Fat Shaming, Diet Culture and Gym Owners

A group of multiethnic women with different kind of skin posing together in studio—legs only.

Are gym owners perpetuating “diet culture” by trying to help clients lose weight?

In 2021, it’s an interesting question as everyone works to be more inclusive and sensitive.

The 411: “Diet culture” is a term that is used to describe the idea that thinner is better—among other things. It’s also related to fat shaming, a lack of acceptance of people who don’t fit “the ideal,” demonization of food, and unhealthy and unsustainable weight-loss practices. Click here for a more exhaustive definition.

So what does this concept mean to gym owners and nutrition coaches who are striving to help clients accomplish their goals through sustainable, ethical and effective practices?

A head shot of writer Mike Warkentin and the column name "Pressing It Out."

Two Realities

Diet culture became top of mind again when Pinterest banned a host of ads on July 1. No longer allowed on the popular platform:

  • Language or imagery related to weight loss.
  • Testimonials about weight-loss products and services.
  • Idealization or denigration of body types in language or imagery.
  • References to body mass index (BMI).
  • Products that suggest weight loss will occur if they’re worn or put on the skin.

Before-and-after imagery was already banned, as well as body shaming and unrealistic results attributed to cosmetics.

Let’s be clear: Sales of snake oil, body shaming and false advertising are unethical.

But what about fitness and nutrition businesses that truly want to help people? And what if they have incontrovertible evidence that their services can help people make sustainable, positive changes related to their own personal goals?

It’s a very difficult issue, and some will jump to one conclusion or the other and see things as black and white. Let’s hold off on knee-jerk reactions in either direction.

The reality: Ads—even ads for legitimate businesses—definitely have a psychological element that pokes at “pain points” to motivate people to purchase. Example: “Is your car waking up the neighbors? Get a new muffler!” You can see how shame, fear of missing out (FOMO) and other triggers are closely linked to ads.

Another reality: Some people legitimately want to lose weight for any number of positive reasons. While those who oppose diet culture will question the roots of those reasons, gym owners have heard stuff like this all the time: “My knees ache and I can’t do the things I want to do. Can you help me lose weight so I can be more active and reduce pain?”

Responsible, ethical gym owners have solutions and are duty bound to help these people solve their problems—not through stupid gimmicks or dangerous diets but through safe activity and healthy, sustainable eating habits.

Who Makes Whom Feel What?

As a person in the fitness industry, I obviously believe in the effects of working out and eating the foods that support personal goals. I’ve seen the effects of these practices thousands of times.

I also believe in self-efficacy and the ability to grow, evolve and change for the better. It’s essential to life, in my opinion. I won’t say exactly what I think is “better” or why. I’ll just say that I believe everything—people, businesses, homes, relationships—is dynamic: Everything is either becoming better or worse. Nothing stays the same. I’d prefer to take action to pursue my personal definition of better than do nothing and risk becoming worse.

My position doesn’t match up with that of writer Kate Bernyk—which is totally fine. She presents data suggesting diets don’t work. And some certainly don’t. But I think coaching people to develop healthy habits in the gym and kitchen can change lives dramatically in a positive way.

“Weight loss ads and manipulated social media images send the message that you must be thin—or at least striving to be—or you are a failure,” Bernyk wrote in the NBCnews.com article “Pinterest Bans Weight-Loss Ads. That Won’t End Anti-Fat Messaging, but It’s a Good Start.”

I’m not sure that’s true of all ads. It’s true of some, but what about those that respectfully present prospective clients with the information they need to accomplish personal goals?

Another quote from the article: “Diet companies are incredibly effective at making people—especially their target audience of young women—feel so terrible about themselves that they’re inclined to throw their money at whatever is being sold to them.”

I found the idea that ads “make” people feel anything to be questionable, so I asked psychotherapist Bonnie Skinner to discuss the issue on Two-Brain Radio. The episode will air July 26, and I’d encourage you to listen to it.

Bonnie told me only one thing actually makes you feel anything.

Your Mind, Your Choice

“Only you can make you feel bad,” Skinner wrote in this great blog about our conversation.

You must choose to feel a certain way—but most people don’t realize that. Instead, they see something and choose to react, but they attribute the reaction to the thing—not a split-second personal decision to view something a certain way. The decision happens so quickly it doesn’t appear to be happening, hence the many “it made me feel bad about myself” comments.

According to Bonnie, ads inflame issues that are already present. They don’t create the issues. So no ad can actually “make” you feel anything if you don’t give it power over your feelings.

That said, Bonnie also told me that responsible gym owners would do well to educate their clients and review their language to make sure they’re not accidentally triggering people or, worse, shaming them by mistake.

For example, it’s not wise to equate weight loss with happiness: “This client lost 20 pounds and is so much happier now!” It would be much better to talk about how that same client accomplished an important personal goal in a supportive, accepting environment where every step forward was celebrated.

This isn’t about “bowing to pressure,” avoiding real talk or changing the message. Gym owners believe in long-term health and are committed to helping people achieve it. It would be a shame to turn off a potential client with insensitive language or imagery.

Instead, gym owners need to work hard to understand and educate the members of their audience, and they need to be ready to answer questions and enter discussions.

Tune in for More!

Don’t miss Monday’s show: Be sure to subscribe to Two-Brain Radio wherever you get your podcasts.

In the meantime, review your advertising and ask yourself a question:

“How can I connect with the greatest number of people who need my expert help solving their fitness and nutrition problems?”


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.