There are a lot of older women who could afford to lose a few pounds, but you’d never know it to look at the exercise equipment at the gym. All the images on the machines there are of young white men in very good physical shape. In fact, if you are looking at the pictures to figure out how to use the equipment, I’m willing to bet you $100 that you don’t resemble the people you are looking at. This struck me as rather significant.
I read somewhere that overweight people tend to feel unwelcome at gyms and fitness centres because they don’t often see people who look like themselves, and it seemed to me that gyms would want to address that concern by promoting a welcoming environment.
The community recreation centre that I use has done that. It has deliberately created inclusive promotional materials showing people of various sizes, shapes, ages, abilities, and ethnicities. The administrators and staff there are doing their best, and as a consequence I see a delightful range of people using the facilities. I work out in the same place as young and old people, short and tall people, thin and fat people, and some people with physical or mental challenges. I even get to watch some CFL football players exercising, and I really do appreciate the results of their efforts. Sometimes, that’s the highlight of my day.
Even so, it annoyed me that the illustrations on the machines represented only a small subsection of the types of people who use the gym. So, I wrote to the people who made the equipment. In their reply, they told me that the purpose of the illustrations was to show the muscle groups being exercised by each machine. That surprised me, because that hadn’t occurred to me. I thought they were just to show how the machine was supposed to be used. Now that I think about it, of course they highlight particular muscle groups. Why, though, did the manufacturers choose to do this with a young, thin, white guy? Don’t pudgy older ladies have the same muscle groups?
It’s one of those subtle forms of racial, gender, and age-related bias that crop up all the time. The people who create the images are not being deliberately exclusive. They probably think they are appealing to their target market. When I went to the website for the company that makes the gym equipment I found the preferred image online to be of young women in bikinis, which is also an interesting choice. The outcome of all these images is that most of us never see people like ourselves in the illustrations for exercise machines, and so at some level we feel as though we don’t really belong at the gym.
The machine manufacturers would probably encourage a more inclusive use of their equipment if they showed a wider range of body types in their images. I’m wondering now whether to suggest this to them. If they decide to use a slightly overweight retired woman to illustrate muscle groups, I’ll be happy to be their model. Someone will have to show me how to use the equipment first, though.
Image source Gym Equipment Pictures