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Sizing Up Downsize Fitness

January 15, 2013

Trigger Warning: Exercise, weight loss and dieting are mentioned in this thread.

Downsize Fitness logo

Downsize Fitness has created a lot of buzz in the last week. Numerous articles such as this one have written about it, and there have been some TV news reports on it as well.

For those of you that haven’t heard of it, Downsize Fitness, founded by Chicago businessman Francis Wisnewski, requires its patrons to be 50 pounds or more overweight (how they calculate this isn’t explained). The workout equipment is designed for bigger bodies and there are no mirrors, so people exercising don’t have to look at themselves. It’s supposed to create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere for fat people who want to work out without having to see thinner bodies and without being shamed or made fun of by others. Now, I can get behind that mindset. However, the silver lining in this cloud has some tarnish to it  and there are some elements to Downsize Fitness which may be problematic to those of us in Fat/Size/Body Acceptance.

First of all, this is not a place for those who simply want to increase their physical activity without deliberately dieting and losing weight. The goal of this gym is to lose weight (the title alone is a dead giveaway). Each member is part of a personal training team of five, and they must go on a diet that’s tailored to their specific needs. Now, if the members of Downsize Fitness want to lose weight that’s their right, but it would be nice to see a fat-friendly gym where people could choose to workout simply because they want the benefits of physical movement and not be made to change their eating habits because it’s assumed that what they’re eating is why they’re fat in the first place.

Second, Downsize Fitness is based on NBC’s The Biggest Loser, (although according to the company, a more realistic version). Shannon has already covered in nice detail the reasons how awful this program is. I think it’s very hypocritical that a supposedly safe haven for fat people chooses to imitate a show that humiliates fellow fat human beings and forces them to go through dangerous and often unhealthy practices in order to get thin. But since too many people are drinking the TBL-flavored Kool-Aid, I don’t think we’re going to see many gyms adopt a Health at Every Size®-based philosophy (Planet Fitness claims to, but they also support The Biggest Loser, so that’s for another topic).

Since Downsize Fitness has been on the media’s radar (and knowing that stories about fat people, obesity and dieting always seems to create the most spirited opinions), I decided to take a look at some of the stories and see what all the fuss was about. Surprisingly, there are a lot of mixed reactions to the idea of a gym that exclusively caters to fat people and, as always, reading these comments will use up a majority of Sanity Points.

Many thought the requirements of being 50 pounds or more overweight was discriminatory and wondered why members simply didn’t just join a regular gym. Many praised the idea because finally some of us fatties were getting serious about becoming physically attractive (oops, healthy), and if joining a fat-only gym was the way to do it, then they had no problem with the rules. Some didn’t like the no-mirrors aspect because they said mirrors were necessary for making sure exercises were done properly, not for self-esteem issues. Quite refreshingly, there were a few who pointed out that if society didn’t feel fat people were so disgusting, then we wouldn’t need places like Downsize Fitness, and that weight shouldn’t even be such a major concern in the first place.

To those commenters who wondered why fat people don’t just man up, get some self-esteem and join Bally’s, Gold’s, or any of the other gyms out there, you’ve got your answer. Many fat people who want to exercise would gladly go to any gym if there wasn’t the risk of being insulting, hearing disparaging comments about their bodies (even if they’re not directed at them), and, more importantly, if the gym equipment could handle higher weights.

We are told daily that we need to get off the couch and move, but when we do, we still get flak for it. Some of us are verbally harassed and/or have things thrown at us when we are exercising in public. Trying to find comfortable workout clothes can be difficult. So I can definitely see why some would want to flock to Downsize Fitness.

If you’re interested in checking Downsize Fitness out for yourself, they currently only have locations in Dallas and Chicago, with a franchise in Las Vegas that will be opening sometime this year. I’m sure the success they’re having now will lead to more franchises being opened. Hopefully as their business grows, they will realize that being healthy doesn’t just mean being thin. I hope they stop basing their workouts and nutrition plans around The Biggest Loser too.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. vesta44 permalink
    January 15, 2013 9:37 am

    That weight loss mentality is one of the main reasons I don’t join Curves. I checked them out a couple of years ago (we had one here in town, they are no longer in business here) and they want to assign you a “coach” and discuss what you eat, how you eat, how much you eat, and make recommendations for changing your way of eating so you can lose weight as you exercise. Sorry, that’s not what I want from a gym, even if it does cater exclusively to fat women. I was under the impression that Curves was supposed to be a safe space for fat women to work out, to get stronger, more flexible, etc, without having to worry about body shaming and diet talk. Well, they ruined that idea because the one I went to would not shut up about how much healthier I would be if I lost weight – never mind that just the fact that I would be getting regular exercise would improve my health. So no matter how much these fat people only gyms say it’s about health, if there’s a diet plan included, it’s more about looks than it is about health.

