Re-Learning Body Positivity with Ellen Penn Berry
Content warning: article discusses body image and mentions eating disorders.
Features writer Hannah Lowe spoke with ROCKET alum Ellen Penn Berry for the piece FED UP in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue. Here is the full interview.
The Internet is a difficult place to be, if body positivity is the goal. Diet culture, which is as American as apple pie, is all the more pervasive in the social media age. Young people are particularly vulnerable to harmful messages about the “right” body type and means of attaining physical “perfection.” Despite the ubiquity of diet culture, there are disruptors who break through the noise. Ellen Penn Berry, a certified Health Coach, is one of them. Through her work with fitness and wellness company acac (Atlantic Coast Athletic Clubs) and her social media presence, Berry promotes inclusive body positivity. Berry, a ROCKET alum, spoke with the magazine about her work and personal experiences with body image distortion.
Berry found her way to personal training and advocacy through her own tumultuous relationship with her body. “I became a personal trainer at a time in my life when I was just learning how to love and accept my body in a healthy way,” she explained, “and I wanted to teach other people to avoid the mistakes I had made.” Early in her college career at William & Mary, Berry struggled with restrictive eating and obsessive exercise. Later in her time at the College, she discovered a passion for weight lifting and trained at the Rec Center — both positive experiences that shaped her current views on fitness and health. After graduation, Berry began working for acac Albemarle Square in Charlottesville and pursued a Master’s degree in Nutrition & Physical Activity at James Madison. Now, she continues to work at acac and runs an active Instagram account where she balances personal posts with advocacy work.
Berry defines her work as “body positive” and “anti-diet culture,” saying, “I strongly believe that every body is a good body, regardless of size, race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc.” She acknowledges that the roots of body positivity are in the “fat positive” movement, which aims to destigmatize fatness, and stresses the importance of holistic acceptance. However, Berry cautions, “body positivity” has been co-opted by corporations in recent years. In addition to body positivity, Berry adds “anti-diet culture” to her personal philosophy: she explained, “I believe diets are just bad: bad for your physical health…and bad for mental health.”
In her professional life, Berry helps her clients develop a healthy lifestyle that avoids restrictive labels like “good” and “bad.” When she first meets a client, Berry considers their goals: “If a client lists weight loss as a goal, I ask what they think would be different if they were at their goal weight…and then whatever they list, those are the things we actually focus on as goals.” By avoiding weight loss as a priority, Berry promotes a version of wellness outside the fitness culture that verges on disordered eating. Secondly, Berry asks her clients to restructure their social media feeds. “You have to immerse yourself in body positivity like you’re learning a new language,” she explained, “and unfollow anything on social media that makes you feel bad about yourself.”
“You have to immerse yourself in body positivity like you’re learning a new language,” she explained, “and unfollow anything on social media that makes you feel bad about yourself.”
Berry also has advice for people seeking to form a more positive relationship with their food and their bodies. Firstly, she urges, “Stop defining food as good or bad.” Such categorization, she argues, is an incorrect way of thinking about food that does not recognize all the benefits food brings to the body. To label food as good or bad is, in itself, a disordered mindset. Secondly, “Stop trying to prevent emotional eating,” she encourages. She asserts that hunger is not the only reason people eat, and that it’s normal to eat more than hunger demands on occasion. She also gives practical advice for people dissatisfied with their current diet: “focus on adding in nutrient dense foods (veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, grains, etc.) that give you the most nutrients at once.” Finally, Berry encourages seeing a professional for help: many college campuses, for example, have registered dietitians who can help students who seek to change their current lifestyle.
Ellen Penn Berry is one of a chorus of voices promoting holistic body acceptance. She recommends other Instagram accounts who work in the same realm: namely, @thefuckitdiet, @dietitiananna, @nonairbrushedme, @thefatsextherapist, and @effyourbeautystandards. She also points to Linda Bacon’s website, Health at Every Size (HAES), as a useful resource. In parting, Berry explained her social media presence and reiterated an earlier point: “I try to share a lot in my stories so it is easy for other people to find resources outside of myself,” she said. She concluded, “Like I said, it’s all about immersion in body positivity, as though you’re learning a language.”
For more of Ellen’s commentary and insight, follow her on Instagram @eehpuhbuh.