Seriously, there are no words for how much I used to love the parachute in gym class! Although it probably had a lot to do with the fact I got to hide and no one threw balls at me…
“Plus-Size friendly!” vs “No skinny people allowed!” is the difference between a market niche and an exclusionary tactic but either way you say it, according to the NY Daily News (I know, I know), it’s a strategy more and more gyms are embracing. But is separating the cream from the whey a good idea when it comes to fitness?
The Body Exchange in Vancouver, Canada, is one example of the newest wave in specialty gyms. They tout a “strict policy that only allows plus-size women to join” in order to create “a safe haven” for people of size who want to avoid “normal” gyms. CEO Louise Green explains that these types of gyms supply a vital need as “[overweight] people are often too fearful to become active. There wasn’t a model [in traditional gyms] that offered camaraderie.”
Green’s statement should surprise no one. One of the reasons I’ve heard most from readers over the years about why they don’t go to a gym is the concern about being stared at, ogled, made fun of or harassed because of their weight. (Although, I daresay I hear that from people no matter what they weigh…) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I need to lose weight and then I’ll go to the gym!” Which while it can make emotional sense – fat discrimination and shaming is sadly very pervasive in our culture – it makes as much logical sense as telling someone they can’t go to the hospital until they’ve kicked that nasty cancer that makes them look all weird. And let’s be honest, if gyms only allowed people who looked the picture of health, 95% of us wouldn’t be there. I’ll admit that even though I’m a normal size I still get the jitters walking into a new gym sometimes, especially one that’s populated with pretty people. I gave up that race a while ago – I’ll never be the prettiest princess in the room – but it’s still unnerving thinking people are staring at my muffin top or critiquing my thighs. (Although like MizFit pointed out in the comments of my post yesterday, people are probably paying more attention to what they look like than what we look like!)
On one hand I think it’s great to give people options*. If going to a gym like one of the Downsize Fitness chain – developed specifically for those who are overweight or obese – gives people the encouragement, support and camaraderie they need to make exercise a part of their daily lives then how can that be bad? And many of the gyms offer additional services targeted to this group like counseling for food addiction and emotional eating support groups. Plus it’s a lot less intimidating walking into a place where you know everyone else is basically in your same situation – no more having to listen to blond Barbie natter on her cellphone about being on a juice fast for 21 days while maniacally stair-climbing! And in a world where a 14-year-old girl committed suicide after being taunted about her weight, the emotional reasoning is very valid.
But on the other hand, there are problems with this model. The immediate (and least compelling, in my mind) argument against these gyms is that they discriminate against skinny people. If someone made a gym banning fat people there would be an outcry but banning skinny people is okay? (Although I must point out that the level and fervor of fat discrimination far outweighs that of skinny discrimination.) Besides, most of these gyms take the position given by Jason Burns of Downsize Fitness in Chicago when he says “he doesn’t “ban” anyone from his gyms but he doesn’t encourage a skinny crowd either.” But the real issue I have with these gyms is that separating people like this – even if it is self selection – reinforces existing stereotypes and dividing lines. Fat people have their gyms, skinny people have theirs – everyone to their corners! How can we learn from and inspire each other if we never see each other? And who’s to say what constitutes “fat” and “skinny” anyhow? Do you lose 50 pounds and get kicked out? If you risk losing your friends and support group that might actually turn into a reason not to lose weight.
In an ideal world, we’d work on fixing the bias and stigma against overweight people and making existing gyms welcoming to them instead of driving them to seek out their own “safe” gyms. But we don’t live in an ideal world. And there’s obviously a need for these gyms. As Marty Wolff, a competitor on season 3 of The Biggest Loser and owner of a “plus-size” gym in Nebraska, explains, “My whole life, I have always wished there was a place for other big people. So I created one.”
What do you think about “no skinny people allowed” gyms – great idea or bad plan? Are you offended by it? Would you prefer to go to one if it were available near you?
*A lot of people draw the comparison to gender-specific gyms like Curves for women but I don’t think that’s necessarily apt. Gender is constrained by societal, religious and cultural expectations and is not something you can change (well, not easily anyhow) but a person’s weight can be quite variable over their lifetime and they do have quite a bit of control over it.