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Why Natalie Joyce’s “revenge body” wasn’t the real story – it was the role her Personal Trainer played in her support.

Self-identity is a curious thing. I thought about it when I was sitting in Row 3 on the flight from Canberra to Sydney last Friday sipping on my coffee with the Sydney Morning Herald open on the political pages reading about Australia’s upcoming election. But it wasn’t the political debates I was reading, it was an article blaring the headline, ‘Natalie Joyce turns nightmare into triumph.’ [Sydney Morning Herald, April 4th, 2019].

I don’t know Natalie Joyce, but the image of her in a bikini in a body-building competition on the political pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, suggested that her personal ‘triumph’ was attributed to attaining what the young journalist heralded as, ‘the revenge body’. As I read on, I caught up with what most Australians probably know already and that is the emotional crisis she was under when her high-profile politician husband left her and their four daughters to take up with his very pregnant personal secretary. In the words of Ms Joyce at the time, “The situation is devastating on so many fronts. For my girls … and for me, as a wife of 24 years, who placed my own career on hold to support Barnaby throughout his political life.” The article then goes on to explain that, in rediscovering her own identity, she headed to the gym. The remarkable result after only a year was a body-fat percentage that the rest of us can only imagine and a 4th place in her first body-building competition. Along the way she transformed her identity – no longer was she ‘Barnaby Joyce’s wife’ but Natalie Joyce, successful body-builder.

Transformational practices are replete in the fitness industry and according to exercise psychologists, Buckworth and Dishman (2002), these promote the notion of self-regulation and individual responsibility. But such practices are attained when those seeking them have the right support. Especially women. In this context, Ms Joyce’s Personal Trainer should be heralded too.

Women’s experiences of transformational bodywork practices emerged in the 1990’s at the same time that Personal Trainers emerged in fitness culture. With the emergence of gym culture and physical activity landscapes changing, Jane Fonda had already enabled women to beat a path to the gym, which in the mid to late 1980’s opened their doors to women. Personal training followed and it wasn’t until 1991 that the first Personal Trainers emerged in fitness settings in New Zealand. [Sweet, 2008, 2017]. By the late 1990’s, body-transformation practices became lauded in fitness culture and women in my own study, enjoyed the new emphasis on exercise classes and personal training. With busy, complex lives, many believed that having a Personal Trainer was a necessary component of the requirement to not only stay on track, but also to feel supported and endorsed in the transformation they were seeking.

Women have complex lives, even more so when they arrive in mid-life. Ms Joyce is 49. I spoke about this with my fellow Row 3 passenger. As a high-profile female CEO in Australia, she bemoaned the fact that just the previous day she had to be in a senate hearing until 11pm at night. Gone was the start to the holidays with her children and gone was any chance of getting to the gym. The only solace she found was the supportive phone call she received from a board director thanking her for the work and the time she was putting in to be in Canberra when she should have been on holiday with her kids.

Because of our complex lives, women need support. In the exercise context, Ms Joyce’s support came in the form of a Personal Trainer. And in time, her Personal Trainer influenced her to attain what she might have thought was ‘impossible’ – standing on stage in a body-building competition. Her Trainer therefore, was a major influence on her new post-Barnaby identity.

Personal Training is a shared venture and by the very nature of the client-trainer relationship, the role of a Trainer ultimately becomes located in a position of power. Social media ‘speak’ might call a good PT an ‘influencer’ in fact and it didn’t go un-noticed by the two of us in Row 3 on the flight to Sydney, that on the very next page was an article about Kendall Jenner, [she of Kardashian fame], and her little trip down-under to open the new Tiffany store. She was paid a cool half a mill for her efforts. But I digress – let’s get back to less well paid ‘influencers’ – Personal Trainers. 😊 I know a bit about personal training. In 1991, I established the Personal Training industry in New Zealand for the Les Mills group – at a time when no personal training industry existed. Now there are thousands of PT’s throughout New Zealand and Australia and for that matter around the world. I’ve moved on from gym culture these days, but my own expertise, motivation and support can be found online in the MyMT programmes. 

Personal Trainers are powerful ‘influencers’. Good Personal Trainers have the capacity to create systems of thought that can exert considerable influence over people’s lives. Foucault (1988) refers to this as ‘technologies of the self’. As he states,

‘individuals effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct and ways of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection of immortality.’

In the gym, Ms Joyce’s Personal Trainer shared the power of disciplined training and eating to not only change the physical body, but to change the mind and challenge the dominant identity that Ms Joyce had internalised for the past 24 years – wife of politician, Barnaby Joyce. But as Ms Joyce self-declared in the article, she isn’t this person any more. The routines and constant support mechanisms, established by her Personal Trainer chipped and chiselled away week on week, enabling and empowering her that yes, she could do this body-building competition. It was a masterclass in self-efficacy building (self-confidence towards task-mastery) guided, supported and motivated by her Personal Trainer.

Low self-efficacy for exercise is a known characteristic for women who give up on exercise. It’s the same for weight loss or any health changes.

When women feel that they can’t succeed, they simply drop-out. It all becomes too hard and with physical activity and health data in New Zealand and Australia showing that mid-life women are the highest demographic to drop out of exercise participation (along with teenage females), there is something to be said about the role of a Personal Trainer. This person is only partly there to provide technical insight. For women, I suggest that one of the main roles of a PT is also to provide emotional and motivational support.

Increasing efforts have been made politically and economically to position and promote physical activity in the paradigm of exercise prescription – you know, write down ‘walk 3 times a week’ and people will adhere to it. But they don’t. And for women especially, for the past 3 decades, physical activity participation data shows that lack of time, lack of motivation and lack of energy are the three main influences on not being active enough for health benefits. But mid-life women need more than this written prescription and my own women’s healthy ageing studies reflected this too. Women who trained with a Personal Trainer found that their exercise had greater meaning because of the relationship each had with the person who gave them the most support, encouragement and accountability with their exercise – their Personal Trainer. It’s the same with many women on the MyMT programmes – they need knowledge, support and motivation too.

Midlife for all women is a time of transition and change, not only due to menopause but also with other influences, such as children leaving home (or staying!), ageing parents to care for, financial concerns and often, changes to personal and working circumstances to navigate as well.

Staying engaged with exercise is important and many women who have been active all their lives, find that this time of life is particularly challenging for maintaining their active status and therefore, their identity as physically-active women. This is a shame, because social science research is replete with studies reporting that when mid-life and older women participate in exercise or any other physical activity that makes them feel good about themselves and when they get the right emotional and motivational support, then they derive meaning from this and therefore, continue.

As both of us working girls’ in Row 3 on the flight between Canberra and Sydney opined on the account by the young journalist about Natalie Joyce’s ‘revenge body’, I reflected on my own women’s healthy ageing study about women and the meanings they derived from having Personal Trainers in mid-life and offered the comment that the journalist had got the story wrong. The true hero wasn’t Natalie Joyce and the rediscovery of her identity through a ‘revenge body’ which she then took to the stage.

The true hero was her Personal Trainer and the support, motivation and knowledge she provided for helping Ms Joyce find her new mid-life identity.

Seat 3A agreed.

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