Moving with Joy: Creating a Body-Positive Health Club for Women

We are delighted to have this guest post from Stef Maruch:

The theory of Health at Every Size (HAES) posits that people of every size, age, and physical ability can gain physical and mental health benefits by regularly including joyful movement in their lives.

But in a world where people are judged by impossibly narrow beauty standards, where can a woman find opportunities to move her body in ways that feel good, without fear that she will be judged or harrassed? Where can she find the camaraderie of working out with like-minded women?

In preparing to write about health clubs that are size-friendly and promote HAES, I asked the very active LiveJournal community fatshionista to let me know of any such clubs.

Most of the clubs mentioned were chains. Curves, Lady of America, and Healthworks are women only. All of them, according to their web sites, promote weight loss, but fatshionista commenters said that some of their individual clubs did not have a judgmental attitude (a club, of course, will be affected by the attitudes of its employees and members).

Planet Fitness is a co-ed chain that boasts a Judgment Free Zone (a phrase they have actually trademarked) and does not have scales. Their clubs have an industrial-looking design with row upon row of treadmills and weight machines. Atlanta has a fitness facility, Equipoise, that combines fitness and physical therapy, and one commenter mentioned that hospitals sometimes run fitness centers that attract clientele of various ages and abilities. The YMCA is a co-ed chain known for welcoming people of all ages and differing abilities. Their main web site does not have a lot of focus on weight loss, but some of the individual Y web sites I looked at have more.

My Sports Clubs runs clubs in New York, Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia. They have a minimum of weight loss talk on their web site, but I was amused to find that they have a class
on how to walk in very high heels!

Women on the San Francisco Bay Peninsula have what I consider to be a better alternative. Every Woman Health Club, in Redwood City on the San Francisco Bay Peninsula, is (as far as I know) one of the country’s only explicitly size-friendly, women-only health clubs. The club has been in existence since 2002, an impressive lifespan in the health club industry. The owners, Anne and Stephanie, are women of size. I interviewed Stephanie.

Stef: Why did you decide to start a health club?

Stephanie: The women-only gym I belonged to was closing. My husband reminded me how much I love working with women and said I should open my own gym.

Stef: Why is your club for women only?

Stephanie: This stems from my personal experience as a rape and incest survivor and my experience as a Rape Crisis Advocate. I feel that a woman-only club provides a freer, safer environment for women to learn to accept and appreciate their bodies without the intrinsic limitations that can exist in co-ed environments. This environment allows women to
connect, share, and support each other through a wide variety of life’s experiences, from where to get a great hair cut to menopause or surviving breast cancer. It just creates a completely different environment from a co-ed gym.

Stef: Why is your club size friendly?

Stephanie: There are a few reasons. Again, because of my experiences, I want to help women learn to accept and appreciate their bodies, as they are and not as something that needs to be changed in order to be happy or to please someone else. This applies not just to size, but all aspects of how we view ourselves. There is a lot of pressure out there
to look a certain way and your typical health/fitness facility perpetuates that.

Being size friendly also means we are not focusing on weight loss or weight gain. We focus on health. To me being healthy has to do with internal numbers and functionality, not the number on the scale, for example, blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, flexibility and strength. Being size-friendly allows us to focus on the internal numbers and functionality and hopefully provide an environment where every woman, regardless of size, feels comfortable coming to work on her

Stef: What are the club’s members like?

Stephanie: They are great. I often say that the ability to smile quickly is a pre-requisite to membership and it actually seems be a common attribute of our members. Our members are warm, engaging, welcoming, inspiring, and funny! I am inspired by the stories they share with me about their day-to-day lives, their joys, their challenges, and how they have overcome so much in life.

Stef: What are some of the special challenges of running this kind of health club?

Stephanie: Making ends meet. First we cut out half the money-spending population by being women only. Then, we are going against the grain of society by not actively promoting weight loss and diet supplements. Those diet programs and supplements are big money-makers for conventional gyms. It also means that women who are not open to measuring health through functionality and internal measurements may choose to go somewhere else.

Stef: What is something unexpected that you have learned by running this health club?

