SoulCycle Pseudo-Star Takes On Thindustry With Normal Nutrition Coaching on TikTok
This was a tough entry to write.
Every day of my life, at least once a day, I’ve thought about being smaller.
I truly cannot remember a time- throughout my childhood to now age 36- where this wasn’t part of my subconscious.
I remember the teacher who called me ‘big boned’ in 2nd grade.
I remember when boys in my class would sing ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ with the words changed from rain to my name, a jab indicating that when I was in the room they couldn’t see around my mass.
I remember my older, much cooler relatives teasing me for getting seconds at a family gathering.
I remember being offered Slim Fast and protein shakes as a middle schooler as an after-school snack, Tae-Bo tapes in my room, and 100 calorie pack Oreos.
In high school and college, my weight would fluctuate as an indicator of my mental health, relationship status, and finances.
I’ve kept some of the emails I’ve received as a broadcast journalist, including the viewer who said I should be taken off the air until I lost 75 pounds. That one came from a female nurse, at a time where I weighed less than I do right now.
Most recently, when I was pregnant with my son, I was forced to take the test for gestational diabetes twice, even though I had no indicators other than my BMI that I would be at high-risk. Both tests came back within normal levels.
My BMI also meant increased scrutiny during pregnancy, with weekly non-stress-tests (which are an oxymoron by name, because they’re certainly stress-inducing) from week 30-on, each one passed with flying colors.
Even now, as I write this blog, I am thinking about the cupcakes I had this weekend for my son’s second birthday, and how to get ‘back on track’ this week.
The mental weight of being overweight is heavy, no pun intended.
It’s something even algorithms can sniff out, which means my TikTok FYP is often filled with the latest trends to lose weight; 12/3/30, 30/30/30, high protein, low carb, etc. etc. So it was refreshing when I saw a familiar face a few months ago while scrolling, sharing research about the true impact of weight on health and the weight discrimination so many people face in their daily lives.
I’ve known Joey Coppedge for nearly a decade, after meeting his husband 18 years ago (which is insane to write) during a summer spent working at American Eagle as I interned at a news station in Phoenix (this was back when internships didn’t pay). When we first met, Joey was a staple in the New York City fitness scene, as one of the most-sought coaches at SoulCycle during its peak of popularity.
Before Peloton created fitness celebrities that would become household names, certain SoulCycle coaches were the closest to it; and if I didn’t know him to be one of the kindest, warmest people, I would for sure have been intimidated by him.
He started his journey into the thindustry as a consumer, and quickly worked his way to the front of the class.
“I took a SoulCycle class with a friend and, you know, it's an endorphin high. It's easy to get addicted to,” Coppedge said. “It was only a few classes in where I noticed a weight change, which was easier than I'd ever had experienced in my life. So that, on top of the endorphins, was the reward I needed to continue feeding this addiction, so did it a lot. I don't even know how I afforded it at that time.”
To combat the cost and to monetize his newfound habit, Coppedge became a coach, training with master instructors and taking dozens of classes.
“In that, I sort of constantly maintained this thinner body, and I really liked that,” Coppedge said. “I really also didn’t understand at the time that this was the thing making me thinner, and even though I did not recognize it at the time, I was the thinnest I ever was. I realize now that I was doing it in the least healthy way possible.”
Overworked, overstressed, and undernourished; it was a recipe for burnout, but not before being praised for his body in one of the most competitive industries and one of the most discerning cities in the world. Coppedge was even featured in Men’s Health during his engagement, with the concerning implication that people who aren't fitness instructors need to drop ten pounds before going down the aisle.
“Obviously, it wasn’t great for my health. I think it’s very easy for a lot of people to find themselves in that place, when they find what ‘works’ for them, and then just keep doing it until they’re told otherwise or until their body starts to tell them otherwise,” Coppedge said. “I wanted to get away from that, because I could tell after a few years that this was not a sustainable way to live, especially doing something as extreme as I was, teaching two or three or four classes a day and riding every single one is really hard on your body.”
You can’t outwork a bad diet, and you can’t workout on a bad one, either.
