Body Image Problem in Pilates

The Role Unconscious Bias Plays in Body Image Disorders in the World of Pilates

Episode 12

There is this idea floundering around the Pilates world that practising Pilates will transform your body into one akin to a professional dancer. You know, one that is thin, muscular, and hardly contains body fat. Which simply isn’t true, nor is it really even possible. Today, Hannah explores the idea of unconscious bias and its role in body imaging in the world of Pilates. We look at dismantling the myth of the Pilates body shape, factors involved in attaining (theoretically) a “dancer” body, and why it is important that we as teachers look at and reflect on our dancer upbringings (and the negative aspects thereof). We need to start having more conversations about bodies and healthy expectations in this realm. Pilates fundamentally revolves around improving movement quality, embracing the freedom that movement offers, and relishing in the experience. We should encourage a shift away from fixating on unrealistic body ideals and instead channel our energy towards enjoying the benefits of improved coordination, increased mobility, enhanced flexibility, greater strength, and better posture that Pilates offers. Join the conversation as Hannah poses a question to ignite a conversation about propelling change!


Key Points From This Episode:


  • Dismantling the idea that a thin body equals a Pilates body:  the Pilates body shape.
  • The various factors involved in theoretically attaining a “dancer” body. 
  • Doing the work, as teachers, to dismantle our dancer upbringing and why it is important.
  • Hannah shares her perspective on the importance of thought behind social media posting. 
  • An example of how exercise, eating, and body image disorders are part of our professional careers.
  • We need more conversations about bodies and about healthy expectations. 
  • Hannah elaborates on the purpose of our job as Pilates teachers.
  • The taboo topic: how teachers are also struggling with body image and exercise disorders.
  • A reflection on Hannah’s healing journey from a career filled with very real trauma.
  • Why your body isn’t your business card, but your teaching is.
  • The necessity, as coaches and teachers, to look first at ourselves.
  • The importance of being honest about the benefits of doing Pilates.
  • Thoughts on how we want to move forward as an industry and as teachers.



[0:00:02] HT: Sonya Renee Taylor in her book, The Body Is Not An Apology, writes, “Systems do not maintain themselves. Even our lack of intervention is an act of maintenance. Every structure in every society is upheld by the active and passive assistance of other human beings.” I thought that was a really apt quote for what I’d like to talk about is unconscious bias and its role in body imaging in the Pilates and the yoga world, but specifically Pilates.




[0:00:38] HT: Welcome. Stick around if you want to learn about the art and philosophy of beautiful movement, mixed with evidence-based exercise science. We’ll be having tough and inspiring conversations with other coaches, experts, artists, and athletes. Our goal is to challenge myths, explore concepts, and engage in healthy debate as we dive deep with intrigue and curiosity.


I’m your host, Hannah Teutscher. I’ve been teaching dance, Pilates, and yoga for over two decades. What I’ve learned is that movement can be the joy that integrates us all together. When we can trust and express ourselves through our bodies, we are unlimited in our ability to change ourselves and our communities for the better. We, as movement teachers and coaches, have the power to help people experience this war themselves.


Okay, everyone, let’s dive in. Exchanging ideas and changing people’s lives one session at a time. This is The Pilates Exchange.




[0:01:35] HT: I think what happens sometimes is we equate a thin body with a Pilates body. Because dancers have been drawn into Pilates for so many years, even starting from Joseph Pilates in Manhattan and Martha Graham and all these other dancers found their way into his studio. Dancers have always been part of the Pilates movement.


When we think about bodies and Pilates, sometimes those are unconsciously going together. Then we continue to propagate this idea in our marketing, in the imaging, and everything else. It’s been going on for decades long. I’d like to push back. Maybe it’s not even a pushback. I just like to discuss what that role is and how we can maybe dismantle this a little bit. Specifically in the Pilates world, we have sometimes this idea that Pilates is going to make a certain shape of body. We see this in social media. We see it in the performative social media posts and by Pilates teachers. We see it in the marketing that happens on our websites, the word choices we’re using, not only on our websites and marketing, but also in the books that are about Pilates. We see it so infiltrated in our society that people that come into our studios are also looking for that shape.


