so we’re talking about a vast majority of the population that remains invisible in fashion and fitness media.

The conversations I was having with women [revealed that] they weren’t feeling catered to they weren’t feeling represented. They didn’t feel like the fitness industry was including them in any way and that the practical advice and workouts that were available to them weren’t really working for them. Plus almost all of the books, DVDs, and magazines that go along with fitness culture talk about weight loss. I wanted to create something that spoke to women that empowered them to live their athletic dreams, as I had been by my run coach, and without the mention of weight loss which is virtually unheard of in our culture.

I felt that it was really important to extend that into a book, because a book people can read all over the world and implement into their lives. What you’ll find in the book is a lot of personal stories about plus-size women who are living their every day dreams – from every day athletes to Olympians. You’ll also find practical advice on how to:

  • find a trainer and medical professionals
  • how to improve your relationship with food
  • where to find athletic gear that will fit larger bodies

It’s information that is catered to the fears, barriers, and the hurdles the plus-size woman has to face when she’s trying to engage in fitness. There [are] barriers to fitness for everyone, but for women in larger bodies … even more so because there is such a stigma attached to being plus-sized, especially around health. I wanted to write a piece that was empowering to her.

Where can my readers find you?

You can find Louise in many different places!

Louise_-048-Edit

Thank you Louise for taking the time chat with me and for spreading so much positivity. The RunningMyselfTogether community appreciates all that you’ve done!

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I overcame an eating disorder, anxiety, and depression with the help of this wonderfully amazing thing called running. And that's why I'm here - to share my story and to help those who are going through what I've already gone through. On this blog you'll find running tips, mental health tips, and lots of joy. Join me as we piece life together one run at a time.

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