“That’s how I really became interested in figuring out this nutrition thing,” Coppedge said. “I needed to figure out how to nourish myself in a way that I felt good, and to fuel all these things I want to do.”
Most trainers or fitness instructors I know have some education in nutrition, as well, but for Joey, this was new territory. And unlike most trainers or fitness instructors I know, he’s chosen to use his platform for a conversation about body neutrality and busting myths about the impact weight has on your health.
“I started off really being interested in nutrition because I have always really struggled with food and body image and how they're connected, and disordered eating behaviors sort of defined how I approached food at all times,” Coppedge said, attributing the lifelong struggle to being a product of the 90s. “To constantly be on a diet, that kind of feels normal… So that's kind of why I got into nutrition and wanted to make it my sole thing.”
“I felt like the more I understood it, and the more I could control it, the more I felt in control of my own relationship with food, and the more empowered I felt over it, as opposed to feeling like it was control controlling me.”
Joey started studying while he was still training fitness clients; some of whom happened to be trying to get pregnant or doing IVF. He found that he didn’t have the ability to talk to them about the foods they should be eating or the language to describe the risks, if any existed, of certain diets.
“What was the difference in the foods they needed?” Coppedge said. “There’s no fertility nutrition degree or anything like that, so it was kind of a self-learning with a cell phone journey, and I just did it because I wanted to be more resourceful for my current clients.”
He also lost a good chunk of his client base through a coast-to-coast move, relocating with his husband to California where they intend to start a family of their own.
“I sort of lost the social media following I knew in New York… I had to start over a little bit,” Coppedge said. “I knew I needed to narrow down my niche to something specific and not just move to California and say, ‘Hi, I’m a nutritionist… everyone is.”
After years of thinking about food and exercise as an avenue to a certain body type, Coppedge started to think about nutrition as it relates to fertility; sperm quality, egg quality, and pregnancy. He rebranded to Fertility Nutrition Coach, and eventually, Normal Nutrition Coach.
“I sort of took the direction of aiming my marketing focus at fertility clinics with the assumption that, if they have fertility patients who are struggling to get pregnant and I can help them change their eating to improve their egg quality or sperm quality or the likelihood of success in their treatment, then I would be a good resource for the fertility clinic, and patients,” Coppedge said. “And what I learned through that experience is that, like a lot of health care, a fertility clinic is really well established and doesn't necessarily need the help of nutritionists to make their patients healthier.”
There’s also the inconvenient truth that the fertility business is, in fact, a business.
“Not to sound cynical, but in a way there's no incentive for a fertility clinic to want their patients to come less,” Coppedge said. “I don't believe that any doctor actually is thinking that consciously, but I do think that fertility clinics don't necessarily want to put any more funding into bringing a nutritionist on board, or potentially losing out on any money, or more specifically, hurting the numbers that they turn into the CDC that the general public can see as far as how successful that clinic looks.”
I probably don’t need to belabor the point (killing it with the puns today)- women often face weight discrimination around fertility and during pregnancy. I had so much anxiety during my pregnancy about gaining more than what the internet says you should, or any weight at all, and even though I was working out consistently before getting pregnant, some doctors even told me that it was a risk for me to continue (which goes against most advice and logic). In addition to the double glucose tests and weekly nonstress tests, I felt the scrutiny every time I stepped on the scale, and it led to a lot of additional stress and tears during an already stressful time.
“It’s paradoxical almost; a lot of patients are not told or guided toward how to nurture themselves in a way that creates a friendly environment for a single-celled organism to turn into a human,” Coppedge said. “On the contrary, people are just told to lose weight.”
Coppedge grew frustrated with what he calls a negligent care system that pushes weight loss without addressing all the factors that go into fertility.
“You’re conflating weight with the reason that they're potentially not getting pregnant, when in reality, there could be lots of other social and environmental factors, and nutritional factors, that we're just ignoring by telling someone to eat less,” Coppedge said. “It's also negligent from an ethical standard. You know, you're denying health care to someone based on their weight. You're blatantly discriminating against their weight.”
