I started working as a personal trainer in 2009. I was 23 years old. Thin. And white. I drank the “this is wellness” tea and fully believed that structured exercise and restrictive diets were the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. But over time I began to question the popular high intensity workouts and low carb diets. I wondered if all this effort wasn’t more about image than health. I recognized that the trendiest gyms and studios relied on a carefully curated brand based in exclusivity.
How could this thin-obsessed, hypersexualized, elitist culture align itself with health and wellness?
Gym culture is toxic and alienating to people in marginalized bodies.
Gym culture is rooted in the belief that you must change your body to be worthy.
Gym culture. Is. Racist.
Don’t believe me?
Ask yourself: How do you perceive health?
When you think of a “healthy” body, what image comes to mind? Do you believe you can know a person’s health status just by looking at them? The false narrative that thinness equates to health is based on racial stereotypes that began circulating in popular media in the early nineteenth century. Elite whites, to elevate themselves above immigrants and African slaves, developed a preference for thinness and dietary piousness. Only after the thin ideal had become ingrained in the consciousness of the elite did medical science follow suite.
If you insist that thinness is the picture of health and exclude or dismiss fat bodies, that’s racist.
Ask yourself: What health behaviors do you promote?
Does your club celebrate dieting or “clean eating”? Do fitness instructors use language that encourages members to earn or atone for their food? Do you promote fitness formats solely for their high calorie burn? What an out-of-touch message. Hunger is pervasive in the United States with more than 10% of American households experiencing food insecurity during a typical year. Hunger, poverty, and race are inextricably linked. How dare you encourage your members to engage in low key starvation and disordered exercise when millions of parents are struggling to feed their kids.
If your messaging revolves around deprivation, not access, that’s racist.
Ask yourself: Who is leading your organization?
Is it a white guy? Is it a bro/jock/meat-head white guy overflowing with misogyny? Does he recognize his privilege? Is he open to hearing a message that will challenge his white supremacy? Change comes from the top. If your leadership is talking the talk without walking the walk or using BLM as a promotional tool, you can bet that meaningful change isn’t a priority. Remember: most fitness centers are, at their core, opposed to body liberation. A fundraiser and a diversity board won’t dismantle toxic gym culture.
If your club is continuing to operate using the same old framework of body oppression, that’s racist.
The fitness industry, like so many other industries, needs to take a hard look at their business and marketing practices. They must commit to prioritizing wellness over image. And with that commitment comes an imperative to serve and advance the broader community. Only then can we begin dismantling this toxic culture. Only then can we create meaningful change.