I spent all yesterday looking at gym adverts so I could create a piss-take video about summer fitness advertising. The amount of body shaming that they thought was acceptable was both hilarious and terrifying. And this reminded me of the one of my main motivations for starting The Anti-Fitness Project.
Most gyms spend their entire marketing budget convincing us that we are not enough and cannot possibly be happy as we are. We all need fixing. But don’t just take my word (or your own eyes) for this. Clever people have said it too.
Dr Kate Browne wrote in an article for Girls Gone Strong, that “Traditional fitness marketing is based on the premise that we are not OK as we are, and that exercise is a corrective tool reinforced by violent metaphors”.
Violence to sell exercise? Hell yes, there is. How often are we told you can burn calories, incinerate fat, and crush our workouts? And that we need to challenge, fix and repair our bodies with exercise.
I thought Kate’s article was fucking cool, so I watched her TED Talk. She brought to my consciousness that all fitness inspiration pictures are playing into a clever bit of psychology. When we see gym marketing, we are being shown images of people that we either want to look like (the skinny, muscled models), or the fat guys that we don’t want to be like (the sad person on the scales). Think of these two extremes as a scale of 1-10. Ten on the scale is what we aspire to be, what we are told is the perfect way to look, and bodies we rate as a one are something to avoid at all costs.
As humans, we can’t help putting ourselves subconsciously on that scale when we see these images. We can’t help it. We are designed to compare ourselves to others so that we know where we fit in. However, the scale is kinda fucked to begin with, as for most of us, getting to be a ten is genetically impossible no matter how much we diet or slog our guts out at the gym.
So, we are being set up to fail by, what is an unattainable ideal for most. Not even fitness models look like fitness models most of the time. But yet, we are shamed into thinking that unless we look like they do, then we must strive to achieve it. How we are now just isn’t valuable enough.
But the gyms are just trying to get us healthy right? And the best way to do that is to body shame us until we crack and sign up for a membership. Fuck off is it. We wouldn’t dream of telling our kids that unless they are as smart as Stephen Hawkins then they aren’t doing good enough, so why is it cool to tell ourselves to keep exercising until we look like we belong on the cover of Women’s Health (please never buy this magazine by the way, body shaming at its best)?
Plenty of studies have been done to show that body shaming is literally the worst way to get people more active. One found that out of 6100 American’s studied, those who experienced discrimination about their weight were 2.5 times more likely to be overweight after 4 years than their non-discriminated against counterparts.
Body shaming actively puts people off exercise. After all, what person who puts themselves on the scale as a three out of ten, would actively put themselves into an environment where the clientele is promoted as being all 10’s?
Even the gyms that think they are doing good work by putting images of larger people into their adverts are fucking it all up. Their posters still insist on telling people how many calories their classes burn, and how their exercise blast fat. Like this is the most important reason to attend this class.
Maybe the fitness industry needs to stop telling people how they could get thinner and start telling people that they could get healthier. Oh yes, there are occasional snippets of copywriting about health and stress reduction. But most of the gym advertising is telling people how they could and definitely should get rid of fat.
And what’s wrong with telling people that exercise is so much more bloody enjoyable if it’s actually fun and sociable? Not a single competitor in “The Biggest Loser” programme look like they have any fun. But it’s all cool as long as they look smiley when the scales go down at weigh in time.
But it’s not just posters of fitness models doing their Spin classes that we get to judge ourselves by. Oh no, the before and after photo lets us compare ourselves to real people too. Gyms and PT’s announce their skills by showing you pictures of their clients with their amazing weight loss. It’s a shame that the pictures have no way of conveying whether this reduction in fat has made a difference to their happiness or solved the reasons why they overate in the first place. Nope it’s all about how dramatic the transformation is. Who cares about anything else.
I even see gyms offering cash prizes and holidays as a prize for weight loss. And if you don’t win the cash it’s probably because you didn’t put in enough effort and so don’t really deserve the prize anyway. After all, losing weight is the most important thing to achieve in life. Everything including our happiness and what to blame our failures on is tied up in the pesky little (or big) number on the scales.
