the HAES® files: Welcome Me—Don’t Shame Me! Communicating With Fitness Clubs and Exercise Professionals

by Health At Every Size® Blog

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: www.sizediversityandhealth.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 HerskowitzAmy 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.

19 Responses to “the HAES® files: Welcome Me—Don’t Shame Me! Communicating With Fitness Clubs and Exercise Professionals”

  1. Truly excellent! Please let us know if they responded!

  2. Will do, Wendy! I wrote to the CEO and founder of my gym franchise and copied his Chief Operating Officer and Vice President. I’m hoping for a personal response and not some canned rhetoric written by an “associate.” 🙂

  3. Excellent letter! This is exactly why I have decided to get certified as a personal trainer. I’m fat and fit (will be doing my 9th half marathon in three weeks!), and I’ve had so many negative experiences at gyms, it makes me never want to set foot in one again. I want to have my own practice (outside of a traditional gym) where all bodies are respected, and where we move because it makes us feel good. Thank you for sharing!

    • How exciting, BFD! I had a really poor experience with a personal trainer at the particular gym to which I currently belong when I first joined. I didn’t even ask for her advice – she was merely trying to drum up more business for herself since I think they get paid a commission for acquiring more personal training clients. Her approach to me was to assume that because I was bigger than her, then I mustn’t be as fit or as able as her. She made plenty of assumptions about me based solely on my appearance, and I let her know that she was damaging my experience of that gym with her inferences.

      I think it’s amazing that anyone does half-marathons, let alone NINE of them in a three week span!

      I think you could have a very lucrative fitness business by appealing to those who want to be respected and welcomed, not shamed, labeled and expected to conform. Thanks for your comments!

      • Oops, I didn’t mean to imply I’d done 9 half marathons in three weeks… I meant that three weeks from now, I will be doing my 9th half. Anyway!

        I had a similar experience at a gym. I was recovering from a leg injury earlier this year, and my physical therapist recommended joining a gym. I received two free personal trainer sessions when I joined, so I made an appointment. The trainer was very nice, but she insisted that she take down my BMI and my weight. I told her I wasn’t interested in that, that I was there to heal from my leg injury. She said she needed my BMI and weight as a “baseline” so we would know when I met my goal, which she clearly thought should be weight loss. I said, “My goal is to stand at the start line of the half marathon on September 23rd.”

        I never went back to that gym. She was not seeing my accomplishments; she was only seeing my size. I have completed 8 half marathons at this weight (which, according to stats, is ‘moderately obese’). The only thing possibly preventing me from finishing my 9th half was my leg injury, not my body size.

        (As a note, I am a half marathon walker. Anyone who is intimidated by the distance or the idea of running, take heart! Walking is so much easier on the body. I am a half marathon coach every summer for a great group of walkers.)

        I think there is such a need for personal trainers who understand and embrace HAES. I hope to one day count myself among them!

      • Ahh, I misunderstood. It’s just as tremendous – healthier too – to have some recovery time in between such long distance runs!

        Your experience with the personal trainer is almost identical to mine. Mine insisted on weighing me (similarly, to get a “baseline”) and then seemed utterly astonished that I could perform push-ups with great technique, despite my telling her that I’ve been a competitive swimmer since childhood and swimming maintains my upper body strength. She talked to me as though I knew nothing about exercise or nutrition (because how could someone so clearly “over”weight know anything about health and nutrition and activity?!). She made a remark to me that, “Swimming is VERY good for you!” as though I needed the motivation to keep up with an activity that I enjoyed. I told her in a flat voice, “I know.”

