Is Your Gym Guilty of Promoting Body Dissatisfaction?

It seems as if everywhere we look we’re bombarded by reminders – sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle – that our bodies aren’t good enough, that we’re not good enough. These reminders come in many forms: tips for slimming down that are shared among friends, Internet articles advertising the latest strategies to help you cut carbs or eat clean, devices that are marketed to consumers to use to count their steps and to monitor and rigidly control their exercise, and magazine headlines and television shows that perpetuate the notion that being heavy is the worst possible outcome for our lives. Do you see anything missing from this list of culprits? Gyms. Gyms are among the worst offenders in terms of triggering body dissatisfaction. Here are three of their sly, yet simple tactics to keep us disliking our bodies and to keep us coming back for more.

1. Displaying images of perfectly toned, slim, scantily clad women and strong, sinewy men. You’ve seen them – the men featured are as lean as can be, hairless, with chiseled abs and bulging biceps, effortlessly pumping out 45-pound dumbbell curls. Similarly, women are pictured wearing sports bras and Spandex shorts, with smooth, sun-kissed skin, make-up, not a hair out of place, and not a bead of sweat on their brow as they pedal to nowhere. Sometimes these images are accompanied by a quote of some sort, like “Strive for progress, not perfection.” Interestingly, however, these images portray what most of us see as perfection.

When I go to the gym, I look nothing like what is described above, and generally neither does anyone else. These images do not depict reality. Rather, images like these contribute to “gymtimidation” and they perpetuate the drive for perfection in our culture. Gyms are for everyone – people of all shapes and sizes and varying degrees of fitness. And exercise is not one-size-fits-all. Yet these images suggest otherwise.

You certainly don’t have to fit within the narrow constructs of our culture’s definition of perfection in order to step foot inside a gym or to start an exercise program. And achieving “perfection” certainly should not be your ultimate goal when it comes to fitness. Furthermore, exercise itself doesn’t have to look this way or that way. Exercise can be whatever we want it to be, as long as we’re moving our bodies. And it doesn’t even have to occur in a gym! Exercise can occur anywhere. And it should be fun. And sustainable. And free of judgement.

2. Posting signage suggesting that excuses are not tolerated. It’s generally acceptable to skip out on a day at the gym when we’re overly sore, tired, or ill. Right? Well what about this? Your close friend is in town for just a few short hours overlapping your Zumba® class, and you have no other time to sneak in a workout that day. What do you do?

a. Tell your friend that you have plans and attend your Zumba® class as usual.
b. Skip Zumba® to grab a bite to eat with your friend, and spend the whole evening beating yourself up.
c. Skip Zumba® to have dinner with your friend; you can go to Zumba® class again later this week.

The best answer? Option c. But is this an excuse? If you view exercise as something that is a part of your life, but that is not the most important part of your life, then no. For some, exercise is inflexible and compulsive – their life revolves around exercise as opposed to the other way around. Setting out to never miss a day at the gym is unrealistic. Furthermore, the “never miss a workout” mentality is unhealthy. “No excuses!” messaging tends to induce feelings of guilt and shame and to propagate an all-or-nothing approach to exercise that is the opposite of healthy.

3. Using language that portrays exercise as way of punishing our bodies. I’m sure you’ve seen these too – motivational posters that read “No pain, no gain!” Or promotional signs for a new fitness class called “15 Minute Booty-Blaster.” Or a sign in the retail area of the gym amidst the nutritional supplements that reads, “Fight belly fat today!” The fitness industry is guilty of using language that not only places value on appearance over health but that also implies that our bodies are inherently bad and that we need to punish them – as if having anything other than a totally flat mid-section is a mortal sin. In an effort to inspire and motivate us, they’re encouraging us to hate ourselves. And they’re succeeding.

We should not apologize for our bodies. Rather, we should celebrate our bodies. As opposed to punishing our bodies through exercise, we should engage in exercise that we truly enjoy and that makes us feel good. And this looks different for everyone. Exercise as a way to give back to your body. After all, exercise comes along with countless benefits that have nothing to do with aesthetics.

The next time you visit your gym, take a few moments to look a little closer at what is posted on the walls and printed on signage. What messages is your gym sending to you and the other guests? How are they keeping their customers and drawing new ones in? Are they encouraging self-compassion or are they contributing to guests’ body dissatisfaction and self-hate?

by Jessica Lee Betts, MS, RD, LD
REbeL Program Director