In January, gyms can turn into pretty toxic places when it comes to body acceptance. ‘Before/after’ photo shoots pop up time and time again in mainstream advertising, and the focus becomes all about losing weight, burning off festive food and atoning for your Christmas sins. So far, so body-shamey.
But one pair of independent gym owners are pushing back against this wave of negative energy and encouraging their members to embrace fitness for reasons that go beyond body aesthetics.
Instead of using ‘before and after’ shots of gym-goers in their underwear, identical twin sisters Rhian Cowburn and Faye Mouse Bell have commissioned stunning murals to adorn the walls of their gym.
‘On the walls of our fitness studio, we commissioned world-renowned portrait artist Zabou to create seven-foot high beautiful portraits of our members, celebrating them just the way they are,’ Rhian tells Metro.co.uk.
‘This is our peaceful protest against what has become the norm in the fitness industry. ‘So often studios tap into people’s insecurities, make them feel they don’t meet up to expectations and then sell them the “solution”.
‘We would never offer transformation plans as we don’t believe any of our members need transforming, they’re perfect exactly as they are.’ The murals are black and white, and focus on the faces and emotions of loyal customers, rather than body shape.
Strong + Bendy is an independent fitness studio in Hackney Wick that offers a variety of group fitness classes. The focus is always on how customers feel when they leave, rather than how they look.
Rhian says she had never particularly liked seeing gyms use ‘before and after’ photos, but it wasn’t until she set up her gym and became close friends with many of her clients that she really began to see how damaging they could be.
‘I met so many brilliant people achieving amazing things – in all areas of their lives – that it was absurd to think they needed “transforming” or changing,’ she explains. ‘Our customers allowed me to pursue a lifelong dream of running my own business, and are people to be celebrated, not humiliated by stripping them down to their underwear and judging them on their body shapes.’
Rhian says this kind of gym marketing is so harmful because it reduces success to the amount of fat burnt, weight lost or muscle built. ‘It puts the focus entirely on how you look and not how you feel. It encourages the pursuit of trying to look a certain way, regardless of the toll that might take on the person’s body,’ she adds. ‘”Before and after” photos play a part in reinforcing dangerous expectations around how we “should” look and what is considered desirable.’
Rhian says it’s vital to make a distinction between fitness and how someone looks – the two don’t always go hand in hand. ‘Being fit can have a huge positive impact on mental health, whereas trying to live up to an unrealistic perfect body will have the complete opposite effect,’ she says. ‘It shouldn’t be unusual to be told that you’re good enough. That you don’t need to change or transform. The response from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive so far.’