This interesting and depressing story hit my news reader on Friday: a woman in Oklahoma was kicked off of exercise equipment at her gym because management thought she was too heavy for it. The woman, who weighs 385 pounds, says that she joined the gym to lose weight, but instead of being assisted with developing a fitness plan, she was publicly embarrassed, then denied a refund, by gym staff. The gym claims they’d offered her a workout plan that involved a variety of things she “could” do, but she refused it. She got a local TV station involved and got her money back.
Gyms are scary places. The first time you hit the gym, no matter what size you are, it’s intimidating as all hell. The first thing you’ll see is likely to be someone who looks fitter than you are, doing something that looks difficult. It won’t occur to you that it’s not their first day too, that they’ve done whatever they’re doing a hundred times already. The first thing you’ll feel is a hundred pairs of eyes all on you and whatever your uncoordinated, out-of-shape body is going to do next. Intellectually, you probably know that people at the gym are too wrapped up in their own stuff to pay attention to what other people are doing. Emotionally, you are certain they’re all silently judging you from their perches on the elliptical machines underneath the giant “NO JUDGMENTS” logo.
Look, I do two sessions of unsupervised weight training every week and use three different cardio machines, and I’ve been doing it for months, and I still have to shake off the notion that everybody else in the gym is certain the awkward nerdy girl has no clue what she’s doing. I had to hire a personal trainer (and it took me two years to work up the nerve) before I so much as looked at anything more complicated than a treadmill. I just didn’t want someone to see me doing it wrong.
Now imagine you have a body type that the world just doesn’t seem made for. Imagine you face discrimination, stares, and cruel judgments from strangers all day every day. People assume you’re the size you are by choice, and that you’re lazy or you “don’t take care of yourself,” whatever the hell that means. In the interest of good health and self-improvement, you make the very brave step to go way outside of your comfort zone and right into what feels like a concentrated microcosm of every single thing you face from strangers on the street, multiplied times a thousand. Multiply typical gym-intimidation times about a million.
Is it any wonder that this poor woman’s first reaction when she stepped into the gym for the first time was to forget that allegedly detailed workout plan she’d been given and head straight to something that looked inconspicuous and easy to figure out?
I’m not saying she is totally blameless in this situation. There’s a lot of stuff I can’t tell from the few brief news articles – did she consider the gym-prescribed workout plan? Would it have been easy/convenient for her to follow? Did it condescend to her or ignore her stated goals? Were the machines at the gym well-maintained and up-to-date? Was the gym staff polite to her in all their other interactions with her, or did they treat her like a nuisance from the get-go?
But even not knowing any of that, I do think I might know where she was coming from. And I definitely know that the gym’s response could have been better. Even if they actually did do all of the things they claim to have done, there were more sensitive and tactful ways to handle the immediate situation of someone using a piece of equipment in a way that posed a danger to them. If their equipment really was in danger of breaking (which it could well have been, especially if it’s mostly older models), they were absolutely within their rights to handle the situation, but there had to be a way of steering her to something else without publicly shaming her or calling attention to her size.
To gyms: it is a really shitty business model to take people’s money and then make them feel like they don’t belong at your place of business. Do everything you can to make your customers feel welcome and comfortable taking advantage of the amenities, no matter what size they are or what they hope to accomplish, and everybody wins.
And to gym members: no matter your fitness level or your fitness goals, you should not be paying for anything less than a safe, accessible, comfortable environment in which to practice the enjoyable physical activity of your choice. Take advantage of what your gym offers, especially if it was a factor in getting you to sign up in the first place. Ask for help if you need it. And if the staff at your gym makes assumptions about you based on your appearance, doesn’t respect your feelings, or even if they just don’t seem all that interested in retaining you as a member, then don’t give them any more of your money.
Oh, and I know it’s easier said than done, but try to ignore the other people working out at the gym. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they will be ignoring you right back.