The following post was written by Jessica Powell, Master of International Public Policy 2015-2016, The Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, Canada
I have been in and out of various gyms for years. I will just start to make progress, then life gets busy and I stop attending for a while. And each time I want to start working out again, I think to myself, ‘I need to build up confidence before I can return to a gym. I have to lose some weight before I feel comfortable being in a gym’.
I have recently realized I am not the only one who feels uncomfortable in this environment. I believe fitness institutions have become places for elite users. The divide between those who are fit and those who are unfit has been increased by a ‘fitness culture’ which marginalizes those who are in average or less-than-average shape, and this deters regular people from beginning their own fitness journey.
Although fitness institutions such as GoodLife Fitness and the YMCA do promote inclusivity, many do not. I have had several negative experiences in gym settings where I have overheard devout gym members ridicule body size even gesturing (meaningfully) at slightly overweight individuals. After witnessing this kind of exclusionary/off-putting behavior, it is quite hard to find the confidence to (ever) leave the comfort of one’s home to attend a fitness club. The exclusivity of the fitness culture, where so many people do not fit within the accepted norms of gym membership, is problematic. Embarrassment and shame over the pre gym body is a frequently cited reason North Americans give to avoid gyms, which only contributes to the pervading elitist gym culture.
My problem is not just with the atmosphere in the gym. Supposed motivational pictures are also extremely conflicting. When personal trainers share their personal fitness journeys, as well as their clients, I do not think to myself, “I can accomplish this too! I will start working out today!” Pictures of beautiful, fit individuals make me feel incredibly insecure and I begin to nitpick areas of my body that do not resemble/reflect the “fit look.”
I feel these kinds of pictures are just opportunities for the already in-shape to show off their accomplishments (so called “selective self-representation”), and make others feel insignificant/undisciplined, thus widening the gap of fit versus unfit. Social media has especially exacerbated this phenomenon, where body boasting is masked as motivation. It would be more effective for both trainers and fitness institutions to use photos of all different types of people, with all different body shapes, to show that anyone can accomplish their fitness or weight goals. Not just the existing elites; not just those with already perfect bodies but encouraging the average citizen to accomplish this too.
“It’s actually pretty simple. Either you do it, or you don’t. No Excuses. Wake up, go to the gym.” These kinds of motivational quotes particularly bother me. Of course I realize that I should be constantly maintaining my physical and mental wellbeing, but at the same time, I am a Master’s student and do not currently have the time in my life to be at the gym every single day, and I cannot punish myself for that. However, fitness culture tends to shame people for not going on that run today, or perhaps eating a grilled cheese sandwich. I do not think we should equate personal wellbeing with super fitness. We should not be made to feel guilty for every single “unhealthy” decision we make. To me, depriving oneself of anything with a couple of extra calories is not promoting a healthy wellbeing and in fact, often leads to crash dieting and eating disorders.
My intention here is not to downplay the importance of a healthy lifestyle. I continue to eat healthily, spin twice a week and do regular at-home workouts. But I genuinely struggle with the notion of a fitness culture that tends to exclude those who do not have perfect bodies. I’m embarrassed by social media accounts which praise the beautiful and the fit, and shame those who do not look like a model or who have a bit of extra body fat.
Until fitness culture is attainable by the average citizen, it is not a culture that I want to be a part of. I want to see every body shape on motivational pictures and I want the average citizen to feel welcome and included at the gym. I want to see a world where every single individual is warmly welcomed on the journey to better physical wellbeing and happiness.