    • Jennifer permalink
      January 15, 2013 9:52 am

      I joined curves once and only did the movement part (back then there was no counseling but they would measure my body with a tape measure. Down to the forearms! Creepy.) and it was ALWAYS about weight loss. The freebies and gimmicks were for biggest losers, and success stories.

      I didn’t feel empowered. And the contract meant that I paid for 9 months for something I didn’t use because it was cheaper than canceling. What a racket!

    • The Real Cie permalink
      January 15, 2013 9:53 am

      Same here. The only way I was able to get myself to start working out again is if I promised myself that weight loss had nothing to do with it this time. I actually love to exercise, but when I’ve done it to lose weight, I’ve invariably been disappointed. I rarely get on a scale these days and I think I’m actually going to keep exercising this time around because there won’t be the inevitable disappointment of “but I’m not losing weight, therefore I’m a failure.” Which of course is a bullshit attitude.

    • lifeonfats permalink
      January 15, 2013 4:20 pm

      I was also interested in Curves but after hearing about how weight-loss oriented it is, that you have to do a rotation of machines (which I’ve done and didn’t like) and that the owners are extremely right-wing conservative and anti-choice, which is against my beliefs, I decided not to go there. I like to exercise and get movement just because it feels good and I know it has benefits without added dieting.

    • January 16, 2013 11:37 am

      “and they want to assign you a “coach” and discuss what you eat, how you eat, how much you eat, and make recommendations for changing your way of eating”

      really? wow… luckily I’ve never had that experience with a Curves (I’ve been at three). When I refused to be weighed they were always respectful and helpful. There was usually weight loss talk, but it was from other gym goers (although I did once piss off an employee by insisting diets don’t work). If I didn’t want to hear diet talk I just wore headphones and listened to music- but that can go for any gym.

  2. Jennifer permalink
    January 15, 2013 9:48 am

    So if a person is 100 lbs over arbitrary weight, and this program is actually successful, and a member loses 51lb, will they get kicked out of the gym for only “needing” to lose 49lb now?

    This “gym” had to have written the known wt loss failure rate into their biz plan. Anyone large enough to qualify for membership is 95% likely to be a qualified customer for life.

    That’s some disgusting corporate greed profiting off oppression, right there.


    • January 15, 2013 10:09 am

      I was wondering the same thing. But if I had to guess, I’d say that anyone who drops below the 50 pound limit is “grandfathered” in and allowed to stay. I can’t imagine there’s any legal basis for canceling a gym membership because they’ve been successful.

      My main question would be whether they respect people’s decision to exercise for the sake of exercising, and not weight loss. Because I LOVE the idea of a gym with larger equipment, but if weight loss is an integral part of their plan, then it could be just as bad as a “regular” gym.


    • February 10, 2014 5:45 am

      Jennifer, no. Once a member always a member. Downsize values members with successes to continue as part of the community. It is incredible encouragement for a new member to see that it is possible to achieve your goals. Which raises a point, although Downsize does do monthly body composition assessments, the true measure we utilize to determine if a member is on their “goal track” is based on how they are progressing towards their functional goals. Members have life goals, things that they currently cannot accomplish in their everyday day life like climbing stairs, getting up off of the floor, playing outside etc…if they lose weight while achieving these functional goals – so be it. But actual weightless is really a byproduct.

  3. January 15, 2013 10:52 am

    Wow. Thanks for the example of how NOT to run a size-positive gym! I’m a trainer and my gym, when I establish it (city TBA; the hubs and I are still exploring the decision of where to settle) will be a body-positive, functional-training, absolutely-no-diet-talk zone.

  4. queenie permalink
    January 15, 2013 11:47 am

    To be fair, gyms have always been places where people obsess about their diets. Even the very, very fit people, maybe especially the very, very fit people.

    I’m sorry that you’ve experienced size discrimination at the gym. Where I used to teach we had people of all sizes and ages, and when bigger (or older, or anybody not fitting the buff twentysomething mold) people joined I always found that they themselves were the most focused on whether or not people were judging them. Everybody else was too busy looking at themselves in the mirror to notice anybody else.

