When I walked into the women’s locker room at Dillon gym earlier this week, I noticed a poster that made me bite my lip. Tacked up between weekly fitness schedules, the sign grabbed my attention with the headline: “The weight is over.” The line, I thought, could have been pulled from a diet product ad—Sensa, maybe, or Alli. It was the sort of cheesy slogan you see on caffeine-and-diuretic “supplements” at CVS.
As I looked more closely, however, I saw that what was being advertised had no direct connection to weight management. Beneath the headline was an invitation to students to “take the 1000 point challenge,” a fitness challenge in which participants could earn one point per minute of physical activity. Those who accumulated 1000 points over a five-week period would be awarded prizes. The program had less to do with weight loss than with workout ethic. Even so, the promise of weight loss was there, in bold print at the top of the page, and the message clear: work out, score points, and slim down.
In today’s society, weight loss and working out—at least for women—seem to go hand in hand. Just about every commercial gym promises, first and foremost, to help members shed pounds. Women’s health magazines are filled with fitness routines aimed at maximizing calorie burn or getting rid of unwanted belly fat. This general equation of fitness with weight loss has always bothered me, and not least because it is simply not true. For clinically overweight individuals, losing excess weight is a real step towards health. But fitness is far more than a number on a scale. And while most fitness centers and magazines do acknowledge that factors other than body mass index—muscle mass, for example—play a role in determining whether or not someone is “in shape,” they nevertheless seem to make the assumption that everyone, overweight or not, could stand to lose a few pounds.
Dillon’s “the weight is over” ad seemed to reinforce this generalization. Publicly posted, the sign’s promise was not directed towards any specific group of overweight students but at everyone who happened to read it, on the assumption that most women in a locker room are looking to trim down. This may well be true, as plenty of women do go to the gym in an effort to lose weight. Yet this is by no means the case for all women. Out of the women who are seeking to lose weight, many are striving to do so for cosmetic reasons rather than a legitimate health need. Additionally, absolutely equating weight loss with fitness ignores the health risks associated with eating disorders in which compulsive dieting and/or exercise can threaten rather than improve wellbeing.
Of course, the poster equates thin with fit only through a lighthearted play on words, and the point program itself places no emphasis on weight or dieting. Yet “the weight is over” was not the first sign I’ve noticed at Dillon related to weight management. Earlier this year, the gym hosted two contests, both aimed at encouraging students to stay slim. From November 25th through January 10th, the gym ran a weight-management competition called the “Battle of the Holiday Bulge,” in which participants signed up to have their weight monitored before and after the holiday season. Those who had gained no more than two pounds were awarded prizes. Additionally, on February 11th and 12th, Dillon hosted a “Valentine’s Day calorie count,” in which students who most closely guess the number of calories in a fabricated multi-course dinner won a dinner for two at Prospect House.
When I first saw these events advertised at Dillon, I was confused as to why they were being hosted by a fitness facility instead of at a nutritional counseling center. Unlike the point challenge advertisement, neither of these contests were primarily focused on exercise—rather, they seemed to tie weight and working out together, again assuming that students at the gym would also be interested, more generally, in monitoring their diet and weight. While neither contest overtly encouraged weight loss—the “holiday bulge” battle, is, after all, a weight maintenance contest—both urged students to monitor their weight or intake in ways that are more typically associated with dieting than athleticism. And like “the weight is over,” these contests addressed everyone: we all need to watch our weight over the holidays, and we can all benefit from learning to count calories before consuming them. The fact that obsessive weight monitoring and calorie counting might actually not be healthy behaviors for some students seems out of the picture.
One could argue that these events were only directed at overweight students, as those content with their bodies would dismiss them as simply not being applicable. Taking into account the influence of popular media on body image, however, the assumption that all healthy-weight students would overlook an invitation to diet seems just as problematic as assuming that thin equals fit. This is particularly true of female students. In a world of hyper-thin models and celebrities, where the line between “thin” and “too-thin” is being increasingly blurred, dieting and weightloss oriented fitness regimens are by no means reserved for the clinically overweight. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 91% of female college students report having attempted to manage their weight by dieting at some point. Presumably, a large number of these women were, in fact, at a healthy body weight to begin with; their weight loss efforts were more a matter of personal body image satisfaction than health.
Diet and weight loss “advice” found throughout women’s health media only encourage this phenomenon. The advice frequently targets normal weight, as well as overweight, women. In fact, a 2011 article from women’s health and fitness magazine Prevention offered weight loss advice specifically geared towards “healthy” readers. The article, “7 Weight Loss Mistakes Healthy Women Make,” promised a rescue regimen for women who are “snack on fruit, count calories…and get some form of exercise” but had found themselves at a “plateau” in their weight loss. Most nutritionists agree on something called “set point theory,” the notion that the body has an ideal weight, above and below which it is hard to maintain. It seems logical, then, that women who are eating right and exercising, yet find weight loss difficult, have simply reached a set point. According to Prevention, however, that is not the case: women are over-portioning, the “diet” treats they are choosing are not “diet” enough, and their “get-slim goal” is still attainable. In an age of ultra-thin Hollywood icons, such constant media encouragement for healthy and active women to continue to trim their bodies has given rise to the illusion that all of us could use a diet.
This is, however, an illusion—albeit a difficult one to escape and the degree to which Dillon seems to be feeding into it is troubling. Many of the commonly seen advertisements urging normal weight women to shed “those last five pounds” come from businesses or publications that make money off of these promises of weight loss. Dillon is not a commercial gym—it is a student fitness facility with a responsibility, first and foremost, to the health and wellbeing of students. In using the promise of weight loss to advertise a fitness program, Dillon may earn students’ attention. Yet, in doing so, the gym reinforces myriad faulty ideas about the relationship between weight, fitness, and diet that can be as harmful as they can be helpful.