Gyms: Made For Body Building or Bashing?

Tulane Public Relations via Flickr
Tulane Public Relations via Flickr

By Gabby Vachon

When I entered my gym’s locker room the day after New Year’s, there was something strange about the usual crowd I usually encountered. Perhaps it was the snarl of disgust adorning their faces? Nevertheless, I paid them little attention, until I turned around and spotted the object of their disarming stares. A curvy woman, in an old tee shirt and sweats, had entered the locker room. It wasn’t until she was within earshot, however, that this tribe of Nike-clad lionesses started to speak:

“Ugh, it’s that time of the year, I guess. All these fat hungry hippos crowding our gym with their ridiculous weight loss New Year’s resolutions.”

“God, I hate fake gym rats.”

“Don’t worry, they’re only here for a few weeks before they give up on themselves.”

The woman in question left soon after, but this idea of “fake gym rat” had already inked itself into my brain. What is this body negative ideology really about, and what can we do to address it?

This thin is in mentality encompasses all sorts of unfounded prejudices against specific body types:

1. Fat People Don’t Exercise

UntitledIt has been proven time and time again that people of all shapes and sizes can be physically fit and active. Initiatives such as Health At Every Size rightfully argue that good health can best be realized independent from considerations of size” Take, for example, three-time Olympic gold medalist Leisel Jones. She was heavily criticized for her body at the 2008 Olympics, but with all those swimming medals around her neck, I’d like to see anyone step up to her and call her a “fake gym rat.”

And what about the old workout wear the woman in the locker room was sporting? It’s not surprising, considering athletic clothing brands such as Lululemon do not cater to sizes upwards of 14. After all, why would they, if they believe the myth that only thin people exercise and therefore need exercise clothing? A falsehood so mainstream it has slithered its way into multi-million dollar companies? We’re in trouble.

2. Fat People Are Quitters

While it is true that only 8% of people achieve their New Year’s resolutions, this failure isn’t exclusive to those whose bodies aren’t sculpted enough for a “real gym rat” certification. There are plenty of people, sporting every body type under the sun, who try to get healthier and stronger come New Year’s. Unfortunately, not many succeed at keeping this change year-round, but why must we target a specific demographic?

For many, being over a certain weight is associated with every nasty, unwanted, negative characteristic in the dictionary. In movies and TV shows, for example, overweight people are often categorized in one of three main boxes: lazy, stupid, or mean. Think of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, or Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” “Identity Thief,” and “The Heat.” And, of course, regardless of the role they are playing, somehow, in every scene, they seem to be eating. As if that’s all they do. Because the range of roles for plus-size people is so narrow, it limits our perception of the real-life overweight demographic. But we mustn’t forget that weight is a purely physical feature, and it has nothing to do with a person’s determination, resolve, or health. The media only shows what they want us to believe, but it’s up to us to question the information we receive.

3. Fat People Don’t Love Themselves

Another falsehood hidden within the “fake gym rat” theory is that fat people don’t lose weight because they don’t love themselves. Some may think: “Well heck, if they’re just going to give up on themselves, this must mean they don’t care about themselves at all.” The problem with this assertion isn’t that it’s completely untrue—there are many overweight people with terribly low self-esteem, just like there are many thin people with the same issues. But here’s the truth, and it has nothing to do with their inability to lose weight: many fat people don’t love themselves because the bullies, the “real gym rats” of the world, don’t think they should. The Yale Rudd Center reports that a significant amount of the overweight population struggles with low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders. The way you care for your body and your mind can’t be judged by your appearance in a locker room, but rude name-calling wherever you go can cause a person’s self esteem to dwindle, regardless of their size. Perhaps you are still asking yourself why many overweight people can’t or don’t lose weight; the reason is simple, and it applies to everybody, regardless of size: diets and crash-calorie restriction (often coupled with exercise) don’t work in the long term.

So, what can we do as a society? Some say very little. Francis Wisniewski, the founder of Downsize Fitness, a gym exclusive to overweight people, believes it’s the false notion that gyms are supposed to be “for all shapes and sizes” that creates a body negative environment. “Gyms are made for fit people to stay fit, not for fat people to get fit,” he says, while arguing for gyms specifically designed for larger members.

Although a gym designed for overweight people might weed out the body discrimination and shaming some endure in regular gyms, restricting people over a certain weight to certain gyms treats them as “second-class citizens,” as if they don’t belong with the rest of society.

Mr. Wisniewski’s idea may not be ideal, but he does have a point concerning the gym mentality. TVs on every exercise machine you can find playing the latest Dr. Oz episode, mirrors covering every wall, before and after weight-loss shots plastering every locker: gyms may advertise health and fitness, but a quick glance inside says otherwise. Counteracting the omnipresent pressure to be thin is difficult to do, but the best way to deal with the situation is to not deal with it all. Ignore all the bodybuilding posters, watch your favorite sitcom when running instead, and encourage your friends and family to do likewise.

If you find these elements triggering, the gym doesn’t have to be your only option. There are many other ways to stay in shape, in the great outdoors or in the comfort of your own living room. Gyms are supposed to make you feel good, so if they’re doing quite the opposite, you have every right to take your business elsewhere. By the way, if any readers out there want to start a real health-oriented gym where you can walk freely without tripping on a scale every five feet, sign me up.

But the best way to fight body-bashing is at the core. Though I regret that I didn’t defend the poor locker room victim, I should have, and in various ways:

“Maybe these “fake gym rats” don’t come back because of your snide comments, not because they are quitters.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business.”

“Why are you criticizing someone who is striving to be healthier? As far as I’m concerned, that’s what a gym is supposed to be for…”

Body shaming is omnipresent, but spreading body positivity, the HAES message, and calling out fat prejudice can make a difference.

Change the world, one “real gym rat” at a time.

Gabby Vachon blogs at The Fudge Perfection Project, a “delicious piece of self-love cake” dedicated to helping teens embrace body positivity and challenge notions of perfectionism. FPP also gives conferences, speeches, meetings, and workshops at elementary and high schools, as well as maintaining a YouTube channel. To find out how you can get involved with her work, check here.

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“Yoga Body”: The Conspiracy

Ditch the Diet in 2013

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