Privilege, Trauma, & Group Coaching

Five years ago, on a group coaching call, my client said the thing that terrified her most about her body was the idea that she might “get fat.”

It was only a few weeks into a body image healing program I used to run called Authentic Body Confidence, and I had just asked the woman what she was most scared of — what terrifying consequence did she believe hating and controlling her body was protecting her from?

I asked her why getting fat was so scary, and she said “because that would mean I’d failed.”

These are very normal answers; common expressions of the underlying fatphobia that so many body image issues are based on, and I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

This particular client was thin, white, able-bodied, and conventionally pretty (despite how she felt about herself) and was doing the critical work of uncovering the “real story” and root causes under her “body story,” which is a fundamental part of my body image coaching methodology.

I was helping her go deeper, which is often my main objective in the early sessions with a body image client; helping her peel back more of the layers so that she could discover what was underneath her body anxiety and hatred.

Since body image issues are always a cover-up, distraction, protection, or red herring for something else that hurts, my job is to help each client figure out what exactly her “something else” is.

“What do you mean?” I asked her. “Failed at what?”

I expected her to say something about beauty standards, control, purpose, gender norms, or self-objectification — all topics that frequently come up at this point — but found myself caught off guard by her answer.

“Everything,” she said. “Fat people are just failures.”

Oof.

I’m telling you this story not because of her answer — many clients have expressed similar fatphobic sentiments over the years, and it’s actually a super important part of my job to validate, normalize, hold space, and invite curiosity and compassion around beliefs like that. (After all, nobody was born believing that; every single person learned it from somewhere.)

I’m telling you this story because in that moment, there were several fat women in the group, sitting there on the Zoom call with us, listening to what she had just said.

And because in that moment I became suddenly, painfully aware of the fact that our coaching session had the potential to cause an immense amount of harm.

This moment was one of the reasons I decided to stop running a big group coaching program for healing body image.

I believe so strongly in the power of community and connection when it comes to this work — allowing yourself to be seen, witnessed, and celebrated in your authentic vulnerability is powerful medicine for someone who has felt isolated, unseen, criticized, or objectified her whole life.

But layers of privilege and oppression impact a person’s experience of having a body, and through this uncomfortable experience, I discovered that throwing people together just because they all have body dissatisfaction in common actually does a disservice to everyone.

Nobody in the group ever spoke up about it, but looking back I can say that there is a solid chance I contributed to the re-traumatization of some of the group members that day, because I didn’t speak up about what had just happened. Instead, I just kept going the same way I would do in a private coaching call, and asked her where she had learned this particular belief.

That experience taught me that I needed to take a more trauma-informed approach to groups, and pushed me to learn more about how a person’s privilege and oppression contribute to their relationship with their own body and body image.

What I’ve come to understand since is that every single person’s feelings about their bodies are valid, and deserving of exploring and healing — but that it’s not necessarily appropriate for people with a lot of body privilege to be working through their healing in groups with folks whose bodies are marginalized, discriminated against, erased, excluded, and disrespected on a daily basis.

My best analogy for explaining this is gender.

I know a lot of cisgender straight men who need support when it comes to unpacking problematic aspects of themselves with regard to sexism, misogyny, masculinity, the #metoo movement, objectification, and feelings/beliefs about women.

Even if I find a man’s current beliefs on these topics threatening, scary, yucky, and offensive, I genuinely want him to get the support he needs, and hope he’ll seek out spaces to heal. I even believe in the value and importance of someone holding space for him as he unpacks questions and beliefs like “should women be allowed to change their minds about sex once it begins?” and “women aren’t as logical as men” and “violence is an innate part of being a man” and “why should I do half the domestic labor?”

I hope you too can see that this is actually very important work for a man to be exploring, unpacking, and healing inside himself, right? We want that. We need that. But what might not be appropriate would be for a man to be doing that kind of work in a group full of women.

Doing so would run the risk of re-traumatizing those women, who are likely to carry with them a lifetime of experiences of being victimized by such systems of belief, and reinforcing for them the already-present belief that all men are unsafe, unkind, entitled, selfish, or violent.

In short, in the wrong context, a man’s important and powerful self-examination and healing work could do a ton of damage and harm to others. Which doesn’t mean he shouldn’t do it, but it does mean that context matters.

The same is true of white people doing anti-racism work and dismantling conscious and unconscious racism — we absolutely should do that work. It’s so important. But it’s often not appropriate to do that kind of work in groups with people of color, because it runs the risk of causing immense harm.

It should be stated here that I’m not saying “this is never appropriate.”

When properly facilitated, trauma-informed, and approached from a liberation framework, having conversations processing and dismantling internalized oppression in mixed groups can be incredibly healing and transformational. But short of that, it tends to cause more harm than good.

My body image coaching groups look completely different nowadays for this reason:

  • I keep the groups super small and intimate now (no more than five people in a group!), so that nobody can just get quiet and slip through the cracks if they get uncomfortable.

  • I get on a call with every single person before forming the groups, to learn more about their life experience, history, body image struggles, and layers of body privilege and oppression. This way I can sit down and carve out groups of individuals whose body image journeys are most likely to be compatible, and least likely to cause active harm.

  • Lastly I am constantly striving to make my coaching spaces safer, more trauma-informed, and more healing for everyone involved — which means if that story I just described happened in a group today, I would stop and explore what she had just said, clarify and contextualize what she meant, and invite a conversation about what it brought up for other group members.

I’m sharing all this for a few reasons.

First of all because I work with so many clients who tell me stories of being re-traumatized in other “body positive” spaces, while working with practitioners (ie: therapists, coaches, trainers, nutritionists, dieticians, eating disorder specialists, etc.) who should know better.

It’s super freakin important to me that we talk about the fact that this is happening and why — and why it’s not your fault if you’ve been shamed, excluded, erased, or injured in a “body-positivity” space that was supposed to be “safe” for you.

Secondly, it’s really common for popular body positive influencers and advocates to rocket to fame on social media, and then try to monetize their position despite not having the qualifications, understanding of their own privilege, or ability to hold a trauma-informed space for their audience, and end up doing more harm than good. (I’m especially aware of this one now, because in many ways I was one of those people when I started.)

Running over with privilege that they mistake for wisdom, these folks are often lacking the skills and experience working with individuals, and attempt to throw everyone into a program together and offer them a “formula” or guide to feeling confident in their own skin — which is actually only a formula for one specific kind of person and problem.

The goal for these folks is to monetize and scale with the least amount of effort, not to reduce harm and do right by the individuals they work with.

As such, in this way, these influencers, coaches, gurus, and guides are no different in my book from the Jillian Michaels’ of the world, putting their own self interest above their integrity, and banking on the fact that anyone who fails to see the promised results from their harmful products and programs will feel bad enough about themselves to take the blame and spiral into shame, instead of getting angry that their coach failed them.

Whew. Ok. Can you tell that I’m super passionate about this?

I’m super curious to hear your thoughts on this topic — do you see the harm being done in the body-positivity, self-love, and body-confidence spaces too?

I also want to let you know that enrollment for small group coaching on body image is open for another week and a half. The groups will start early March, but for all the reasons discussed above, I won’t be doing open-signups.

Instead, if you’re interested in joining you can fill out an application here. Then we’ll get on a call to chat about your life experience, body image struggles, and levels of privilege or oppression!

Since the goal is to create compatible groups that minimize harm and maximize results, not everyone who applies will be guaranteed a spot. That said, there are 20 group coaching spots total (10 spots left) and I would love to work with you to get to the root of your own body image issues, and find body neutrality.

So much love,

<3
Jessi

 

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