I interviewed Jessi Kneeland, coach, speaker, and writer who helps women overcome body image issues and learn how to love their bodies unconditionally. We talked about how she got into this line of work, the need for acceptance and self-love, what holds women back from being their authentic selves, the wedding countdown journey, and more. We also discussed the positive impact of her “How To Love Your Body” workshop in NYC this past March.
FULL INTERVIEW BELOW:
MEL: What inspired you to become a coach, speaker, and writer? Did you always know you wanted to focus on helping women to love their bodies?
JESSI: I was a personal trainer which is totally random. I didn’t even mean to get into that. But I found out I loved it and wanted to be good at it. So I had been doing that for years. When I launched ReModel Fitness, it was with the goal of being mobile and reaching more people. And at that point, I was training both men and women. When I launched ReModel Fitness, I met with someone to discuss branding, and they said the more specific with a niche you can get, the better, and I remember that being very scary, thinking “no, but I want to help everybody!” But as soon as I started to sit down and think about it, it became clear that I wanted to work with women specifically and that I wanted it to be incredibly empowering because that’s what I had loved most about personal training which was seeing women realize they could do way more than they thought they can do and finding the mental shift from what I look like to what I can do and how much that just freed them up in the world. To move differently and try new things. It started this chain of events which was so inspiring and amazing. So that’s what I wanted it to kinda be and offer and I’d say that as I started coaching through that, which was fitness coaching, I just wanted really better conversations. I wanted a format to have the conversations - they were coming up anyway. Like, people were sitting down in my personal training sessions and crying. And that stuff happens - you work out, your emotions move. Plus I was seeing most people 2-5 days a week. So stuff happens and even if they can hold it together most of the time, when someone’s standing there paying all this attention to them, asking what’s going on in a safe space, it would all come pouring out. So I was like I want to do more of that and felt like it was missing from the online coaching piece. So I started doing some research, I went to iPEC life coaching school with absolutely no idea what I was getting into - it was amazing, best thing I’ve ever done. But like, I had no idea what life coaching was. But the two people I knew who had gone are like two of my favorite people. So I was kinda like “alright, well they said it’s where you learn how to have better conversations with people, so I’m gonna do it.” And I didn’t know if I would actually coach clients or not the way life coaching kinda looks, but I do, I’ve blended it in with what I do now. I think it taught me a lot about how to interact with people but also, more importantly, it gave me the format to hold those conversations with some structure so that people knew - instead of like “I don’t want to be off topic, I know we should be talking about my workouts but instead this other thing” they know what they’re getting now and it’s all structured around it. So that’s how it tumbled its way into what I do now. My whole life I enjoyed empowering people (I think that’s what I liked about personal training so much) but I certainly didn’t have the words to articulate that I wanted to help women love their bodies back then. That sort of was a natural immersion over the last decade.
MEL: I love how much you promote self-love, self-care and being your authentic true self. What do you think holds people back (or women) from doing that? Do you think social media has an impact on perfectionism? What is your whole take on that?
JESSI: What holds us back is shame and fear. It’s the same reason I do body image work. What’s body image? It’s shame and fear. Always. It always boils down in one way or another to that. It’s the idea that what we look like is going to - it’s either going to cost us love, approval, acceptance, and belonging or it’s proof that we’re unworthy of love, approval, acceptance and belonging. Shame is the belief that you’re not. Fear is the fear that you’re not. And all of that goes against our inherent wiring to need love, approval, acceptance, and belonging. So that’s why everything comes down to shame and fear in terms of what keeps us from being authentic. When you’ve got all these people who are clearly able to hold a safe space for you, like let’s say everybody naturally goes one step toward authenticity for themselves, even if you are still faking 98% of it but you normally fake 99% of it, that’s still an experience for you. Where you go “phew, wow, look at this! I’m a tiny bit less hiding right now.” Of course if it’s bigger like a 20% difference, those are the kind of things that change people’s lives. Because a lot of the times they never realize there could be a safe space to be themselves. And all you need is that positive reinforcement to start digging and going “you know what, I think the people in my life might be terrible people for me if I’ve never felt this before. I need to go find some new people.” It starts you down the path of digging, honestly.
MEL: That was going to be part of my next question - if you think vulnerability is a strength - and that’s exactly what it is. Finding that space and the right environment where you can just feel that 1% more open. Do you think women can go too far when it comes to caring about physical appearance? Where do you draw the line when it becomes unhealthy territory? Is it when you disassociate or look for external approval? Can physical appearance be okay? Is it okay to care what you look like? Where do you draw the unhealthy line?