Fuck that noise. Who the hell do they think they are.
Our body shape is just that. The shape of our body. And if it’s vaguely human shaped then we have as good a chance as anyone of being happy and loving life. And my idea of happiness does not come from 45mins on a treadmill three times a week.
The main point of exercise and being more active is (or should be) to improve our health. Not to decrease our body fat. And here’s the thing, why we exercise is more important than we think. Research reckons that our motivation for exercise will drastically affect the amount of it that you do.
The University of Carolina showed that women who view their bodies because of how they look are far less likely to exercise than people who judge themselves based on how healthy they feel. Smith College found that people who exercised to get thinner actually exercised less and had higher incidences of eating disorders and depression, then those who worked out to feel healthier.
So who are the people that work in these gyms, and why aren’t they telling us this stuff? Well, they are the group of people probably the most body conscious of us all. Many are willing to get their body fat so low that is damages their health. Plenty of them have unnatural and destructive food behaviours, counting every macro and calorie to the point of obsession.
And are these Personal Trainers and exercise class instructors helping us love our bodies for the way that they are? Hell no, they’re the people shouting “no pain, no gain”, and helping to show us the best exercises when we ask them to help us get rid of our flabby bits.
I’ve seen many of them completely dismayed when a “fat” client says they don’t want to lose weight. They just couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t want to look like a fitness model. I’ve seen them judge clients harshly for their body shape and for the poor effort they think they are putting into their workouts. And I regularly read in PT Facebook groups stories from panicked trainers that are worried that they won’t get any clients because they “don’t look like a trainer”. But even more sad, is when all the other PT’s chime in that there’s no way that they can train people until they look fitter.
Thankfully this isn’t all trainers, and some good ones do exist. But there’s no excuse for any fitness professional to be advocating leanness over wellness.
And so, this all brings me to a question that’s been playing in my head for months now… Why is a person only valuable if their body is thin and lean? Even if a person is happy, successful, has a great social network, and is generally a bloody good person, they still get comments like “they do still need to lose a bit of weight though”.
To me a person’s value is always in what they bring to the world. If you are healthy you are bringing more. If you can experience and appreciate all emotions, both happy and sad then you are bringing more. If you can see life as a positive experience to be grateful for then you are bringing more.
And when we are more positive in our lives then our health (and therefore weight control if that’s your jam) becomes a lot easier to manage. In my own life I know that I’m at a healthy weight when I am happy with my life. But I’ve equally been at that point where everything in life just seemed a bit shit. I was chunky and I was sad. But I wasn’t sad because I gained weight. I gained weight because I was sad and stopped giving a shit about how healthy I was being. And so why aren’t gyms and their trainers teaching us this shit? Why aren’t they letting us know that being in a mind space where your health is important again is way more important than a huge calorie deficit and smashing your tits off at the gym in a vain attempt to get lean enough to solve all our problems?
Happiness and confidence in our own awesomeness should not come from comparing our body shape to others’.
We all have a right shape. And not many of our shapes look anything like the people on the gym posters. So when will gyms sort their shit out and stop making us think that we need to look like them? We don’t need to lose weight. We need to get our heads in a positive place and our bodies in a healthier state, and health doesn’t have a specific shape. It looks different on everyone. And that is a beautiful thing.
If this has resonated with you and you want to help change the diet and fitness industry for good then please join me on my journey to get them to wake up. Like and follow my Facebook page, and please send me any gym advertising that you think is perpetuating the body shaming. Allow me to have a word!
And if you want to start your own journey to health and happiness and looking however you damn well please then stay tuned for details of my “Fuck Your Summer Body” course. I’ll teach you how to control your exercise and diet so that you can get healthier and get to be your happiest shape, plus I’ll help you keep it sustainable whilst making your life more positive. Please join me. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.
And remember, you are beautiful, you bunch of amazing weirdos.
(The Anti-Fitness Trainer)