Many times, we have people that come in and say, “Oh, yeah. I’d to look like this, or look like that.” That becomes really problematic on many different reasons. There is a little bit of research that says that Pilates can help maintain a healthy weight, or if someone is obese, that it will help them to manage their weight. I’ll link to a couple of those studies in the show notes. But overall, Pilates is not going to be a method where you can go from one body shape, one endomorphology into another.


We can work within the genetics of someone’s body. What is their bone structure? What muscle fabric? We can make muscle stronger. We can become more mobile. We can have better posture. We could do many, many things. Depending on your body type, you won’t become a dancer in this. That is impossible. Dancers spend eight hours a day training, sometimes more, sometimes a little bit less. There’s that, five days a week, or six days a week for some of us that we had that training. We are also groomed from a very young age to have either eating disorders, or body image disorders, or exercise disorders. That is part of our upbringing.


I don’t know what the actual statistics are of how many dancers have ED, or have dealt with it at some point in their life, but it is a massive amount of people. I could just say that from my experience as a professional dancer. I don’t know how many of me, but I was a professional dancer for a little over 15 years. Pilates had accompanied me during that time from when I was a young dancer, and I had always loved the method.


We as dancers, we get to do Pilates sometimes in our summer camp, sometimes we were lucky enough to be in an academy that has a Pilates offering. We’re always around Pilates. I think that propagates this myth. Another problem that happens is that – not a problem, is like, the natural trajectory after a dance career is that many dancers choose to be in the bodywork industry — Yoga teachers, Barre teachers, Pilates teachers.


Sometimes the teachers themselves have not done the work that they need to dismantle our upbringing, which for many of us has been very traumatic, very abusive in the way that the adults have formed us to think about our bodies and the way that we work. We have a lot to uncover in there. Sometimes after the dance career, as they’re transitioning into teaching, a lot of people don’t go through the therapy that’s necessary to help themselves. Then what happens is we have all of these unconscious things and ways of eating and patterns of living and patterns of exercise that haven’t been healed.


We then use these patterns, which is the way that we navigate through life, but those patterns become so ingrained with us that we don’t see that that is not normal behaviour. Then what happens is in an unconscious way, we start to either transport those to our clients, our own thinking, the way that we structure our classes, the way that we structure our studios, it just goes on and on and on in there. This also goes for the dancers that then open dance studios afterward and how we work with our with our young population with our kids.


I think it’s a really an interesting and sad problem that we have in the industry because then, it continues on also with our with our social media posts. I have no problem — I just want to put this up there. I have no problems with bodies. You can wear whatever you want on your social media posts, on your YouTube channel. It doesn’t bother me at all, because it shouldn’t. You could do whatever you want. But I think there should be thought that goes behind the posting.


If you decide to post yourself doing something in a bikini, which you, by all means, should have the freedom to do that, but why are you doing it? If you have a good reason for it, then go ahead and post it. Or is it coming from – and only you would know that. Is it coming from some other place of proving? Do you need to feel worthy of something? Are you helping motivate them? Are you really? Is seeing a picture of you doing something in a bikini, is it motivating, or is it not motivating? Then I don’t have the answers for. It might be for some people, it might be triggering for other people. Of course, we cannot make everyone happy in our lives. You never have control over what another person thinks, or how they respond to something.


I feel the same way, like when I was a dancer, we were often asked, for example, there were times in my career as a professional that I was asked to have nudity. Either in photography, or on a dance performance, or in a video, and which I have done in my past. It is for me, if the choreographer, if the artist that’s in charge has a good reason that that nudity is part of it, celebrating the human body, then I am all in. Unapologetically, unashamed of this body at this at this time. You will see that for me. I’m not shaming people for going and doing things, but just having an understanding of what that can do, the potential hazards for other people.