JESSI: That’s a great question. Where do I draw the line? Well, so where my brain is going is that, I think that’s part of my challenge in what I do. I want to help people redefine an appropriate place for that line to be. But it’s up to each person. I just think we all kind of accept like that we’re here, which is right next door to an eating disorder. You know what I mean? Like “oh I’m healthy, I’m fine, but I’m on the other side of like a really short thing and the spectrum is this big and we’re right here”. So I think that for me to define it wouldn’t really do any good, but I want to encourage people to define it - I want them to move that line back. I want them to start embracing the fact that they have options even. There’s nothing wrong with caring what people think of your appearance, really. Like, not in a vacuum, you know. But we don’t live in a vacuum, we live in a society that’s got all this baggage and all these messages. But I think that finding like when you do the deep digging to heal all that stuff, shame and fear, then a lot of times you can still care what people think, it just doesn’t have the same weight anymore. It’s almost like you deflate it - it’s still there, like I can still look in the mirror and say “I don’t like how I look in this top” but I don’t look in the mirror and go “I’m disgusting, nobody will like me, I’m in danger of people rejecting me from their tribe.” Not that that’s necessarily the exact dialogue. But I can still go “hmm, I don’t like how that looks” like if I try on lingerie and I’m like “I don’t want my boyfriend to see me in that, that’s terrible, that doesn’t fit very well at all.” I want him to see something sexy, you know? But that doesn’t have any weight whereas it used to and for a lot of us, it still does have such weight and power to like ruin your day, ruin your mood because it’s so linked to your worth, to your value.
MEL: Very good, I love that answer. Especially in today’s day and age, a lot of busy, ambitious women are struggling to find the time to focus on self-care and fitness and nutrition. How do you suggest they get around that and make time for themselves?
JESSI: As most of what I do, I’d say I start redefining it. I start by hopefully handing people a vocabulary around which to talk about it differently. Because right now, we have a tendency of like the normal script is that like a “good mom” does all these things for everybody else and then she takes a little time for herself to have a square of dark chocolate and a bubble bath, you know? So great if that’s a good balance for you, if that works for you, but it’s highly unrealistic for most people and I tend to think the more you give the more you need to recharge. So let’s say you’re a social worker, you might need more time to recharge personally than if you’re ya know, an accountant, or something. Because if you’re holding space for other people and giving - if you’re a mom you’re probably going to need to hold more space for yourself - then where’s the time? I think that by changing the conversation to say A) it’s totally normal and okay for you to need a fuck ton of time and care and that’s a good place to start. And start shifting the conversation away from ‘you should only be looking to include these little yogurt commercial snippets of self-care’. And then from there, also redefining the word “self-care” in the first place because like, have you seen the women laughing with salads? So eating a salad and laughing might be self-care for one person and an absolute torture session for someone else. So it really has to be authentic, it has to truly align with what you truly need right then, and 24 hours a day you can be doing self-care. It doesn’t have to be alone. Alone time is a part of self-care for most of us. It’s a huge part of self-care for me. But self-care can be self advocacy too. Speaking up for what you want, asking for help, being authentic or truthful in a moment that you’re tempted to hide. That’s all self-care. Because you will feel better and less drained at the end of all those things, if not recharged. There’s something really recharging about knowing that you have your own back. Things like exercise and eating well - those are self-care too - or they’re not, depending on where you’re at in your life, but I’d say redefining it so that if those things fall into your new category of self-care, the one that aligns with being your own self advocate, it shouldn’t be hard to motivate yourself or find the time. Because it would just be a natural progression of how you are, who you are. And the fact that you’re worthy of being your own advocate, having your own back the whole time. That’s a huge component too because when people deep down don’t feel worthy of it, they’re not gonna do it. They’ll find a million reasons not to, and then they’ll think they’re lazy. But they’re not, they just feel unworthy. So that’s another whole conversation.
MEL: I like that whole idea of self advocacy and just speaking up for yourself being a form of self-care. It’s a huge thing.
JESSI: It’s the biggest one for so many people. I can’t tell you, one of my favorite kinds of conversations to have with a client is when she comes in - we’ve been doing work for a few weeks or whatever - and she comes in, and she’s like “I just said this to this person, and I couldn’t believe it. I just wanted to say it and I said it! And it’s fine, everything's fine!” and I’m like, “I know! You just said it, and it’s all fine.” But we live for years or decades thinking it’s not okay. And that we have to tread everything and make sure people aren’t getting their feelings hurt or whatever. And so it’s so liberating to realize that sometimes if you just say the thing you want to say, life goes on, and it’s all good.
