Should Plus-Size Gyms Ban Skinny Clients or Does Discrimination Contribute to Body Shaming?

If you’ve ever set foot in a gym, you may have had that moment.

That instant, overwhelming feeling of total incompetence that strikes when someone fitter, faster, thinner or trimmer effortlessly outperforms you in a class or on a cardio machine. That pang of jealousy may be fleeting. And yet it really stings.

But could it be compromising your health goals so much, you’d prefer to have that person removed from your line of sight entirely?

The people behind Vancouver, Canada’s Body Exchange think so. Founder and CEO Louise Green wants her business to be a “safe haven” for overweight exercisers.

Green told last week, “People are often too fearful to become active. There wasn’t a model that offered camaraderie.”

But does banning thinner clients ensure such solidarity?

This may not be an overt example of thin-shaming, but does it seem problematic to exclude a portion of the population based on body weight?

Some of my favorite blogs are calling it “downright discriminatory” while my other faves are convinced Body Exchange “seems committed to fostering a supportive community that allows everyone to go at their own pace without feeling badly about themselves, and that enables participants to set their own goals without judgement.”

I’m reminded of an amazing article I read a few months ago about an advanced yoga student’s frustration over teachers’ assumptions about her abilities and the consistently patronizing attitudes she encountered in classes because of her size (I’m kicking myself for not being able to place the magazine or author—if anyone knows the piece, shout it out in the comments, please!).

Would she have progressed further in her practice if she’d been surrounded solely by fellow full-figured yoginis? Would the instructors have put their prejudices aside if everyone in their classes were a plus-size? Would all the students have felt freer to practice to their full potential knowing no one below a certain BMI would be allowed to roll out a mat?

I’m not really sure. But my gut instinct tells me explicitly banning any group from any activity based on body size is a slippery slope and could only serve to further perpetuate body shaming on both sides of the spectrum.

But I also respect and encourage the existence of safe, nurturing environments for anyone who prefers to get healthy in the company of his or her peers. Body shaming scars run deep, and I understand the hesitation anyone bearing these marks has about working out alongside those they think might inflict more pain.

But I guess that’s the really unfortunate part—the fact that this is even a concern for anyone just trying to get fit and be healthy. Not to beat the dead body shaming horse (that’s a horrendous image, I’m sorry), but the real issue here is that men and women of any size or shape still have to fear ridicule because of their appearance.

Let’s maybe work out that problem first and then worry about squats and crunches?

Image via SodaHead

  • Katherine Campbell

    I really appreciated this piece, Michelle!

    I’m not sure if this was the article you were you were referencing (, but it immediately sprang to mind.

  • Amellia Elizabeth

    i think maybe it should be about how you look but about health goals, it’s a ‘healthy weight loss centre’ well then maybe she should look at it more of a BMI thing than a ‘fat’ thing. what I’m trying to say that you should go through a medical exam to see if you are trying to reach similar goals as you fellow gym goers.

    As an overweight person who is trying to get healthier I applaud the sentiment behind what they are trying to do but think maybe there should have been more planning on how it was worded and how they were going to create this gym/environment. I mean who decides who gets in? the girl at the front desk? I mean thats horrible if thats the case.

    I’m in Australia and I see a Exercise Phyisioigist which you have to get a referral from your G.P to be able to get an appointment, if she had a system like that in place then she wouldn’t be excluding anyone who needed/wanted to be there (although thats not to say there aren’t fit people there it just means they are there to see someone who has had real medical training, I train next to professional sports people/serious runners so you know it’s not exactly what this woman wants).

  • Nikolina Serdar

    A friend of mine recently told me that she didn’t get a job at a “plus-size” clothing store because she was “too skinny” (although she has some curves but obviously not enough) and that would make the customers feel uncomfortable around her. I think that’s a very difficult question. On the one hand, I can understand the owners of the shop/gym (especially in Germany, “fat” people are really looked down upon…) but on the other hand, it’s not quite fair to punish people for caring about the food they eat and enjoying a workout… Maybe everyone should think about their body images and ideals and start realizing that there are more important things than one’s looks and that our own insecurities don’t give us the right to be mean to other people. Because feeling uncomfortable with oneself is the first step to “shaming” on others. Only if you stop disliking yourself, no matter what your flaws are, you can like others.

  • Elisabeth Miller

    I’m torn about this, because on the one hand, I understand the desire to work out in a safe environment. I’ve heard so many people say they feel like they need to get in shape before they go to the gym. But, like you said, it’s a slippery slope.

