Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • hanging near the front desk, a poster with an illustration of a pear and a message stating “A pear is no shape for a woman”
  • a viral video of a personal trainer shaming a bride-to-be
  • before-and-after transformational photos that focus purely on aesthetics
  • nasty comments online and in workshop evaluations that blast a fitness professional for not “looking the part”
  • Biggest Loser and Fat Camp marketing materials that focus on body shape and weight

What do these have in common? They’re examples of how the fitness industry shames and blames both consumers and fit pros for not having the “perfect” body. Not only is this bad for the heart and mind; it’s also bad for the bottom line.

What is body shaming, and are you guilty of unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes in your marketing?

What Message Are We Sending?

Both subtle and blatant body shaming and fat shaming embarrass people into thinking they’re of less worth because their bodies don’t meet nebulous criteria. It’s the way many fitness entrepreneurs entice clients, promising to “fix” what’s “wrong” with someone’s appearance. The message: Once clients look the part, they’re then acceptable enough to belong to a theoretical elite class and call themselves “fit.”

“General fitness marketing often portrays fitness as an exclusive club that can be enjoyed only by people with stereotypically thin and fit bodies,” says Amanda Vogel, MA, fitness instructor, presenter and owner of Fitness Test Drive in Vancouver, British Columbia. “With some exceptions, the fitness industry has a history of purposefully excluding people who aren’t thin and muscular from its advertising and marketing.”

But doesn’t this practice send the wrong message? Todd Magazine, president of Blink Fitness with more than 60 nationwide locations, thinks so. “Touting ‘perfect’ bodies and lofty weight loss goals sends a message that the way [people look] is just not good enough,” he says. “The fitness industry relies heavily on pop culture’s beauty standards, which are unachievable for the average person.”

Monica Shannon, owner and director of Open Door Yoga in Raleigh, North Carolina, says that, in general, fitness marketing is geared toward changing the body. “In order to make this an effective means of getting new business, the language must imply that something is inherently wrong or insufficient about bodies as they are,” she says, adding that it’s the product or class that “will improve the client’s body.”

Julie Stubblefield, founder of Fit Mom Revolution in Mechanicsville, Virginia, agrees, and she adds that the images of what “fit” is supposed to look like don’t reveal the “full truth.” “More often than not, the bodies shown in ads and articles of what people should be striving for fit a certain aesthetic: trim midsection, muscle definition, no stretch marks, and no excess skin or other supposed ‘flaws,’” she says. “It paints a picture of failure if you cannot achieve that look.”

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

But isn’t this type of marketing—pointing out what’s wrong with people’s bodies—necessary to get them through your door? Not necessarily, say experts.

“We are hurting our credibility and overall health,” says Shanna Ferrigno, CEO of Ferrigno FIT in Los Angeles. “People don’t want to go to the gym and work out until they get into shape. They’re ashamed and embarrassed, and it’s only benefiting the medical industry, not the health industry.”

Lynne Skilton-Hayes, ACE-certified group fitness instructor, master personal trainer and fitness program supervisor for the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, agrees. “Body shaming hurts our business by making it more intimidating and unrealistic, which, in turn, [means we reach] fewer people. I talk to many people who say you already need to be fit to work out or go to the gym.”

Magazine believes we’re alienating a large percentage of the potential market by using fat-shaming tactics. “One of the reasons why over 80% of the U.S. population doesn’t belong to a gym is that the fitness industry uses messaging and imagery focused on a certain ‘ideal’ body shape,” he says. “This excludes a large majority from the narrative.”

Shannon, however, has a different take on using body-shaming marketing. “Honestly, I think that it [initially] boosts business,” she says. “Most thriving studios and gyms utilize this method very successfully. But I do think that body-shaming tactics eventually drive students away as they age and suffer the consequences of often injurious movement modalities that have temporary benefits. They also get emotionally sick from the self-destructive mentality.”

Stubblefield believes that shame-driven marketing ultimately blocks success and retention. “When we aim to shame, we cannot build trust,” she says. “Sure, you can lure people in with flashy images, but the real work is the trust we build with our clients. And that’s where the results show up, too.”

Vogel feels that businesses that rely on body-shaming tactics fall short in areas that might actually help people in meaningful ways. “Making customers feel bad about their bodies is a rotten strategy for building a business relationship based on trust and respect,” she says. “Businesses that fall back on body shaming are missing the point of how to [motivate] people. And unmotivated exercisers who feel a sense of shame over their bodies don’t usually stick around to become long-term clients or gym members.”

Turning the Tide

So how can you market without the shame?

For starters, begin with a message of inclusion. For Vogel, this means diversity. “I’d like fitness marketing to reflect more variety in body shapes and sizes,” she says. “People who feel represented and specifically welcomed might be more willing to show up as clients and members. The fitness industry is doing everyone a disservice by pretending that the most celebrated outcome of fitness is to have a thin, toned, hot body.”

Shannon echoes this thought and also feels that we need to educate the public that being healthy is what’s most important. “Go beyond aesthetic definitions, and use the language of acceptance, rather than an implied need for change,” she says. “And use images and language that speak to universal acceptance of who we are right now, as opposed to setting expectations that any change will necessarily make our lives better.”

It’s a waste of time and resources, says Stubblefield, to market the magical, transformative power of exercise. Instead, she says, shine a light on how being healthier and more fit will make someone feel. “Focus marketing on how exercise can improve sleep, lower stress, increase libido, change health numbers, raise confidence, etc.,” she says. “When people already know they’ll look different and get these other benefits by working with you, it’s a slam dunk!”

“We know that working out because of the way it makes you feel is a much more relatable goal for the vast majority of Americans,” says Magazine. In fact, Blink Fitness is based on this very premise—as the company’s philosophy is Mood Above Muscle™—and celebrates the positive feelings that exercise elicits, rather than just the physical benefits. “While looking good can also come out of [feeling good],” Magazine says, “we find that people are much more motivated by the elevated mood they experience after a workout. Our members gain happiness and confidence, which encourages them to keep coming [back].”

“Fitness is about feeling strong and confident in your achievements,” says Skilton-Hayes. “It’s a willingness to share [and] help others improve. Fitness is about learning mental toughness and resiliency that carry over to everyday life. This can help you realize you can achieve what you didn’t think was possible. We need to encourage, model and influence others to realize the same.”

Carrie Myers Smith

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