Learning Integrity and Giving Up "Profess-ionalism"
I posted a blog earlier this week addressing silence in the fitness industry in the face of racism and in the wake of the events in Charlottesville. When I originally started writing that piece there were a lot of ideas circulating in my mind and I also wrote this post. Because I have been exploring so many different trains of thoughts and ways of addressing how I can be a better agent of change I decided to post several more blogs over the coming weeks, each addressing different aspects.
Byron Katie says, about writing out our inner thoughts, “…though the mind can justify itself faster than the speed of light, it can be stopped through the act of writing. Once the mind is stopped on paper, thoughts remain stable, and inquiry can easily be applied.”
Again, I want to say that this writing comes only from my experience. Also, if you see a really clever idea in my writing, it was most likely inspired by another writer. I have tried to add links to people whenever I am able, though I admit that often I have absorbed ideas from things that I have read in the past and so may neglect citing the source. If you recognize someone else’s work in my own, feel free to call that to my attention so I can address it!
I am again addressing this to other white people. I would love to get more white, male fitness professionals involved in the conversation about how we can fight oppression and promote social justice in order to create a world where everyone has access to good health and fitness. To my friends and colleagues of color, you are always welcome to read and to share your thoughts, and I always want to warn you when I am being honest about my own process because it might bring things up for you as you read.
If my writing sparks something in you and you would like to discuss it with me please send me a message!
I have been fortunate in that I follow several leaders in the fitness and wellness industry who are role models for me when it comes to what it means to be a professional. And I am even more fortunate that many of these professionals are also open, honest and vulnerable about who they are, as people. We often think of “professional” as meaning that we do not share anything “personal.” And this is, in fact, an unwritten rule in the fitness industry. So I count myself as lucky that I have found examples of how to truly act in integrity.
What is integrity? It is, at its simplest, doing anything the same way you do anything else. It means that if you talk the talk of health and wellness online, you also walk the walk in your real life. It means that if you speak about having certain values that you do your best to live those values as well. It is being honest about who you are as a person. It is, in many ways, the opposite of the division between “professional” and “personal.”
Living in integrity takes work. It takes, honesty, vulnerability and a truckload of humility. It takes owning up to your mistakes, releasing shame (or anything else that might hold you back) and moving forward towards the best version of yourself. Living in integrity means that your life can be an example and an inspiration to those around you. Not because you have six pack abs or can squat 500 lbs, but because you embody holistic strength (strength that is physical as well as emotional, mental and spiritual) and are open to the places where you can improve and are transparent about your process.
The four biggest inspirations to me, when it comes to living in integrity, are Jill Coleman, Neghar Fonooni, Chrissy King and Jen Sinkler. I have followed some of these women for years, and some I am have just newly been introduced to. What I respect most about these four fitness professionals is that they center themselves and their businesses around fitness and that they also talk about health as an aspect of that. How they approach this is unique and different to each one. But what I have observed in all four of them is a willingness to show up and be vulnerable with their core values and who they are as people.
I really enjoy and respect when one of these fitness pros share their own unique approach to fitness and health, whether it be through the importance of daily self-care rituals or their philosophy and process when it comes to having healthier interpersonal relationships. I love that I can visit all of their social media and potentially find a quality, free workout or an interesting, healthy recipe but that I also see them being honest about their emotions, their own personal learning and self-improvement, their spirituality and their political beliefs.
When I was coming up as a new fitness professional the conventional wisdom was that you don’t talk about politics or religion anywhere visible to your clients. That you should, in essence, be a blank slate that any client can feel comfortable approaching. And while I do think it is important to create a space that feels safe enough for a client to do the hard work of changing and growing strong within, I also now see, through the examples of other fitness pros around me, that neglecting to speak about certain things can also create a space that is unwelcoming and unsafe to potential clients.
Being a “blank slate” is not enough, for several reasons. First of all, the absence of something does not necessarily mean the presence of something else. If I am not mentioning anything “personal” for fear of not being seen as “professional” then how do potential clients know what to expect of me? Not stating my political or spiritual beliefs may make some clients feel that I am approachable, because there is nothing there that they may potentially disagree with. However, when silence has become the default, how do my clients know what I actually stand for? Now, and always, silence is often taken as agreement. We are in a place, as a culture and a country, where hate speech (in the form of racism, sexism and homophobia, among other forms of violence) is becoming more widely broadcast and frighteningly more acceptable. If I say nothing against that then I can only be seen as agreeing with it. How does that agreement make potential clients feel that I can create a space where they will be safe enough to do the hard work of change?
An important question, that I have recently learned to ask of myself is “who am I excluding?” When I engage in action or speech I now make an attempt to make the invisible (to me) visible by asking this question. If I say nothing in the face of white supremacy, anti-immigrant xenophobia or dehumanizing of transgender persons, who is excluded by my silence? Who am I unable to serve, by prioritizing “professionalism” over my personal values of equity and liberation for all?
Secondly, in response to the idea of excluding anything “personal” about myself is that I am not a robot. It is not my job to be a robot. I am a human being and I have values and beliefs that make up the core of who I am. My clients don’t hire me because I always count their reps perfectly or know the most about bicep curls. My clients hire me because who I am makes them feel safe, valued and seen. They read my blog, check out my website, observe my social media posts and try to ascertain if I am someone who can hold space for them while they do the hard work of becoming the best, strongest, most capable versions of themselves.
Thirdly, I am not for everyone. This may seem obvious to you, or it may seem odd. The truth is that I am not the only trainer in the world for a reason. I can’t possibly serve every type of client, because every client has different needs. If a client is looking for a big, mean drill sergeant who will yell at them and make them do burpees until they puke…well, they had better look elsewhere! That is not who I am, and that is not what I serve up on the daily! By being more honest and vulnerable, by being more in my integrity, I can more faithfully show my clients who I really am so that they can determine if I am the right fit for them.
