by Amy Herskowitz, MSc
Have you ever had an experience with a health club, fitness class or personal trainer that left you feeling like your body was unacceptable or that the primary goal of your workout was to change your weight or appearance? Unfortunately, this kind of encounter occurs often and to individuals across a broad weight spectrum in our current body-judging, thin-obsessed culture. While health and fitness come in all sizes, many leaders in the fitness industry still choose to focus on marketing an image of a “fit body” that is incredibly limited.
Perhaps these interactions leave you, like me, feeling less than motivated to exercise in that gym, take that class, or work with that trainer, when what you really want is to find a way to move your body, have some fun, find some balance, improve your strength and flexibility, decrease your stress and increase your stamina.
Recently I chose to communicate my frustrations to the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the fitness club chain that I belong to, which operates more than 275 gyms across Canada and boasts of a membership that includes 1 out of every 43 Canadians. My goal was to share my disappointment and confusion regarding their contradictory messaging throughout the gyms that I’ve visited. While your specific situation is likely to be different from mine, I am hoping that a number of the issues I raise and the HAES® educational points I share may be useful to those of you who would like to speak up about your own frustrations with the fitness industry.
Dear Fitness Club Owner,
I have been a member of your club for almost a year. I enjoy the convenience of where my local gym facilities are situated , the variety you offer in group exercise programming, and the fact that even when I’m on vacation, I can maintain my workouts by finding a local club where I am visiting (which I did this past July). I am, however, confused by your corporate messaging about weight loss and health, which I find to be contradictory at best and hypocritical at worst.
When I first joined the gym located at my office building, in October 2011, I was greeted with posters of a disembodied female belly wearing an ill-fitting dress shirt and a byline that read something to the effect of: “Stop blaming the dryer.” The implicit messages in that ad were that fat is bad, it can, and should be “worked off,” and individuals (particularly women, since it was a woman in the ad) have no one to blame for their fat but themselves. Similarly, some of the personal trainers and exercise instructors have focused primarily on appearance such as weight, shape and muscular definition, or “working off love handles,” rather than a person’s abilities, their enjoyment of the movement and/or the intrinsic health benefits that everybody can derive from engaging in regular physical activity.
In short, some of the staff obviously conflate weight with health and believe that weight loss and thinness are always good things, and reinforce these beliefs to members. This is perpetuated by the corporate messaging you exhibit through your website, selected posters, signage, and even in the content of club newsletters.
By contrast, I attended one of your women’s-only facilities in July for a week and was greeted with a sign that read: No judgement. EveryBODY Welcome Here. In that gym, there were no signs that discriminated against fat bodies, no posters that idealized only lean, muscular bodies, or made shaming, stereotypical, stigmatizing statements about weight, fat, shape or ability. There was a consistent message throughout: You are welcome here. I photographed that sign and featured it on my personal Facebook page because I was so pleased with the sentiment.
When I shower and change at the club in my office building after a workout, I listen to the radio that plays your programming on a loop. I have heard the repeated message that “This gym franchise is not about what you see in the mirror but about photographs on the mantle … it’s about balance [sic].” The ad even states that: “our approach includes pizza, ice cream and a cold beer on a hot day.” The message about balance is there but it’s not consistent. Instead, balance is repeatedly trumped by the stereotypical fascination with hard bodies, aesthetics and by our cultural obsession with weight loss and thinness.
I believe in the Health At Every Size® paradigm that respects and accepts the diversity of bodies (weight, size, age and ability) and affirms that everybody can reap health benefits by engaging in joyful movement and by eating according to individual nutritional needs, respecting hunger, satiety, appetite and pleasure. All bodies can improve in stamina, endurance and strength by participating in regular physical activity that is fun and challenging. The Health At Every Size approach to wellness is a weight-neutral one that takes into consideration the scientific literature on dieting, nutrition, weight loss, disordered eating, fitness and health.
On your website, it says, “We take care of what’s most important to you.” People only take care of the things they value. Fat is ubiquitously devalued in our culture and fat people are constantly bombarded by messages telling them how ugly, costly, sick, and weak (among other things) they are because of their weight. No one can determine another person’s health status merely by assessing his or her appearance. If your fitness chain were to focus on the HAES® principles and ensure consistent messaging throughout gym facilities across the country, then I believe your business would dramatically improve, with all bodies feeling welcome to participate, to play, to learn new things and challenge themselves physically, and feel as though they belonged. What an inspiring environment that would be!
If you and/or your leadership team are interested in finding out more about the HAES approach, then I invite you to visit the Association for Size Diversity And Health (ASDAH) website at: asdah.org
I would also be willing to discuss the HAES principles and how they pertain to fitness classes, personal training, and corporate messaging with your staff at my local club or elsewhere.
Yours, wishing for a consistently welcoming space for my body and for others,
Amy S. Herskowitz, MSc
Amy Herskowitz, MSc, is a senior policy and programming consultant for the mental health and addictions sector in the Ontario provincial government who has almost 15 years experience working with the eating disorder support, treatment, research and advocacy communities in Toronto. Amy serves as ASDAH’s Vice President and chairs the blog committee, as well as serving on the internal policy and membership committees.