It’s been a touchy time to inhabit a shapely body at the gym recently. From a Playboy Bunny sharing a fat-shaming LA Fitness locker room snap of a stranger’s naked body to a Gold’s Gym franchise creating anti-pear-shape memes, the message is clear: no fat allowed.
The backlash cracked swift and hard, but both cases reveal symptoms of a fat-shaming mantra still pervasive in gym culture. In the story of your life, don’t be the star, be the body double. Until you reach Adonis-level abs, you can’t sit with us.
Worse, shows like Biggest Loser and Extreme Weightloss fan the flames of fast fat-burning ideals. Not surprisingly, in a study by the National Institutes of Health, 13 of the 14 former Biggest Loser contestants they surveyed had gained some or all of the weight back. Imagine if they could have just gone hiking or trained for a 5k because it felt good — not because they needed to lose 12 pounds before weigh-in next week. Is that too boring for Prime Time?
And all of this takes for granted that not everyone exercises for weight loss. It’s as if the sweet endorphin rush couldn’t possibly be enough. Does sweat even count if it doesn’t come with pain?
Not everyone in the athletic world stands by this all-muscle-and-pemanent-diet approach. Both LA Fitness and Gold’s Gym corporate offices issued sincere condemnations of the actions mentioned above. Planet Fitness proclaims their spaces a “judgement free” zone and sounds the “No Lunk Alarm.”
Recent studies of shame and motivation reveal that shame functions better as a de-motivator. In fact, experts warn that fat-shaming can lead to a deeper set of psychological and physiological problems, from depression to higher rates of infections and illness.
Frustrated by the harmful shame narrative many fitness gurus and #fitspo fanatics still tout, a growing number of professionals like Bay Area personal trainer Haley Shevener have begun pushing back against body-shaming on social media.
“As someone who benefits from thin/fit privilege, I feel a personal and professional obligation to join activists of all sizes speaking out against the sizeist, racist, ableist, misogynistic and heteronormative views promoted by the majority of the fitness and diet industry,” Shevener says.
Using exercise as a tool in her own recovery from bulimia, Shevener’s training approach focuses on an anti-diet, weight-neutral program where weight loss, gain or maintenance are merely potential outcomes — not goals.
“While I recognize many personal trainers are promoting the harmful myths of diet and mainstream fitness culture, I do know that there are several of us who are rejecting the dominant narrative,” she says. “We are hoping to promote the idea that fitness is an opportunity to explore and celebrate our inherent power versus an obligation to always chase something ‘better.'”
What’s better than fat-shaming? Enjoying exercise for its own sake!
Gym-timidation and fat-shaming have prevailed for so long that exercising while fat has become a radical act. And by some accounts, it may actually encourage other plus-size folks to move, too. When self-described “yoga enthusiast and fat femme” Jessamyn Stanley contorts into a backbend or stretches into a split on Instagram, fans flock to the comments section to thank the yogi for her inspiration.
In an Instagram picture promoting a Lucy Activewear giveaway, Stanley made a point to distinguish an active life from the diet industry. Perhaps now, more than ever, the time has come for body-positive warriors to proudly snap those gym selfies.
“It means EVERYTHING that curvy women are finally being showcased in our athletic glory in non-weight loss contexts,” she wrote. “Curvy women gettin’ their life at the gym/on the mat/out in the wild for no reason other than the straight up adrenaline rush — that’s body positivity, y’all.”
For those who would like to make exercise part of a shame-free self-love routine, Shevener recommends checking out Health At Every Size (HAES) or The Association for Size Diversity and Health, and use social media to research local gyms before you walk through the door.
“Just checking out a gym’s online presence may give you a good indication [where diet culture vs. body positivity is concerned],” she advises. Certainly, it could have been a deciding factor for would-be Gold’s Gym members. “Social media posts with a wide variety of bodies and abilities are a great sign.”
As scientific evidence continues to show that shame tactics promote anything but health, Shevener feels confident we’ll see more exercise professionals adopt a more body-positive approach. Should you encounter any haters of pears, apples or any other fruits in the body-shape basket, Shevener advises speaking up if you feel comfortable.
“You’re worthy of the space you take up in and out of the gym. Always.”