Many of the patients referred to Joey from fertility clinics were described by doctors as overweight or obese.
“I always made sure that the people I was working with knew that I’m not a nutritionist to help people become supermodels or bodybuilders. That’s not my point. Any nutritionist can do that, and most do. My point is to help people rebuild a relationship with food, and to feel empowered and in control of their bodies, period,” Coppedge said. “I’m not here to help people just lose weight for no reason, but almost everybody who is referred to me comes with a note that says ‘this person is obese or overweight,’ and that pisses me off because it’s not fair to that person, and it’s not what I’m here for.”
The disdain for weight discrimination spurred Joey to act, becoming a resource for those who otherwise had healthcare denied from them… and using his voice to speak on their behalf.
“This trend of people being referred to me just for being in a bigger body only, that’s what sort of got me to want to be a little bit more vocal about the truths behind weight and our health,” Coppedge said. “A lot of the things we are trying to prevent by losing weight, like heart disease and stroke and cardiovascular disease, all of these things that we think we’re trying to avoid by avoiding being fat or getting fat are actually made worse by this constant message to lose weight, lose weight, lose weight.”
“Everybody in America is already really good at eating less. We’re doing it all the time. The fact that obesity epidemic has still been on the rise, while at the same time the prevalence of being on a diet is also on the rise, kind of indicates that dieting isn’t really helping us with this so-called epidemic.”
Joey is sounding off—using the platform he earned through years of SoulCycle stardom to counter the industry that focuses so much on aesthetics- to disrupt the toxic diet culture so many of us have known our whole lives- and calling out many of the talking points used to discriminate against someone based on their weight, which he says, really have little to do with their overall health.
“There’s lots of research that will say people who are in bigger bodies have a higher risk of X, Y, Z, a higher risk of miscarriage, any sort of negative outcome. And that’s true, that the odds are slightly higher to have negative outcomes, but that doesn’t always mean weight loss is the answer,” Coppedge said. “It just means that people who started off in a smaller body usually have better outcomes.”
“The system is a little bit too fragmented and broken up for someone to necessarily care about the future and long-term health of a patient, as opposed to, how can you ‘look’ fixed right now?”
Joey has taken that message to the masses on TikTok, growing to nearly 16-thousand followers and nearly a half-million likes on his videos about intuitive eating and nutrition, but there are plenty of haters in the comments.
They seem to show up whenever a person in a bigger body is simply existing or being defended.
“They do. But fortunately, I think maybe this is just a product of the TikTok algorithm,” Coppedge said of the bad comments. “99% of the comments are people who are saying THANK YOU for saying this, I’ve been trying to say this my whole life, and no one listens.”
It wasn’t a straight line from fitness instructor to body positive influencer. Joey had to heal his own body image issues and a lifetime of food scrutiny.
“I didn't grow up like in a household where people were pointing a finger at me and calling me names, it wasn’t an explicitly shameful experience growing up,” Coppedge said. “However, I guess what I mean by being a product of the 90s, is that it was everywhere. It didn’t matter if it was in your household or not. Magazines and TV and there wasn’t even social media, but thank goodness there wasn’t… everything was out to tell you that this thin body is the body you should have.”
Joey, who grew up in North Carolina, felt even more pressure when he moved to the big city as a young man.
“I think growing up in the South is one thing, [different body types are] somewhat more accepted. But then as I grew older, and I moved to New York, as a gay man, that added a whole new layer of body shame and body image standards to live up to,” Coppedge said. “That’s when I really became much more obsessive; when I was younger, I was just full of shame. When I was in my early twenties, gay in New York, I was full of comparison. And, it became much more desperate, to have this certain look in order to just fit in and have an easier life.”
“Looking back on that now, I hate that it had to be that way for me, and I hate that it is that way for people still.”
