Things the Fitness and Wellness Industries Fail To Understand

Clara Barnhurst

After being told I was almost too fat for surgery, I came up with a low maintenance strategy to maintain my weight and potentially lose some. Gatekeeping society, remember? They added a lock to the door. I was unlocking it. But the messages I got from health nut friends, my calorie counting app, and adverts all around me all seemed to be talking to someone else.

The first thing people seemed to miss was that my refusal of advice didn’t mean I wasn’t interested in thoughts. It wasn’t that I didn’t want input, it’s that I had made my decisions and I didn’t want to be told what to do. There’s a difference between seeking information for research purposes and implementing that information. So I’d say I was calorie counting just as a maintenance strategy and suddenly friends would come forward with subtle and not-so-subtle directives.

People would also take my disinterest in alternative suggestions or ideas on how to lose weight more quickly as an unwillingness to commit; that I somehow didn’t want to reach my goal. One went so far as to suggest that I subconsciously didn’t want surgery because I didn’t have the mindset for it. Hurtful, unnecessary and absolutely not going to make me receptive, even if I wanted expert advice — which I didn’t.

This kind of behaviour was mirrored in my app, bizarrely. I’d weigh in and it would say encouraging things, but it would also accompany the end of my log saying how much more quickly I’d reach my target if I carried on eating below target. It would say how much later if I ate over target, but there’s something insidious about it. To the more vulnerable, it was discouraging people from eating. The thought certainly crossed my mind.


The other thing that happened was I noticed every gym advert or leafleter on the streets for fitness products: well dressed, chiselled people with great skin doing stuff with equipment or just generally smiling too hard. When they’re not applying plastic smiles, they’re showing looks of grim determination, sweat flying everywhere on some activity. The plasticity remains constant. The image oozes toxicity; it screams to the viewer how inadequate they are, how much help they need, and how a lack of interest means a lack of will. Or an inadequate mindset. It’s my problem that I don’t respond to their messages. It’s my fault I don’t want their help.

Thing is, they’re selling me an image I hate. Perhaps they would be more successful if they didn’t tell me it was my job to engage with them: it’s their product, that makes it their job to engage with me. I have no obligation to consume what they offer.

If people had asked (and in fairness to most of my friends, they did ask and listen), I would have explained. I would have told them that I was scared to death of developing an eating disorder. I would have told them that I had a lot of the destructive thought patterns, that I was frightened it would get out of control. People that knew me well knew I had a near miss with an eating disorder once before and, actually, trying to sell me this stuff had real potential to do harm.

Photo by Kendal JamesUnsplash

Why do fitness and wellness companies (and individuals, much to my horror) default to some ideal? This I don’t understand. As an educator, I was taught to throw the ideal out the window. To keep it in the back of your head, but to look at who’s in front of you: what do they want? Why are they interested in what you have to show them? Once you have those answers, you figure out how to align your purpose with theirs. You don’t start with the ideal, you start with the people.


For all the promises of a personalised approach to a healthy lifestyle, none of the language surrounding it is. Nobody starts by asking what I want. Nobody listens to me when I explain my history of anxiety and illness when trying to stay fit — or, worse, they brush it off as a bad mindset I should just get over. It’s worse than fat shaming. It’s shaming people for not believing. Faith shaming? Thought shaming? It’s almost gaslighting: my lack of receptiveness is twisted to seem my own fault.

In a way, I’m glad they tried to sell me an image I hate. I’m glad the messages felt condescending when they weren’t insulting. I’m glad I didn’t feel listened to. It meant I made my own decisions for my own reasons. It meant I was more resilient when confronted with the toxicity. It also gave me something to rally against with most of my friends; I’m not even close to alone in finding this stuff disgusting, insulting, and potentially dangerous.

The bottom line is that talking down to people doesn’t win anyone over. The better you get at guilting people about how they feel, the harder it will be to get people to develop healthy relationships with their bodies. The more you gaslight a person, the less they trust anyone about the subject. It’s a destructive strategy, and then people wonder why whole societies are rejecting these messages. When entire populations refuse to believe you, it doesn’t matter how right you are. It’s not a failing of the population to see reason, it’s your failure to reach them. Your failure to be heard is not their fault. It’s yours.

I learned a lot in the first few days of calorie counting, and the most important was to be selective about who I talked to. Some would help me insulate myself from dangerous messages, others would push me into territory I wasn’t willing or able to enter. It was easy to tell: the people who listened were the people I trusted. Human failing? Perhaps. Retreating into an echo chamber? Maybe. But a friend that offers help without listening to my need isn’t being a friend. I needed my friends for this one.

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