The fitness industry recently experienced its first major public #MeToo moment. While many folks were legitimately shocked, that shock did little more than shine a light on just how steeped our industry is in the culture of objectification and harassment of women. Based on nearly 15 years in this business, I can tell you it’s been a long time coming.
Yvette Guinevere d’Entremont (aka SciBabe) reported sexual harassment by Alan Aragon (yes, that Alan Aragon) at the Flexible Fitness & Nutrition Summit in late August. As Yvette described the incident in a Facebook post, Alan ran his fingers through her hair, pulled her in close, and whispered vulgar things into her ear. He did this repeatedly, she said, despite her strong objections, while he “had a grip on her and wouldn’t let her go,” all while several witnesses milled about close by. After she reported him to the conference organizers, he was removed from the event.
The day after the summit, Alan posted on Facebook about his battles with alcoholism. That’s when Yvette and others spoke up, publicly accusing him of varying degrees of sexually inappropriate behavior, from whispering vulgar things to having to forcefully push him out of their hotel room.
(One of those women was fitness and nutrition coach Carolina Belmares, a dear friend and colleague of mine who had privately told me about her harassment by Alan at a separate conference earlier this year.)
Alan later made a vague post (what Yvette called a “non-pology”) addressing Yvette and Carolina’s claims, but not in detail. Several of Alan’s devoted followers showed up to defend and minimize his behavior as they insulted Yvette and Carolina and questioned the veracity of their accounts.
He subsequently took down his Facebook page, but not after commenting in a private Facebook group that Yvette’s story was “a romance novel with plot holes.”
So, while this story may seem as if it’s about one man’s behavior, it’s actually about an entire culture, one that all fitness professionals are part of, including you. When 81 percent of all women (and 43 percent of all men) report experiencing some form of sexual harassment, there are no bystanders. Everyone has either felt it or witnessed it, and now all of us need to help end it.
As cofounder of Girls Gone Strong, my mission is to create environments that encourage people (especially women) to feel safe, welcome, and powerful while envisioning a hopeful future for themselves. Fitness is the vessel through which I carry out that mission.
But fitness industry culture also has a long history of encouraging not just masculinity but toxic masculinity, in which status is achieved through the representation of strength, power, and control. The logical extension of these hyper-masculine stereotypes is the idea that women exist to serve and please men. Thus, men are entitled to women’s time and attention.
This idea was taken to its absurd conclusion in 2016 by a notorious article titled “How to Talk to a Woman Wearing Headphones.” It inspired both lengthy responses (like this one from The Guardian) and viral memes.
My own version of that article would be a single word: Don’t.
The truth is, women in this industry have faced sexual harassment for a long time. As a public figure in the fitness space with the audacity to wear spandex online, I receive massive amounts of inappropriate comments on social media. Almost every female trainer I know gets unsolicited dick pics. Some get them every day.
And it’s not just the Internet trolls. It’s happening in brick-and-mortar gyms too. One female trainer I know worked at a gym where her male boss would tell her explicit details about his sex life, objectify female clients in front of her, and put his hands on female gymgoers to the point where at least one of them left the gym for good.
One female trainer told me about the time a male colleague shouted to her across the gym, “Yo, Becky! I see you over there in those yoga pants lookin’ good!” while they were both training clients. When she complained about his frequent advances and inappropriate comments, her (female) boss told her she should be happy he finds her attractive and ignore it.
The industry’s focus on physical appearance may make objectifying body-oriented comments seem okay. Needless to say, they’re not.
Plenty of you—men and women—want to make a change. I’ve been in touch with dozens of male fitness pros who’re speaking out against pervasive sexual harassment and a culture of acceptance in the fitness industry, including Dominic Matteo, James Fell, and Mark Fisher.
Many of them have also expressed regret at participating in that culture in some way, whether through sexist remarks, locker-room talk, not taking action when a woman told them she was harassed, or a general “boys will be boys” attitude. These are well-educated men who care about women. It shows how pervasive this type of culture can be, but also that we’re ready for change.
I recently posted this graphic of a pyramid on my Facebook page. At the bottom of the pyramid are the low-level offenses and seemingly innocuous behaviors, attitudes, and jokes you come across every day in gyms and online fitness communities. A little higher on the pyramid are things like catcalling, whistling, and unsolicited dick pics. Climb still higher and you see sexual coercion and groping, and at the peak are violence and rape.
Here’s the thing: Without those bottom levels of the pyramid, there’s no foundation for the upper levels to rest on. Eliminate the stuff at the bottom, and you also erase the stuff at the top.
That’s because the most violent, horrific acts of assault and harassment start with normalization, with brushing things off. Acknowledge that even minor sexist behaviors are not okay, and they won’t have a chance to escalate.
Fortunately, things going on today—both nationally and in the fitness world—present an opportunity for change. Women are speaking out, and men are supporting them. Men are stepping up, too. They’re willing to call out problematic behavior and begin to share some of the burden of raising awareness and creating change.