  • Heidi Heilig

    This reminds me of the ‘women only’ passenger cars in India, a place where women who ride in train cars with men are subjected to horrible harassement and abuse. The solution of women-only cars can be looked at in many ways — segregation, anti-male discrimination, or (my personal favorite) a stop-gap protection to immediately make safe spaces for women while bringing attention to a huge harassment problem and allowing time for the cultural changes to make ALL spaces safe for women.

    In our society, bodies are heavily policed. While male bodies suffer, too, female bodies suffer more. While thin bodies suffer too, fatter bodies suffer more. In a society where fat people are harassed, shamed, and disappeared from positive portrayals in media, I am both saddened by the necessity of and glad of the existence of safe spaces like this gym is trying to create. However, as the blog states, this is not a solution to the main problem, which is that “men and women of any size or shape still have to fear ridicule because of their appearance.” Society still needs to get on that. But in the meantime, any measure of safe spaces have their use.

  • Lisa Knox

    I’m torn on this issue- being plus sized myself, I understand the theory behind it. And while it’s slightly different, there are hundreds, if not thousands of classes based on age, and they seem just as discriminatory. After a back injury, my doc suggested a class at a nearby Y to help my rehab. Everyone there (except me) was a t least 60, and I was asked by someone at almost every class if I was in the wrong place, did I know this class was for seniors, etc. No where in the brochure or any program materials did it mention age. The teacher actually told me a couple students had dropped the class because they were “uncomfortable” with someone so young being in class with them. I think perhaps it might be a good idea, because I know a lot of people won’t go to a gym because of fear of being judged. If it gives people a place to go and gets them healthier, maybe it is a good idea? I just don’t know.

  • Jessica Jeffers

    I’m unathletic and a little chubby (though not plus-size by any means), and it would definitely help me get my butt to the gym on a regular basis if I didn’t feel so self-conscious surrounded by size 2s. I also think that people who cry “Skinny shaming” are missing the point. Yes, it’s unfair to discriminate regardless of whether you’re too big or too small, but heavy girls aren’t trying to shame fit girls – they’re trying to avoid feeling like the fit girls are shaming them.

  • Britt Bulens

    I can see how this would be helpful/controversial. Maybe implementing classes for only plus sized women would work better, instead of banning anyone from working out at a gym at all. Hmmm..

  • Kelsey Taylor

    I feel sorry for people who are so insecure that they don’t feel comfortable working out next to someone who is more fit. People should use that as inspiration to work harder for it, not be petty and jealous over it. I feel like that’s just an excuse to not exercise and make the commitment. If you’re ashamed of your body (regardless of your size… by the way, EVERY WOMAN is ashamed sometimes) most likely you already know it, so do something about it. Let it motivate you, not discourage you!!

  • Courteney Georgina

    I’m not plus sized nor extremely fit/thin and I get uncomfortable at the gym because of the bodies/skill levels of other people. The gym is not an extremely comfortable place, but if everyone just focused on themselves instead of others it could be much better. What happens when the gym works for you? And you are no longer “fat”? Then you cant work out there anymore? This whole thing is ridiculous, everyone should just worry about themselves. I dont enjoy going to the gym but I do it because I want to be as healthy as I can be. Its not a beauty pageant. Having said that, why dont they just have specific classes for people who are extremely uncomfortable about people of a different size or level?

  • Shanna Hamilton

    I can understand where they are coming from, but they’re doing exactly what they are set out to abolish: making people feel insecure and that they don’t fit in. Telling someone they don’t fit the mold. Being plus size myself I know how insanely insecure I become trying to do things around people who clearly do it better and more often than me. But that’s life. And rather than setting up an environment where those people aren’t welcome, I’d rather be in an environment where everyone could get to become comfortable and open with each other. That’s how confidence is built, not wearing a blindfold and pretending like the other people don’t exist. And, what happens if you’re a plus size girl, go there because you feel comfortable, it totally inspires you and you work your ass off, literally…. Then what? You’re no longer plus size and can’t continue to work out there?

  • Melissa Rae Brown

    You know, what I really enjoyed was being a member of Curves (though they are so redonk expensive that it is criminal!). I liked that it was a female only community and that the women there were fat, skinny, young, and old. There was no judgement, because we were all different and we were all women. But much like this, Curves was met with much controversy when they first came into existence. People didn’t think it was fare to exclude men. But the fact of the matter is, regular gyms can be intimidating! Someone above said “I feel sorry for people who are so insecure that they don’t feel comfortable working out next to someone who is more fit. People should use that as inspiration to work harder for it, not be petty and jealous over it. I feel like that’s just an excuse to not exercise and make the commitment.” That is offensive and missing the point completely. Plus sized women who go to regular gyms do not feel insecure because they are “petty” or “jealous.” They feel insecure because they feel judged for their size. And they are! It feels horrible to be leered at for being fat. “fit” girls who think “fat” girls are “petty and jealous” are part of the problem, and that is exactly why bigger girls seek refuge in places like Curves or places who cater only to plus sized women. This is such a rock and a hard place, because it is so easy to approach the subject from both sides.