Lastly, and I think that this is very important, I want to look more deeply at this whole idea of “professional vs. personal.” I think that we should discover who this idea serves, who it is modeled after and for, and what kind of world it works to create. When you hear the word “professional” you may have several ideas that come to your mind; hopefully ideas of doing what you say you will do, having your clients interests as your primary focus and behaving in a way that honors your client’s time and dignity.
However, I know that for me, one of the first things that comes to mind is actually an image: a white business man in a grey flannel suit.
Let’s pick that apart: a white. Full stop. Man. Full stop.
(take a pause here and just sit with that)
Now, let’s go a little deeper: he’s wearing a grey flannel suit, the epitome of the “professional” image. There is no color (maybe a red tie, but that’s expected) in his wardrobe, nothing to distinguish him from another identical thousand business men. His work is in “business,” aka: money (is that all our work boils down to?). He sports a watch, he lives by the clock, he never makes a peep about his own needs or any opinion outside the Company Line. And of course his hair is neat, he has no facial hair, no tattoos or markings of any kind to show his personality.
I could go on and on, and maybe you’ll spend some time and name all the tiny aspects of this (obvious) caricature of “professional.” And yes, it’s a trope, and it is also the very image that comes to our minds when we tell ourselves to act or be “professional.”
The thing is, this image automatically excludes almost everyone. It excludes me (I have tattoos and a beard, but those things can be hidden or changed), it excludes women, and people of color, and visibly trans and gender non-conforming people, people that are immigrants, people who are not middle or upper class, the list goes on of people who can not, and should not have to, change the aspects of themselves that are outside this narrow definition.
At it’s heart, the idea of “professional” is a tool of white supremacy. It promotes the idea that white culture is the only culture capable of having or succeeding in a profession, or a particular type of profession. (If you find yourself defensively and reflexively reacting to the idea of “white culture,” I want to ask you to go back and re-read my description of the business man: that is white culture. We don’t often see this, it becomes invisible to us, because it is presented to us as the norm, but it is not the norm. There are literally billions of people on this planet that that it is not the norm for.)
(Also, if you are finding yourself feeling defensive about me using the term “white supremacy” I encourage you to read my earlier blog post here, where I provide resources for white folks, like myself, who want to better understand these ideas and what we, personally, can do to fight against them and for a more equal and just world. It’s okay to feel defensive, by the way, that’s a very normal reaction to being introduced to a new or challenging idea. And it is also okay to take a deep breath and give yourself some time to understand this idea by doing some background reading, so please give that blog entry and the included resources a look!)
This particular idea of “professionalism” is very useful for a racist system that want to insure it’s own survival. If speaking about our values is out of line with “professionalism” then we are unable to name, speak out against or fight against systems that are, in full reality, harming others. This is particularly important in my field, which is health, fitness and wellness. If it is considered acceptable for me to speak out against smoking, sitting, trans fats, stress, over-work and fluorescent lighting it is absolutely imperative that I think very deeply about why it is not acceptable for me to speak out against systems that kill people through violence or through the sheer stress caused by living in that system.
Here’s the thing:
I don’t want to be “professional.” I want to be me. I want my clients, and the world, to get to know who I am in my entirety. I want to be honest and vulnerable about who I am, what I believe and what I hold dear so that when anyone looks at me they know exactly who I am and what I’m about. I truly believe that this will allow potential clients, and current clients as well, to better understand what they can expect from me and how I can serve them.
Being honest about who I am is about living in my integrity. It allows me to show up as myself 100%, and that in turn allows me to spend less energy on editing myself or worrying about what others will think, and more energy on serving those who will get the most out of my unique gifts. Because being radically vulnerable about who I am and what I believe also allows me to show off the gifts that I can offer to the world.
And, I want this experience for everyone. My highest held values are that each and every human being is precious, that all of us have gifts that the world needs and that developing strength, in all its forms, allows us to share our gifts in a way that benefits all. Any time that I promote this white supremacist version of what professionalism is I am in effect empowering a system that stifles anyone who doesn’t fit it’s narrow confines. By acting as if there is only one way to be a professional I reinforce the exclusion of people of color, women, LGBTQIA folks, immigrants, those who live with disabilities, etc.
I believe in the power of strength to transform the world. To me, that means strength for everyone. I encourage strength, in all forms, in others. Because someone else’s strength does not mean that I am weak. I want you to sit with that for a minute, because it can be very useful if you have ever found yourself feeling uncomfortable when confronted with images of people of color demonstrating to call attention to police violence that is directed at them, specifically if you feel confused or uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter movement.
When someone says Black Lives Matter, it does not mean black lives matter more. It simply means that black lives matter. Period. And it is important to say because we live in a culture that prioritizes the lives, safety and happiness of white people over everybody else. The only message that has been broadcast by mainstream culture and media for centuries is that white lives matter and everybody else is shit out of luck. So, Black Lives Matter is not a call to prioritize black lives over anyone else, it is a call for equity, for black lives to matter at all in the midst of an environment that steadily works in contrast to that.
Understanding these larger ideas, seeing their relevancy and power can also help us zero in on the smaller ideas that work to hold up and perpetuate the larger system of white supremacy. In this case I am talking about how “professional vs. personal” works as a support for white supremacy.
I hope what I have shared has added something to your own process. And, if you work in the fitness, health or wellness industries, I hope that this has given you something to think about. I offer all this with humility, as someone who is doing their best and still has so much to learn. Thank you for taking the time to read my writing, and please feel free to share your experience of reading it with me. In the future I will keep writing about this and also will be pushing myself more and harder to be more vulnerable about myself so that I can show up more fully and powerfully as part of our larger human family.