Moving Beyond Toxic Culture – Part 1

Welcome to part 1 of this 2-part series on toxic fitness and diet culture, the Health at Every Size® (HAES®) paradigm, and trauma-informed practice within the Pilates industry. Several years ago, if you had asked me what these topics were about, I would have responded blankly. Today, now in recovery from an eating disorder and mental health challenges, I am well educated on the content and see them in two categories.

The first category relates to problems within the Pilates industry such as toxic fitness and diet culture. The second involves solutions to these problems such as trauma-informed practice and the HAES® framework. Part 1 of this series will focus on the first category, the problems, and part 2 will focus on the solutions.

For ease of communication, I will be using the term “toxic fitness culture” as a phrase that encompasses the Pilates industry. Furthermore, I am always open to conversation, so please feel free to get in touch.


My Story

My eating disorder began emerging when I trialled a few diets at a young age. I then developed Anorexia Nervosa and since then have undertaken many outpatient and inpatient treatments. As part of my journey, I also developed co-occurring mental health issues. Some risk factors I had were that I was a dancer, musical theatre performer and fitness and Pilates instructor. Embedded within the cultures of these industries are toxic aspects such as certain body ideals, perfectionism, myths around wellness, over training and unintuitive movement. These passions all contributed to the development and sustaining of my eating disorder. From my own lived experience and the lived experience of others, I know that toxic elements creep into our teaching and studios more than we may realise. So, let’s get started by exploring toxic fitness culture.


Toxic Fitness Culture

In ‘The Rise of “Toxic Gym Culture”’ (2024), the HIIT Company explain that toxic fitness culture:

‘… encompasses intense pressure to conform to unrealistic body standards, fostering a negative and competitive environment centred on physical appearance over overall health. Such environments can lead to body shaming and exclusionary attitudes, contributing to harmful fitness trends.’

They add that contributing factors include social media, fallacies about wellness, exclusivity and various types of stigmas such as weight-stigma. Toxic fitness culture disconnects people from their bodies and discourages intuitive movement. This culture can lead to harmful outcomes such as disordered eating, body image disturbances, negative self-image, perfectionism, and people becoming fixated on external validation (The HIIT Company, 2024).

So, what does toxic fitness culture look like within the Pilates industry? Well, it could look like:

  • The intimidation a potential client might feel towards a certain Pilates studio.
  • The prioritisation of getting your body to look a certain way over improving wellness.
  • Not actively welcoming diversity in marketing, such as only having thin people in photos.
  • The false notion that you can assess someone’s fitness based on looks.
  • The idea that you aren’t trying hard enough if you haven’t achieved thinness.
  • The belief that “thrashing” your body is what makes a workout “worth it”.
  • Prioritising “feeling the burn” above all else.
  • Not learning how to accommodate a diverse range of clients, such as those at the highest end of the weight spectrum.
  • Prioritising working out over listening to your body.
  • Only working out due to negative emotions such as shame, guilt, or fear.

(The HIIT Company, 2024; Ilya P, 2020)

Promoting intuitive movement is at the heart of ditching toxic fitness culture. Let us have a look at some basics:

  • Calogero R and Pedrotty K (2007) state the 4 principles of intuitive movement are:

‘First, exercise should be used to rejuvenate the body, not exhaust or deplete it. Second, exercise should enhance mind–body connection and coordination, not confuse or dis-regulate the mind-body relationship. Third, exercise should alleviate mental and physical stress, not contribute to and exacerbate stress. And finally, exercise should provide us with genuine enjoyment and pleasure, not provide pain and be dreaded.’

(Calogero R and Pedrotty K, 2007)

  • Before movement, it is encouraged that people conduct an intuitive movement check-in, as explained in the next point (Masson E, Luke J and Reilly A, 2023). Based on the check-in, one can choose a life-enhancing form of movement or choose not to move. If moving, people can then notice red flags that may pop up and change the movement/psychological processes accordingly to switch them to green flags. Masson E, Luke J and Reilly A (2023) explain that red flags could include ‘exhaustion’, ‘dehydration/under-nourishment’, ‘punishment’, ‘compensatory’ movement, inability to ‘rest even if need to’ and ‘rigid rules’. They add that green flags might include being ‘hydrated/nourished’, exercise is a ‘choice (not obligation)’, having ‘fun’ and including a ‘variety’ of movement. Ways to switch red flags to green flags could include reframing thoughts and varying the ‘type’, ‘frequency’, or ‘intensity’ of movement (Masson E, Luke J and Reilly A, 2023).
  • You can have clients conduct a check-in before class with an aim to engage in intuitive movement. Questions could include:

‘How am I feeling physically right now?

How am I feeling psychologically right now?

Am I feeling adequately nourished and hydrated?

What movement (planned or incidental) have I already experienced the last few days?

Am I involved in any events or tasks in the coming days that I may like to keep some energy for?