That remorse comes from clarity after taking a step back, and a step away, from the fierce fitness industry, and a strong sense of self awareness. Even SoulCycle knew its stereotype of being a competitive, aspirational setting, poking fun at itself as part of Amy Schumer’s movie ‘I Feel Pretty’ in 2018; Mashable saying better than I could about the movie, “I Feel Pretty does an A+ job of positioning SoulCycle as the workout of choice for stone-cold hotties. Everyone seen in those classes looks effortlessly cool and stylish – these women don't sweat, they glow…”
I’ve never done a SoulCycle ride. I’m an avid OrangeTheory girl, and there’s nowhere to hide in those classes; but in other cycling classes, I’ve been the one in the back trying to avoid eye contact with the instructor and anyone else who might look my way.
I’m the client Joey would seek out personally during his time at the front of the ride.
“I think that's what makes me feel empowered, is that I can be a resource for those people, the third-row riders who are already scared of being there because they already know what people think,” Coppedge said. “The people who don't go and play in public parks because they know they're going to get the opposite of a cat call, right?”
“That’s why we're doing this in the first place. That's why we're focusing on our health. It's why we are going out of our way and paying money. It's because we want to feel empowered and healthy in our bodies, and we don't really need more obstacles in the way of that. And it makes it just makes me feel purposeful to be a resource for those people who might need that and aren't getting it from anywhere else.”
Holding space for those who don’t feel at home in the gym or welcome with a nutritionist isn’t just noble, but a niche Joey wishes more in his profession would seek.
“It didn't make sense for people to have to abuse and malnourish themselves on purpose to be accepted and live a life that they are in control of and feel empowered in… I thought that was just messed up, not only for me, but all these people who are coming in and paying $35 to ride a bike to nowhere,” Coppedge said. “I feel like that kind of gave me a voice, that rebellious part of me was like… this is not a sustainable thing.”
Not sustainable, but always in my subconscious. Though I was leading the interview, I felt like Joey was talking directly to me when he had a chance to reflect on a question that he often poses to his clients; Would weighing less truly make you happy?
“It is true that you would be accepted a little bit more in society, but do you think that it would make you happy to have to change your body in order to fit in?” Coppedge asked rhetorically. “The answer is usually no.”
His process with clients is as much about working through their psyche as their physique, focusing on fixing their relationship with food and removing themselves from a cycle of losing and regaining the same ten pounds; weight cycling that comes from chronic dieting that can cause even more long-term problems and inflammation.
“It’s always in those conversations where people realize, oh, I didn't even realize that I was demonizing this food. I just thought it was demonized. It's been demonized my whole life by everybody else, and I just know to be ashamed of it,” Coppedge said. “The breakthrough moment for those people is just hearing that you don't actually need to forbid those foods, and the fact that you are forbidding them is making you want them more… we don't need to live a life of shame because the more we feel ashamed of those food choices, the more we will forbid those things and perpetuate that cycle.”
| Enter the three donuts I ate over the course of the day yesterday during my son’s birthday celebration… and the shame I continue to feel as I look at the box sitting on the counter, waiting to be tossed…|
Intuitive eating goes against all intuition when you’ve been conditioned to think certain foods are bad.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds just to stop forbidding foods. It does take work,” Coppedge said. “I think that's where someone like myself, a nutritionist, can come in and help you sort of stay focused and do that in a way that makes you feel safe and not triggered by other food insecurities that you may have.”
It’s a work in progress, even for him. You can’t flip a switch from being part of the machine that keeps the multi-billion dollar thindustry running (or cycling, in this case) to rebelling against it without first fixing your own food issues.
“There's a level of vigilance that is still always required,” Coppedge said, offering an example; “I never allowed Oreos into our house, ever, because I always felt like I was out of control around foods like that… what’s changed for me is that those types of foods are allowed now, and in fact, on purpose, I keep those types of foods stocked so that I know in my own mind that this food is available, I'm allowed to have these things… I'm also allowed to enjoy them and allowed to eat as much of them as I as I want to.”
Although I’m quick to call him anti-diet, Joey considers himself a diet agnostic, noting that for people with certain disorders or diseases, certain diets may be medically necessary. But he is definitely anti-disordered eating, including all the ‘hacks’ we think are saving us calories that can end up sabotaging us in the end.