MEL: Right, like everyone’s alive.
JESSI: Yes, it’s a huge form of self-care.
MEL: So on this idea of perfectionism, I’m working with brides-to-be. They put an incredible amount of pressure on themselves to be perfect for this one event. I would love to know your thoughts on that.
JESSI: Dammit, I don’t know, man. I trained a lot of brides too. At the time, I was just focused on getting them what they wanted. You know, helping them with their habit changes and stuff so that they get there. It was also really important to me that we talked about care afterwards because some of their packages would be ending and they wouldn’t keep going. And for others, even if we kept going, it was like they’re not going to be doing their sprints. They’re going to keep seeing me, but the “hustle time” is over. And I would tell them, “just so you know, I think you can look how you want to look, but it will cost you on the way up. It’s gonna be hard. And then when it’s over, you’ll probably rebound and it might take you a little time to get your metabolism back, depending on how hard they wanted to hustle. Same thing with models who I trained. I had a model who had to lose like two inches off her hips. She was like size zero, you know? And it was just for this one opportunity. It was like the opportunity of her career. If she made it, it would change everything. If she didn’t, she was pretty much sure she was going to go back to school for journalism. So I was like, “okay man, let’s do it.” But to that point - I think being really honest and realistic about what to expect is huge instead of a lot of people who are like “yea we’re going to get you there, and you’re going to stay there” and then they deal with the shame afterwards like “why couldn’t I maintain it?”
MEL: Exactly like what you were saying before.
JESSI: Yea, so that’s part of it. Like upfront, day one, before you hand me any money, I’m going to tell you how this is going to end. “If you follow everything I do, you’re going to get the results you want, and then you will rebound. Are you okay with that?” And another thing is challenging them, if possible, to define why it matters so much that they look perfect in photos. It’s not just like normal life. If you’re like “well why does this matter that you look like that in normal life?” people start going “well I guess I want to get a good boyfriend” or “I think I’ll feel more free and light” but no, no, no, this is about photos. It’s always, you know? It’s a really specific thing.
JESSI: And if you could, or if people were open to it, I would say probably the best thing you could do is invite them into a conversation about which is more important and why. As far as like if you were to give up time, like let’s say you’re at a vineyard for your bachelorette party, and then your friend is having her birthday, and then it’s this thing, and it’s the wedding, “are you gonna diet through all that? Are you gonna like, get up early and go running or are you gonna just be hungover and enjoy your friend’s birthday and your bachelorette party and stuff?” So just getting them really clear that they have options and they don’t have to fall prey to this thing. And having them state for themselves, being really honest with themselves even, if not with you, which things matter and which don’t. Because a lot of times, I have people come in, and they’re like “I don’t know why but I couldn’t stick to my diet because I was at this party, and I just couldn’t”. And I’m like “you couldn’t because you didn’t want to. It was probably a really fun party. That’s okay.” Yea, now all of this having been said, if I got engaged, I might want to look great on my wedding day too. I don’t know. You’re swimming upstream. It’s a really hard message to resist. So I totally get it, like I tan for things like a photoshoot or whatever. I want to look my best on the days I want to look my best too. I get it, and it’s challenging, but I do think there’s a lot of probing to be done if people are open to it.
MEL: Totally. And it’s like what you said before, it all just comes back to balance. It’s a give and take, what are you okay with, what’s enough?
JESSI: “What are you willing to trade?” That’s a great question to ask people. “What are you willing to give up to get what you want? You want to look great on your wedding day? Perfect. What are you willing to give up?” And it’s not just willing to give up dessert either, sometimes it’s willing to give up a bonding experience with people or staying up late and having, or whatever.
MEL: Yea. okay, well this was awesome, thank you so so much.
JESSI: Awesome. Have a good day.
MEL: You too. Take care.
San Francisco June 18th, https://jessikneeland.com/events/love-body-workshop-sanfran/
NYC June 24th & 25th: https://jessikneeland.com/events/love-body-weekend-workshop/
Favorite self-care products: “Khiel’s lip balm #1, I’m obsessed. Everything I use is so simple, it’s hard for me to recommend things, but I do love that one. Also, my big pink nalgene bottle is, I swear, the only reason I ever get hydrated enough. Big love for that one too, because proper hydration is one of my best beauty tips. :-)”