What is the purpose of my movement right now?’

(Masson E, Luke J and Reilly A, 2023)

Up next, we will explore diet culture, which is highly interrelated to and will enhance your understanding of toxic fitness culture.


Diet Culture

In their article ‘Diet culture 101: What it is and what we can do about it?’, Jovanovski N and Jaeger T (2022) explain that diet culture involves misconceptions around food and physique that are forever evolving. It automatically links weight with health and places food into a dichotomy such as “naughty” or “nice”. Diet culture also orders bodies from “best” to “worst”, with thinness considered virtuous. This phenomenon is powered by larger sociological occurrences such as the patriarchy (Jovanovski N and Jaeger T, 2022).

We now know that attempts to transform larger bodies into smaller bodies almost always fail. The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) (n.d) found that extensive research on dieting demonstrates that although one may succeed in losing weight for some time ranging from six months to a year, most regain the majority, if not all the lost weight, with many surpassing their initial weight.

‘In addition, the studies do not provide consistent evidence that dieting results in significant health improvements, regardless of weight change. In sum, there is little support for the notion that diets lead to lasting weight loss or health benefits.’

(Mann T, Tomiyama A J, Westling E, Lew A-M, Samuels B and Chatman J, 2007)


Additionally, it has been found that intentionally trying to lose weight not only increases disordered eating and eating disorders but body dissatisfaction too (River Oak Health, n.d). Furthermore, ‘yo-yo dieting and weight cycling increase our risk of death and chronic diseases’ (River Oak Health, n.d). We also know that food ‘prohibition with exposure may backfire and increase the risk of loss of control over eating behaviour’ (Soetens B, Braet C, Van Vlierberge L and Roets A, 2008).

Contrary to what some might say, the anti-diet movement is not “anti-health”. Instead, it is about creating an intuitive, nourishing and positive relationship with food. Would you like to learn about two of the frameworks used to rebel against diet culture and improve health? Look no further than trauma-informed practice and HAES® in part 2.

So, how does diet culture show up in a Pilates studio? Some examples are as follows:

  • Discussing diets.
  • Moralising food in a dichotomy e.g. as “good”/“bad”, as “naughty”/“nice”, or as “healthy”/“unhealthy”.
  • The idea that Pilates is for aesthetic outcomes.
  • Commenting on someone’s body or weight.
  • Making assumptions about somebody’s health status based on their size.
  • Recommending intentional dieting to clients.

A great way to help clients ditch diet culture is to refer them on to anti-diet professionals. You can also avoid discussing diets, weight loss, body aesthetics, or commenting on food in a dichotomous way within the studio. 

See Part 2

By Henry Rheinberger (he/him), PAA member


This article was written on Palawa land.

The views expressed in this article are solely my own.


About the author: Born and raised in Nipaluna (Hobart), Henry was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa along with other mental health challenges as a young adult. He began Pilates to support his dancing and before the age of 19 had completed a Diploma of Professional Pilates Instruction, a Certificate IV in Contemporary Pilates and Teaching Methodology and a range of other qualifications and professional development. Henry has continued to work in almost every aspect of the fitness and Pilates industry around the country and is currently an associate educator for Pilates International Training Centre (PITC). He is an advocate for continued learning, Health at Every Size® (HAES®), trauma-informed practice and ditching toxic diet and fitness culture.



  1. The HIIT Company (1 May 2024) ‘The Rise of “Toxic Gym Culture”’, The HIIT Company, accessed 20 May 2024.,contributing%20to%20harmful%20fitness%20trends
  2. Ilya P (17 June 2020) ‘Some Examples of Toxic Fitness Culture’, Decolonizing Fitness, accessed 13 May 2024.
  3. Calogero R and Pedrotty K (2007) ‘Daily Practices for Mindful Exercise’, Low-cost approaches to promote physical and mental health, Springer, New York.
  4. Masson E, Luke J and Reilly A (2023) Exercise and Eating Disorders: a Practical Insight, Eating Disorder Families Australia, accessed 16 May 2024.
  5. Jovanovski N and Jaeger T (10 August 2022) ‘Diet culture 101: What it is and what we can do about it?’, Butterfly Foundation, accessed 13 May 2024.
  6. ASDAH (Association for Size Diversity and Health) (n.d) Health at Every Size® Principles, ASDAH, accessed 13 May 2024.
  7. Mann T, Tomiyama A J, Westling E, Lew A-M, Samuels B and Chatman J (2007) ‘Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer.’, American Psychologist 62(3):220-233,
  8. River Oak Health (n.d) ‘Why Health at Every Size ®’, River Oak Health, accessed 20 May 2024.
  9. Soetens B, Braet C, Van Vlierberge L and Roets A (2008) ‘Resisting temptation: effects of exposure to a forbidden food on eating behaviour’, Appetite 51(1):202-205, doi:10.1016/j.appet.2008.01.007


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