“I would say the dieting behavior that I hate to see the most is people trying to substitute so-called healthier foods for indulgences, especially when it’s not done well,” Coppedge said, pointing out the cottage-cheese-can-be-anything trend on social media. “It’s not going to scratch the same itch.”
I’ve mentioned the Four Agreements in my previous blogs, and they hold true in Joey’s case, too; Never Make Assumptions. Would you assume that a nutritionist is the one to order the healthiest meal on a night out, or taking a close look at your plate with judgment?
You’d assume wrong.
“You should just eat what you want, and you should truly feel empowered in eating it,” Coppedge said. “Most likely what’s on my plate is not what you would assume health professionals would have on their plate. I’m going to have dessert, I'm going to have an appetizer. I'm going to have some of the food on your plate, too. I'm going to eat the bread. I'm going to eat all these things, and I'm going to do it in a way that is conscious of how I'm going to feel after I leave this dinner as well.”
“That sort of attitude is what I'm trying to teach people, not necessarily what to feel ashamed or proud of on their plate.”
Whew. How many dinners have I ordered something I didn’t truly want, just because I was the biggest girl at the table? Do you know how transformative someone like Joey would have been in my life at a young age? How much time I’ve spent worried about how my worth is tied to my weight or what I’m eating?
Joey’s journey to food enlightenment came with some time off from the gym entirely, taking a year off after being fed up and frankly, not liking it (who can’t relate?).
“Like I said earlier, as a gay man living in New York in my twenties, my expectation was that I needed to be thin and muscular; it would just make my life easier,” Coppedge said. “And the common feeling that I had throughout the entire time was that I hated it. I hated going to the gym. I do not like going to the gym, it’s my personal opinion about the gym. I hate it.”
I can also attest, as a 30-something, getting the same results in the gym takes twice as much work as it used to… so instead of trying to achieve a certain body type, Joey is focusing on joyful workouts.
“I value movement. I value getting my heart rate up. I really enjoy going on hikes, or taking my dogs somewhere, or riding a bike, things like that,” Coppedge said. “I also have started going back to the gym now, but for much different motivations. I feel like having that time off allowed me to remove the one outcome that I believed was the only outcome, which was just to get a muscular body. I have replanted this other motivation, which is, I want to feel strong. I want to like roll over in my bed easily without hurting my back. You know what I mean?”
30s hit different, folks. And though it can come with a backache or two, it also comes with the freedom of letting go of others (or your own) expectations.
“I don't really think about aesthetics anymore,” Coppedge said. “I do sort of like look around to the 20-somethings and think, you’ll get there one day.”
Is Joey an anomaly? Or have we all just experienced weight-based issues through a lens that makes us question the intent of all trainers/nutritionists/health coaches?
It could be a little of both.
“Most nutritionists know these things. But at the same time, what makes money and what is the most exciting for people is weight loss, period,” Coppedge said. “I think it probably would make my life much easier if I just went on [social media] and told people how to lose weight, because most people, especially when we’re younger, we’re not speaking about our health; we're thinking about looks and being sexy.”
He's part of a shift that he’s witnessing firsthand; body positivity is becoming more accepted, and many people seeking his services simply want to feel happy, healthy, and in control. As he and Lucio prepare to become parents, he hopes to help garner in a new generation with a healthier relationship with food… something I am working to do for my son, as well.
“It will take work, but it will be worthy work to teach them how to have a relationship with food that just makes them feel good, and doesn’t make them feel like they need to deprive themselves of things,” Coppedge said.
No Slim Fast shakes for after school snacks.
Real, regular-size Oreos instead of the 100-calorie packs.
No at-home body shaming that’s worse than the rewritten songs at school.
Maybe we can all heal, together, through Joey’s example.
“I need people to know that you can desire health, you can desire to to be in control and feel empowered in your body with food, without the end result needing to be weight loss,” Coppedge said. “It is possible to be healthy, the healthiest you've ever been, without needing to starve yourself or deprive yourself of the thing that brings joy to everyone's life, which is food.”