    I don’t have a problem with a gym for bigger people. There are gyms just for women, so if bigger people want their own gym, yay for them! But gyms have always been places to try to change one’s appearance, and I don’t see that as very likely to change.

  5. January 15, 2013 11:53 am

    Nice write up, but can we drop the “drink the Kool Aid” stuff? Over 900 people died in Jonestown, including over 200 kids, besides, they drank Flavor Aid. I have no idea, why that phrase bugs me so much, but every time I hear it, I think of the families who lost people to that crazy megalomaniac and my heart just breaks for them.

  6. January 15, 2013 12:01 pm

    My brother in law runs his own personal training business near Detroit, and he made sure from day one that his machines could handle higher weights – he also has a strict rule that the only time his people talk about weight loss is if the customer brings it up. I’ve told him he needs to expand down to where I live, because I haven’t had any other gym experiences that acknowledge me as a human being, rather than a blob of fat.

  7. Marilyn permalink
    January 15, 2013 1:27 pm

    I think the Y that I go to never mentions weight unless the member does. There are members, instructors, lifeguards of all sizes. The most popular Zumba instructor is a big girl. The Y is very weight friendly and caters to all ages and fitness levels.

  8. fatology101 permalink
    January 15, 2013 3:49 pm

    Im just thinking that the TBL attitude of the gym may not fly. I dont know how successfull they are in Dallas and Chicago. They may be able to sell franchises but will they be successful? I can only hope not. I have no problem with people starting businesses etc. and I wish them the best (I have a busines) but the “why are they doing that” just doesnt seem to fly. If they really want to help ‘fat people get thin’ then they would find another way and learn it isnt going to happen. With so many Curves closing, I see a trend in that direction.

  9. castingpearls7 permalink
    January 15, 2013 9:54 pm

    I recently joined a Planet Fitness and while the tie-in to TBL is grating (you get the free tees with TBL logos all over them) they’re quite open to your not wanting to discuss weight-loss, at least the one I’m frequenting. At my first noob class, I explained to the trainer that fitness and stamina were my main goals and not to waste his or my time discussing how to eat and he said Okay, let’s go on with your workout routine and whatever doesn’t work, we can adjust and that was it. Additionally, there were quite a few fat people at the gym, virtually no mirrors except in the free-weight area and there was zero talk about diets or size or weight. My next class will be how to use upper body machines without injuring myself but I look forward to it. It really seems like a positive place and I’m looking forward to gaining more stamina to achieve other goals I have planned.

    • January 16, 2013 12:03 am

      That is fantastic! It’s great to have a place where you feel like you can just be comfortable exercising and learning.

      I used to belong to a Lifetime Fitness and had only positive experiences there.

  10. Bookeater permalink
    January 16, 2013 7:28 am

    I recently went to a gym for the first time ever. I was really intimidated, but it helped that I live in Korea and do not understand the language well. A couple of guys helped me figure out the more baffling (to me) machines, but if anyone made any remarks about my weight, I did not catch them. I was by far the fattest person in the room, which is usual for me in Korea.

    Usually, I swim and do aqua aerobics. When the old ladies at the pool tell me to exercise and lose weight, I can pretend not to understand them until they stop talking.

  11. hlkolaya permalink
    January 16, 2013 11:45 am

    I would love a size positive gym but this just isn’t it. how disappointing. I’ve done Curves and WOW (women’s only workout) and both were totally cool with me not wanting to be weighed or discuss weight loss (maybe I’m just lucky though). I also don’t mind mirrors (WOW has a full wall of mirrors) because I like watching myself workout. “yeah, look at what a strong sexy beast you are.. rawr!” lol I get why some people would be upset by it though. Stuff shifts and jiggles a lot when you work out. I’m looking forward to a day when all gyms are HAES positive… do you think we’ll ever see that?

  12. Honey H. permalink
    May 3, 2014 2:11 pm

    I am a member at the Dallas location. We have mirrors and it’s about having a caring and supportive community. We have nutrition classes, but it’s mostly focused on eating healthier, not strict weight loss, we even had a class recently about fad diets and why try don’t work. Most of the people here are wanting to lose weight, but there are some that just want to get moving. It’s about acceptance and motivation. I haven’t met a more awesome group of people at the gym before. Everyone knows your name and cares about you. I recommend it to anyone that is looking to join a gym that isn’t judgemental.

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