When I was doing that sort of work, I was still in the middle of my dance career. That meant I had a different way that I was navigating the world because exercise disorder and eating disorder and body image disorder is part of our career. It is so ingrained that we don’t even see it. I’m going to give you an example of this. I had retired earlier than my husband. For those of you who don’t know, Christian is also, was a dancer. We met dancing in a professional company here in Germany. I had created the studio first, and then later invited him to come in and teach with me.


That whole first time, after I had retired dance and started to transition into a normal life, let’s say, because I don’t think theatre life is sometimes very normal. My body started changing a little bit. My eating habits started changing to become more healthy. I was working with a therapist at that point. Still am working with a therapist. What was interesting, I had been spending most of my day in the studio and Chris was still spending most of his day in the theatre. He would come back to the studio sometimes in the evenings to help me manage stuff, and the business stuff that was going on. It took him time to see female bodies that are completely healthy, completely normal, to be seen just as that, as healthy, and not overweight.


That was really shocking for him and for I to go through, that we were so conditioned in our dance career to think a certain body type, which is undernourished and underweight, that that was healthy, that he had lost sight of what body type – not body type, about what’s healthy. We did a lot of talking, a lot of dismantling. It was a really painful time for the both of us, because noticing the damage that the career, that the entire system had done on our minds and our bodies was really sad. There’s still some of it years later that we’re still unpacking.


Why is that important? It’s important, because so many dancers go into teaching, that we need more conversations about bodies and about what’s healthy, what’s a healthy amount of exercise? What’s a healthy amount of eating. Because if we don’t do that, we’re going to continue to work in a system where Pilates is seen as this ultimate end all of change your body, look like this, be – I’m going to use, have air quotations here, like, “Be toned and skinny and graceful like a dancer.” I’ve seen everything on different websites. That is just not the case. That is not what Pilates is going to do, number one. Number two, it’s not what we should be striving for for our clients.




[0:12:31] HT: When I started teaching, I felt underprepared and overwhelmed. I needed to learn how to plan my training so that it made sense, but I wasn’t sure what was working and what wasn’t. So many teacher training programs leave out the actual art and business of teaching. This is why we created Train the Trainers. Train the Trainers is designed to give you the tools you need to create a powerful learning environment for your students. Gain access to the vault of our collected knowledge where you can learn everything we have to teach you, whether you are a freelance teacher, or a studio owner. Get constructive feedback on your teaching with actionable tools you could apply immediately. We can’t wait to be part of your teaching journey and to help you grow in your business. Welcome to Train the Trainers.




[0:13:19] HT: I think that our job as Pilates teachers is to help people move more and do it more happily on more free, or to the best of their ability. Sometimes it’s about gaining stuff. Sometimes it’s just about maintaining. Sometimes it’s about prohibiting a little bit of decline, depending on where we are in our phase of life. Through my dance career and teaching career, I’ve had the unbelievable, good fortune to travel to many different cities and to teach and to perform in lots of places all over the world.


I’ve always tried to go into different studios and train with as many different teachers as possible, because I think it’s a gift that we’ve been able to do, or I’ve been able to travel. What I’ve been struck with is how many teachers are struggling with their own body image and exercise disorder. It’s a taboo topic. I’ll probably get a lot of backlash. I don’t have the statistics on how many people are struggling with this right now. I think it’s really important to start a conversation about it. How can we heal ourselves? How can we still teach and be of sound mind and body? What kind of self-work do we need to do to improve our self-worth? To know that our bodies are not a direct representation of what our teaching is.