Systemic change can seem overwhelming. But if there’s one thing fitness pros know, it’s that we can change. Just as you take small steps on your fitness journey, small actions can make a difference. You can help eliminate the insidious parts of our culture that lead to harassment and assault. You can create an environment that helps your female clients and colleagues feel safer.
And you can start doing it today. Here’s how.
1. Post your gym’s anti-harassment policy
A woman I know told me about an older man at her gym who would put his arm around female gymgoers and make lewd comments while they would visibly shrink away. He did this in front of management, and in response to complaints, the gym staff would say, “Oh, just avoid Harold. That’s how he is.”
Is it any wonder why so many women don’t speak up at all? At best it feels futile, and at worst it’s terrifying.
I know one who left her gym after a male gymgoer joked about setting up cameras in the women’s showers. She felt so uneasy around him that she cancelled her membership without ever reporting him. This kind of thing happens more often than gym owners know.
Both situations, and dozens of others I’ve heard about or experienced, can be dealt with in a simple way: by posting your gym’s clear and unambiguous zero-tolerance attitude toward harassment. You have one, right? (If not, get on that.) When you do, you’ll make clients and staffers feel more comfortable speaking up.
Then—and this is really important—enforce those rules. Make sure employees understand they’ll be fired for breaking the rules, and customers understand their memberships will be revoked.
(If you’re looking for guidance on how to create an anti-harassment policy, Girls Gone Strong is currently finalizing a free five-day course for fitness professionals on sexual harassment and assault. You can register for free here.)
2. Ask before you touch
Some trainers like to manually cue a client to guide her through an exercise. I get that. But you need to explain it up front, and say something like this:
“Many of my clients find it helpful when I cue them with my hands. For example, I may put my hands on your upper back to remind you to pull your shoulder blades together. Is that okay? I’ll let you know before I do it. And if it’s ever not okay, let me know.”
Make it clear that she can revoke her consent at any time.
This simple act not only makes your clients more comfortable, it helps establish consent as a prerequisite for touch. If you want the members at your gym to keep their hands to themselves, you need to lead by example and show respect first.
3. Demonstrate new moves
If you’re asking a client to do a glute bridge, to pick one obvious example, you should do it first so she can see what it looks like. Then say, “I’d like you to try it if you feel comfortable.”
Also be considerate of your location in the gym and how your client feels. She may or may not be okay with doing squats or hip thrusts in the middle of the gym floor, or supine exercises in crowded areas. Check in and ask what she prefers. If she doesn’t feel comfortable, look for a spot near a wall, or even in a separate space, if that’s an option.
4. Be mindful of your body
While you’re focusing on your client’s form, be aware of your own position too. Most of the time, you want to be at her side, not her front or back. You also want to stand or kneel so you’re at her level. If your client agrees to do that glute bridge, for example, kneel on the floor next to her, rather than standing over her. But if she’s doing a Romanian deadlift, stand up.
If you must check your client’s form from the front or rear, let her know what you’re doing, and make it brief: “Hey, I’m going to check real quick to make sure your hips are level.”
5. Comment on her achievements, not her body
Positive feedback can be motivating. Just be sure to frame your compliments in a non-objectifying way.
If your client wants to lose fat, compliment her progress by highlighting measurable results, like her lower body-fat percentage or how many inches she’s lost. Stay away from remarks about body parts (“Your stomach is so much tighter!”), and from compliments that focus on appearance (“Lookin’ good!”).
And remember: Not all women come to the gym to lose fat. If your client’s goal is to improve her deadlift, that’s what you focus on. Always align your compliments with your client’s goals.
6. Watch your language
Words matter. Terms like “bitch” and “pussy” get thrown around in fitness circles all the time. But these degrading words are inherently female. If you think that doesn’t feed sexism, you’re kidding yourself. Strike these words from your vocabulary. Personally, I prefer the nongendered “asshole.” It gets the point across.
While you’re at it, strike the word “rape” too. Unless of course, you’re talking about actual rape. But “I just got raped by that last set”? No. No, you did not.
7. Listen more, talk less
If someone confides in you that she was harassed, ask how you can support her. Hold your questions for later.
And please, don’t try to normalize, minimize, or excuse the situation.
Jennifer Lau, a Nike master trainer, shared a story on Instagram of a client who called her into the washroom to take “progress measurements,” only for her to discover him there totally naked. When she told her coworkers about it, they laughed and asked for more details on the client’s physique.
Don’t put the blame on her. Don’t try to suggest how she should have reacted, or tell her what you would have done differently in her situation. There may be a time and place for reflection, but it may not be with you, and that’s okay. In this moment, the only reason to open your mouth is to ask how you can help.
In fact, that’s a pretty solid and universal guideline for almost any harassment situation: Offer help first, and figure out the details later.