  • Claire Baker

    Just because a person is skinny doesn’t mean they are in shape or healthy. If someone is skinny but still has no muscle then they could still technically be overweight or obese depending on their body fat percentage. We need to encourage people to be healthy not just thin. Would the gym not allow it’s own members once they reach a certain weight?

  • Laura Woodhead

    This whole idea is ridiculous. Having plus size only gyms? Because over weight people don’t like seeing fit people at the gym? What is this world coming too? I am a very skinny girl, but there are people 5 times my size who are much more fit then I am. You should be going to the gym to get healthy, its not a beauty pageant. No one cares if you are struggling with your work out because they are to busy struggling with their own. Its not societies job to make people feel better about themselves. People who hate themselves will continue to hate themselves until they can snap themselves out of it, no amount of sweet talking from others will change that.

  • Erica Bauwens

    I’m far from a skinny girl that’s for sure, and I have ZERO problem with seeing a thin girl at the gym. In fact when I see a girl there that’s thin I can’t help but think “Get it girl!” I mean she’s working at it, she’s earned what she’s got. It’s actually good for people to see thin girls in the gym: it shows that you should be HEALTHY to look good, not just a bunch of bones smoking cigarettes and skipping meals.

    Honestly I know it’s tacky, but I belong to Planet Fitness and the walls are covered in signs reading Judgement-Free Zone and it totally works. If you’re working at it, no matter your size, you rock. Work it out ladies!

    …unless I’ve just run like a mile and am grumpy and exhausted… then all I can imagine are expletives. (kidding!)

  • Bre Short

    This could just get way too dangerous. Where is the line drawn? Is it based on weight, or by the way you look? Either factor is unfair to base a person’s health on. I’ve also seen a lot of pictures circulating showing thin women nowadays compared to woman with more curves from, say, the 1950s, and arguing that the curvy girls are sexier. Just as some people are naturally heavier, some people are naturally thinner and can’t change their body type. It feels terrible to be considered less womanly and less sexy because of being “too thin.” Body discrimination is body discrimination no matter what size you’re dealing with.

  • Ashley Lynn Cook

    I can see both sides of the problem. I’ve been thin and fit before, I was a dancer in a company, 6′ tall, `168lbs which is very slender for that height, but then I got two herniated discs, had to stop dancing then a few years after I triggered my thryoid from stress and found that I have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. I eventually gained 70lbs over the past 4 years, and although I still teach ballet, I’m no where near in shape where I used to be. I’ve done regular gym going, personal trainers at the gym and fitness gym classes anywhere from yoga to zumba to bodypump, and I can tell you right now, it IS hard to be around those girls who are teeny tiny size 2’s and wearing just sports bras and booty shorts. It’s very uncomfortable. On one hand I want to say “Good for you, girl!”, but on the other hand when I’m dying from exhaustion from carrying extra weight in a zumba class, I just want to not see her. I’m not really a jealous person, nor would I discriminate by any means but I see no reason why compromises can’t be made. For example, maybe a particular hour or class that is for a certain weight, especially since, let’s face it ladies, if you’re a plus size, like me, sometimes you just CAN’T keep up with the skinny minis, sheerly because of heaviness or fat restrictions (such as in yoga when trying to do a twisty position!). Also, although you’d LIKE to flaunt it, you beautiful size 2’s, please dress somewhat nicely, the bra and booty shorts are a bit much, dontchathink? I wouldn’t even mind a work out shirt and booty shorts, but I once saw a girl dressed bra/b-short combo during yoga and all I kept mentally hearing from her was: “Look at me! Look at me!” lol…..Anyhow ladies, no discrimination here, no angry jealously, I’ve been on both sides before, as I said, there’s always compromises that will make both parties happy and able to have fun workouts and leave the gym smiling! :-)

  • Kelsey Taylor

    Just imagine how unethical this would sound if it were the other way around. Skinny people saying they don’t want fat people in their gym because it makes them feel uncomfortable. It’s the same thing, really. It’s discrimination! Any group of people saying another group should be banned for some reason (especially such a sensitive topic like size) is discrimination, and it’s wrong.

  • Michelle Konstantinovsky

    For anyone wondering, I finally located the amazing article I referenced in this piece. It was “The Trials of a Chubby Yogi,” written by the incredible Taffy Brodessen-Akner for SELF Magazine. Please read it here:

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