We do not need to be skinny to be a good teacher. We do not need to be able to do all of the advanced exercises. That’s a whole other thing. Ableism. We don’t need to be able to do all of the advanced exercises to be able to teach them. I understand also the – I’m coming from a privileged place. I did dance. There was great consequence to me dancing. There was great privilege that my body is the way it was, so I was able to dance. I have very flexible hips. I have all those kinds of things. I was able to have a career. I also worked very hard for that. There was a lot of discipline that went in there and there was a lot of trauma. There is a lot of really awful things that happened to make that career happen.


This is not a woe is me podcast. This is just an understanding what that was to dance and the healing that I had to do and I’m still – It’s almost a decade later, I’m still on my process of healing from. That I need to be very, very hyper aware of how I want to show up in my classes to model the behaviour of health, acceptance, self-love. Some days, that’s harder. Some days, it’s easier. That’s for everyone. Your body is not your business card.


In some bro culture, because I’m on the personal training, I remember I did some personal training and certification and they were talking about – and these dudes were talking about how your body is your business card. I want to push back and say, that is total bullshit. Your teaching is your business card. Your empathy, your compassion, your wisdom, your authenticity, the way you help people achieve their goals, that is what makes you – that’s what makes your business successful and that is your business card. It’s not what your fucking body looks like.


I wish that I had the guts at that point to say something. I don’t even remember who it was. It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t say that person’s name anyways. But I hope that you understand what I’m saying. Pilates is about moving better and moving freer, moving – enjoying that. It’s not about working off what you ate. It’s not about, what is this thing that they say? That your sweat is your fat crying. Total bullshit. I get so angry about this type of thing. Maybe because I noticed the enormity of my work as a dancer and how that’s infiltrated it, and it’s also – it makes me sad for all of the people, but specifically the women. That’s where the majority of our clients are. It makes me sad for all of the women that do not feel comfortable in their bodies, that they do not have the space to heal and love and accept themselves where they’re at.


There are so many conflicting images and messaging that we’re getting from everywhere. All the movies, the social media, the commercials, the magazines when we were young. This isn’t lose 5 pounds fast, or lose your belly fat with this Pilates exercise. I actually think that’s why I started Pilates, if I remember right, was not from the advertisement, but that was a way that Pilates was sold to us young dancers, that it was going to not as a tool to help us dance better, but as a tool to form and shape the body.


I’m so sorry for all of us that grew up watching our moms, or our mom figures dieting. I’m so sorry for all of us that were made to feel like our bodies were wrong at a young age. I’m sorry that it was, for all of us that were made to feel that we weren’t lovable, or acceptable if our body wasn’t a certain shape. I’m so sorry that the diet culture has impacted our caregivers, our parents in such a way that it got passed down to us and how if we don’t pay attention, it is going to continue on and on and on. I don’t have the actual paper. I’ll see if I can find it. I read somewhere, it’s like, 95% of American women don’t feel beautiful. They don’t feel well in their bodies. That makes me so sad.


It makes me so sad for all of us that have struggled. It makes me so sad for all the teachers out there that are trying to help others and that are still struggling with themselves. It makes me so sad for the teachers that haven’t yet even given in a class, because they don’t feel adequate enough in their bodies to teach, because that’s what society, or this culture is – Pilates culture is telling them. We deserve to feel good. We deserve to feel nourished. We deserve to enjoy movement. We deserve to navigate in this world, to be how we are right now, and feel worthy.


It’s not about whittling ourselves down to a certain shape or toning, or lifting, or butt blasting, or belly fat, slimming, whatever the F is going on with our verbiage. That is not it. That is not the way to feel healthy and whole. We have to start paying attention all together as a community and lift each other up and hold ourselves accountable when we’re not speaking to ourselves, or our clients, even unconsciously with love. That might mean that it is time to visit a therapist. It might mean that we should be visiting a body coach, or a body image coach. It might mean that we need to talk with an ED specialist. It might mean that we need to start dismantling trauma that happened to us as young people. All of us are on different journeys, but we owe it to ourselves and we definitely owe it to the clients that we are accepting money from to help them feel better. That’s why they’re coming to you.


