Help! My gym is promoting unhealthy body ideals

My gym is doing some renovations. To make sure we’re all aware that the gym will be temporarily under construction, they’ve posted signs throughout the facility that list the planned renovations and depict a smiling woman in a hard hat.

They posted one of these signs in the women’s locker room, and on that particular sign, some anonymous vandal has perfectly expressed my reaction to the hard-hat woman. In case you can’t read the writing on the image, it points to the woman’s waist and says, “WEIRD retouching. Give us a real, healthy, normal woman!”

Exactly! The image of this woman has clearly been edited so that her waist is narrower than her head. I would expect no less from a fashion magazine, but from signage at a gym? A place whose ostensible purpose is to encourage us to have healthy relationships with our bodies? That seems extra wrong.

If anything, I would expect a different kind of unhealthy body image in gym-based media. Not that I think there should be any unhealthy body images promoted at all — but if one had to be there, I would expect it to be more in the fitspiration genre.

As Everyday Feminism puts it, fitspiration “encourages one to persevere,’ ‘push,’ or even ‘suffer through exercise for the sake of achieving change in one’s physical appearance.”

I’m all for exercise — I opened this piece by talking about going to the gym, so that’s probably obvious. And I’m all for people being inspired to exercise; I know how hard it can be to exercise regularly even when you want to. But fitspiration is no better than any other movement that promotes an unhealthy body image. In fact, it might be worse, because it promotes it under the guise of health. How’s that for a paradox?

Reembody has a nice list of irresponsible examples of fitspiration, and my favorite is #5: “Strong is the new buzzword for manipulating women’s body image.” I’ve written about this before, and I probably will again because it’s a very real problem. On one level, it’s dangerous to promote overtraining in the pursuit of a (often unattainable) physical ideal, which many fitspiration images and slogans certainly do.

But on an even bigger level, the ideal that’s being promoted is not itself the problem. The problem is that there’s an ideal at all. It seems like different types of unattainable standards for women’s bodies go in and out of fashion, but unattainable standards in general are here to stay.

Which is why I’m a little disappointed by the renovation signs at my gym. They’re doing us the courtesy of letting us know about changes to our workout environment — would giving us depictions of healthy bodies as role models while we’re there be too much to ask for?

Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and works in public health research in the Boston area.

2 thoughts on “Help! My gym is promoting unhealthy body ideals

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  1. Sasha, you hit the nail right on the head when you said, “The problem is that there’s an ideal at all.” Part of the reason that I’ve been doing my exercise outside of the gym lately is because I’m just so sick of gyms using unhealthy messages to promote people to exercise. Great job!

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