        After weeks of being aggravated and feeling defensive whenever I’d see her, I told her that we have fundamentally incompatible belief systems about health and fitness and that I wanted her to shred the file she had on me with my weight so that I could continue enjoying my time at the gym without her. I told her about HAES(R) and she looked at me like I had three heads. If she had even bothered to find out anything about me, she might have learned that I have a graduate degree in exercise science and I compete in triathlons and 10k races. Pretty normal for this overweight chick. 🙂

      • We definitely had simliar experiences. I started the conversation by telling her I’ve been a half marathon coach for five years, work out 5-6 days a week, etc. And yet felt the need to teach me how to take my heart rate. By that point, I was so aggravated, both my heart rate and blood pressure were elevated (I normally have a resting heart rate of around 58) and the look on her face when she saw those numbers said she didn’t believe what I was telling her. I should have done what you did, and written a letter to her, explaining why I wasn’t returning. I was so upset, though, I just never went back.

        One good thing came of it: I decided to get certified to be a personal trainer myself. I want to make moving your body accessible and enjoyable for all body types, with no judgement and shaming.

  4. I hope that you do get a good response from your great letter, Amy–but I am worried that the talents of the officers you wrote to most likely do not include the skills to appreciate the best points you made. Most such people are more skilled at things like obtaining bank financing for their businesses, reading rental agreements for gym space, negotiating deals for renting or buying exercise equipment, dealing with tempermental staff, and so forth. If that is so, then your thoughtful reaching out to them may make you a “gadfly” in their eyes.

    • Bill, I’m with you. I doubt I’ll get a thoughtful response that will address the real issue about conflating health with appearance/weight, but there is a small flicker of hope still inside me based on the company’s focus on balance that I hope will prevail!

  5. You have inspired me. I think I may write a similar letter to an online dating site I use from time to time. Moreso than anywhere else (I am fortunate to live in a city where I can exercise outdoors and don’t need a gym) I see appalling conflations between appearance and health, confusion about body type terms, and a general environment that encourages a caste system mentality.

    One example. There is a multiple choice Q&A on the site that solicits opinions on a variety of topics. The questions and answers are then viewable when you read a person’s profile. A public question on the site asks this:

    Q. If one of your potential matches were overweight, would that be a dealbreaker?

    And the person selects an answer from the following options:

    1. Yes, even if they were slightly overweight.
    2. Yes, but only if they were obese.
    3. No.
    4. No, in fact I prefer overweight people.

    I know I don’t need to parse this for HAES people, but there is clear confusion in that question. And, to make matters worse, there is an option on the Q&A to leave an explanation for the answer you’ve chosen. I’ve seen dozens of replies that immediately conflate their weight preferences with concern about health, and even one that said, “I don’t think I’d have anything in common with someone overweight.”

    Overwhelmingly, the profiles I’ve looked at pick #2 for their answer. It’s easy to see why. Option one is confusing and has the potential to stir up body image issues in so-called normal-sized people. What is slightly overweight? Show biz, Madison Ave, the BMI, and HAES would all have different things to say about that.

    The good news? The second most frequent reply I see is # 3. 🙂

    • Oh, Alex, you must have many more sanity points than I do to take on this issue in the milieu of online dating. 🙂 I’ve always hated how people (men and women alike) would disguise their blatant disgust for fat by making euphemisms on their dating profiles to read something like, “Prefer someone in shape/fit/who takes care of themselves” – all of which, were code for “Prefer someone who fits within my narrow limits of what I consider to be physically acceptable.”

      Would love to hear what you end up doing!

      • Thanks, Amy. After giving it some thought, I decided my best recourse was to use the essay space in my own Q&A on the site. My response to the question now reads:

        “I find it unfortunate how many people use this essay space to claim that their body type preferences are rooted in concern about health and fitness. This question is about weight and body type, not health and fitness. Surely we all know that there are unfit normal-sized people and fit plus-sized ones, right? If not, I’ll point you to an ‘obese’ friend of mine who does the AIDS ride every year, and several skinny friends who can’t walk a mile.”

        Don’t know if it will do any good, but at the least it will deter interactions with fatphobics.

  6. Hello Amy and Everyone. I partnered with NAAFA to put together guidelines for fitness professionals who serve fat clients. Everything your gym, trainer, instructor, manager needs is in here. We are so happy to help with this.

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