It is necessary for us to be looking at ourselves first. We need to start holding up a mirror for ourselves and saying, “How are you complicit in this system? What do we need to do to do better?” To go back into maybe this idea from the very beginning. Pilates is not going to give you a dancer’s body, because dancing, that’s a verb. Anyone who dances has a dancer’s body. Anyone who does Pilates has a Pilates body. Dancer’s body is a made-up thing. It does not exist. Dancer, a ballerina, it’s a profession. It’s not a thing. It’s not a thing that we achieve, or strive to. It is a person that dances, and anyone can do that.


I want to say, this is the same thing, like we need to be careful of dancer’s body, summer body, bikini body. This unconscious bias of how – the unconscious bias of how we judge people, judge things, and we’re not even aware of it, then that’s also plays into our cognitive bias, right? We equate one thing to be another. Because you’re seeing dancers, gymnasts, other athletes use Pilates as a method to cross-train does not mean that that system gives you the body that they have.


It’s the same thing of thinking that just because someone lifts a weight, lifts weights at the gym for a little bit that it will suddenly make them bulky. It is not one-to-one like that. That’s not how the body works. Another thing that happens when we don’t give the honesty of what these methods do, Pilates, yoga, all that, that it doesn’t give you automatically those lean muscles that dancer’s body. That thing is that our clients start to feel bad about themselves, that they are not doing something correct, that they are not trying hard enough. They are not putting in the work, which is not true.


A dancer is dancing every day all day. A person that’s coming to a Pilates class is maybe once a week, or twice a week. Even if they’re coming every single day, one hour a day. I’m not saying that we should be training Pilates eight hours a day. I’m just saying that there’s a different thing that’s happening in the body, because of the amount of training and the eating habits, or eating disorders that dancers have. When we are not very careful, or honest with the benefits of doing Pilates, then we inadvertently make our clients feel worse about themselves than when perhaps, that they had started.


Putting the focus on moving to enjoy movement, to get better coordination, more mobility, more flexibility, being stronger, better posture, all of those things, when we start shifting focus that way, then we can help our clients, our students to feel stronger, more able, yeah, more hopeful enjoyment in their bodies when they realise the masterpiece that they already have that doesn’t need to be formed, or fitted into a little box of a preconceived notion about what healthy is.


We’re going to talk about what healthy is with one of our doctors coming up in a future podcast. I believe that this is such also a big topic, that I’m going to also be talking to a couple of body image specialists, because I think it’s something that we all need to hear and explore a little bit further.


All of these things that I bring up is not to shame you. It’s not to shame me. It’s not to shame Chris. It’s just an understanding that we need more understanding as an industry, how as teachers, we can be healthy, what we’re doing to serve our clients, or not. What are the limits of our method, specifically Pilates in this case? What are the advantages of it? How do we show up on social media? These are all big questions, right? How do we want to go forward as an industry? How do we want to shape this world that we’re going into? This is also for the teacher training institutes, because it is also there. It’s a big, big system that we’re talking about.


How in your teacher training were you made to feel less than if your body wasn’t doing, or didn’t look like what they thought it was supposed to be? Who gets to be the gatekeeping of that? Who gets to be the judge of what a teacher should look like? Even more than that, how our bodies should look like. Like all of my podcasts, either I’m going to be giving a teaching tip or a tool with either from myself or one of our guests, or it’s about a question to ignite conversation about propelling change.

I think today is another one of those days. It’s about questioning where we’re at and where we want to go. I love your feedback. Where are you at on this journey? In the show notes, I’m going to be putting a couple of resources about eating disorder, or disordered eating for that you could pass on, or even take a look on for yourself. Thank you so much for your valuable time.




[0:28:31] HT: Thank you so much for joining us today. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. A great cost-free way of supporting us and the podcast would be to give us a five-star rating. You could also look down into the show notes and grab any one of the free resources for teachers. I hope to see you next week on The Pilates Exchange. Happy teaching, everyone.



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