Pilates Instructors as Cultural Intermediaries

By: Carla Ricalis

(learning from the ‘lived body’ & having different conversations)

Pilates practitioners are always game to learn more about the body in order to give clients the best workouts possible; from anatomy classes to other, complementing movement modalities, most Pilates instructors remain students at some level.

But what about learning to think critically about the embodied experience of an aging client? Or a client for whom an injury or dis-ability has altered their overall movement experience?

With our education firmly rooted in medico-scientific discourses, the medical and scientific definitions of what constitutes ‘healthy’, what the ‘ideal’ alignment is and how a body should ‘be’, dominate our understanding of it.

With those markers and often very little others in place we tend to orient our programming towards ‘fixing’ the body and consequently are moving our clients toward unattainable goals.

If critical theory became an integral part of our education, could we contribute to a new conversation about bodies and the misconceptions about what a healthy body is and how it ought to move? I think it could; especially those that surround women, who still make up a majority of our client and practitioner base.

Think about an older, female client you regularly train; it’s part of the relationship to be advising and guiding them within your realm of expertise – that’s why they’re in the studio.

And to a certain extent, the advice that you’re giving her can influence how she might approach growing old, deal with an injury or accept a physical impairment.

Susan Paulson (2005) identifies fitness instructors as “cultural intermediaries” (p.232) because of the regular interaction we have with our clients and the advice we’re passing on.

But let’s take a step back and think about what is informing the advice we share?

Joy Webster Barbre (2003) discusses how the cultural constructions that surround women ought to prompt questioning on ‘how the advice we are offered reflects and reinforces the broad cultures’ underlining assumptions about women’s biology, women’s aging, and women’s social roles in contemporary American culture’ (p.272).

Such advice can include that which comes from within the fitness paradigm, exemplifying the industry’s large role in shaping Western society’s expectations of the older female.

If the conversation was re-directed to include critical theory, perhaps the medicoscientific approach that often emphasizes what a woman should look like and how she should confront the aging process could transform into a discussion that placed value on the subjectivity and embodiment of growing old and/or being impaired.

And this in turn could better prepare us in our understanding of how to work with, more appropriately advise and most importantly, contribute positively to an older female client’s perception and acceptance of her body.

Understanding the ‘lived body’, that is our client’s physical realities and experiences, can help us develop appropriate exercise programs and engage in more thoughtful cueing and correcting. It can also expand our understanding of
working with clients at all levels of movement, capacity, awareness and age.

And after all, expanding our own understanding is part of what makes teaching movement such a rewarding endeavour.


Paulson, Susan (2005), “How various ‘cultures of fitness’ shape subjective experiences of growing older” in Ageing & Society, Vol. 25, pp. 229-244

Webster Barbre, Joy (2003), “Meno-Boomers and Moral Guardians” in Weitz, L.J. (Ed.) The Disability Reader, Second Edition, New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 117 – 138.