People often come to my classes and tell me they want to do Pilates because they want to shrink their waistline or get lean. I try to ignore this because I know there will be many other more important benefits to engaging with the method that will take place regardless of someone’s initial motivation for starting the practice. But as a passionate instructor, I do find it frustrating and potentially harmful that this is what the work has become known for. When I hear talk about wanting a “Pilates body” or the concept of such a thing as a “Pilates body” in general, it makes me cringe.
Before I took my first lesson I had never been interested in trying it out because I had the impression that it was a low impact exercise that only wealthy people did to stay thin! The industry promotes this. Many studios I’ve visited promote this. And even after I had my first experience with Contrology and realized there was so much more beauty to the method than just weight loss and lean muscles, it took me a long time to move away from so strongly associating the work with body image. This is something I continue to work on and question myself about regularly.
Joseph Pilates does dedicate some paragraphs to excess weight in his book, “Return to Life Through Contrology” - but his message about this is related to the affect excess weight can have on internal organs and how this could result in greater general fatigue. He doesn’t otherwise seem to promote Pilates for weight loss. Instead, the focus is on uniformly developing the musculature and a strong, articulate spine to prevent pain and fatigue and promote vitality and longevity. But yes - in developing the abdominal muscles to help protect the spine one will likely reduce their waist line. However, that should be secondary. You could say it is an added bonus, if you care about that sort of thing.
I imagine that the intimate link between the practice of Pilates and the professional dancer world, where there can be pressure to maintain a certain body type, is partly responsible for the development of the concept of a “Pilates body”. Adding to that is the societal emphasis on thin, lean bodies that starts at a very early age in home and/or school. And this has made its way into the studio. One example of many experiences I have had personally - a fellow Pilates instructor (a teacher trainer no less!) implied that I was gaining weight and that this is why I didn’t want to stand heels together toes apart with my inner thighs squeezing together while observing for hours! At first I was shocked, but the truth is that we have created a culture where this type of criticism is viewed as acceptable behavior.
I think that the Pilates studio should be a space free from body image critique and expectations and I aim to offer such a space. In the future, I hope to see the method separate itself from the concept of the “Pilates body” and marry itself instead purely to the promotion of health and well being.
In an effort to separate myself and what I teach from the “Pilates body”, I wish I could 100% refer to what I teach as Contrology. After all, this is what Joseph Pilates referred to his method as intended for it to be called. But that’s a separate blog post entirely…