Stephanie: Property taxes. We are taxed by the county for everything from the equipment we own to the paper clips we already paid sales tax on. What is up with that?!

Stef: What is an accomplishment you’re proud of, related to running this health club?

Stephanie: Wow, there is a lot. Still loving what I am doing. I think that speaks to what a great place this is and how great the clients are. Oh, and that we made it seven years and counting!

Stef: How do people react to you as women of size and health club owners?

Stephanie: Often they think you have to be fat to come to our gym. In one of my networking meetings, I was explaining how we measure health through functionality and internal measures like improved blood pressure and cholesterol. After my presentation, a woman said she’d like to talk to me after the meeting about her sister who is overweight and therefore would probably be interested in my gym.

I have also had women look me up and down like they were having difficulty reconciling what they see standing before them with the idea that I own a health club.

Stef: You offer massage and spa services as well as exercise equipment and classes. Do your members and clients find there is a benefit to receiving these services in a size-friendly atmosphere?

Stephanie: For me, it goes beyond size. It is about an atmosphere of self-acceptance. It has definitely had its benefits. We have had members try massage for the first time because they felt safe here. The same is true for classes. One of our members told me she had always wanted to take classes at her old health club, but felt too intimidated. She took an aerobics class here and loved it!

Stef: Is it difficult to find qualified instructors, personal trainers, massage therapists, and estheticians? How do you help ensure they will fit in with the atmosphere of your club?

Stephanie: Yes, but I have been very fortunate to find some really good people. I also recognize that our philosophy is something to continually strive toward and not necessarily a destination that we arrive at, at least for me. When I screen applicants, I look for that awareness. If they have that awareness, then the journey together is easier.

Stef: Are you concerned about the rise of “non-judgmental” exercise chains such as Planet Fitness? How is your
club different from such chains?

Stephanie: No, and I hope they truly are non-judgmental! It is a difficult achievement even with a small intimate club like Every Woman Health Club. I can’t imagine how they can achieve that with a larger number of members and in a co-ed environment. I also question the reality of that statement if the classes being offered do not provide modifications for participants of every size and ability. It is more difficult to offer modifications to individual students with big class sizes.

Stef: What are your dreams and goals for the club?

Stephanie: I love Every Woman. I want it to exist forever. I would love to grow as the economy grows, actually faster. And, I would love to find the means to add a pool! How wonderful would that be!

Stef: What advice would you give someone who wants to find or start a size-friendly club, or just some size-friendly exercise classes, in their area?

Stephanie: Ask questions, don’t be afraid to try a class or ask if you can observe a class, and talk with the instructor about your specific needs.

If you want to start a size-friendly club, do your homework and create a business plan. It will take you through the processes to determine the viability of your business venture and help guide it to success.

Stef: Is there anything else you want Body Impolitic readers to know?

Stephanie: Support the businesses that support your beliefs. Businesses that operate out of the “norm” and from the heart need your support to continue the work!

2 thoughts on “Moving with Joy: Creating a Body-Positive Health Club for Women

  1. I did not think Healthworks promoted weight loss. The impression I got from their website was that they would help members with weight loss upon request. I had a short-term limited membership last winter (when it was available at a steep discount), and I found them very comfortable and accommodating.

    One thing I liked about Healthworks is that the optional orientation for new members, where a trainer teaches you how to do stuff and recommends a workout, doesn’t start by asking “what are your weight loss goals?” I hate having to argue uphill against the presumption that I’m at the gym in order to lose weight. Healthworks started with a checklist of possible goals, including improving cardio fitness, increasing strength, conditioning for a sport, improving general health, weight loss, eating better…and I think they even included “other” with a blank to fill in.

  2. FYI:

    Hi Marlene — I’m glad to hear you read about us on Body Impolitic! In fact, we do have a transgender policy. Our policy is that as long as a transgender woman is anatomically aligned with a woman’s body, she is
    welcome to participate in the club. Thanks for your inquiry, and if you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

    Anne Callery
    Every Woman Health Club, Inc.

    I’ll assume that “anatomically aligned with a woman’s body” means having external genitalia that resemble what is expected of a cis woman. My body is also a “woman’s body”, but I don’t have to ask further questions to know what they mean.

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