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Would You Like an Eating Disorder with That Workout?

I have belonged to seven different gyms in my life, and either society is changing or I'm choosing bad gyms, because the last two seem to be selling eating disorders.

I left the last one because a personal trainer repeatedly advocated vomiting as an appropriate way to "get thin" and look "sexy." And to hear him tell it, all women should be doing their darndest to look sexy for him. (He was so not hot, just in case you're wondering.)

I complained to management and got a blank look. I explained some more. I got this uncomfortable look that suggested the fellow was a little embarrassed for me and my complaint. So I told the guy that I was a psychologist and that it was not ok with me to belong to a gym that was advocating eating disorders, especially so blatantly. That got a reaction, but only because suddenly I wasn't just some poor dumb little girl with a silly complaint, I was a doctor and all that might entail.

I ended up talking with several other people in charge, but I never felt like anybody really cared that there was a trainer running around telling young women to throw up. The folks in charge just wanted to placate the Doctor and get her to hush up. The trainer in question was not only not let go, he made my visits to the gym uncomfortable, and I overheard him continuing the same old schtick to his trainees.

So I quit the gym.

They occasionally call me or send me mail asking me to come back. I don't think I could go back and maintain my self-respect. They refuse to hear that.

So I joined a new gym. They built a Gold's gym on the corner near my house, and I thought -- excellent, convenient and not a fitness "club" like the last one. Maybe there will be less emphasis on personal training and unhealthy behaviors.

Man, did I have that wrong.

This gym (which is now Urban Active, still owned by the same company) shows videos on huge flat screens all over the place -- there's even a massive screen over the front desk that can be seen by people driving by. There are a few smaller screens scattered around the gym that show a constant series of advertisements.

But the videos.

All of the videos seem to feature mostly-naked women writhing around on chairs, the floor, each other, the walls, and especially on men. Enough that I start wondering if some of them might not benefit from anti-seizure medications.

I realize that people have been complaining about music videos since MTV first played Video Killed the Radio Star, but there is a distinctly different flavor to the videos they play at this gym than anywhere else I've ever worked out. Most of the music is (fully-clothed) male artists with the obligatory writhing scenery. Once in a while you see Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Gwen Stefani, or (shudder) The Pussycat Dolls, but again, they've chosen the slinkiest, sexiest videos they can find.

For all the teaching I do on eating disorders, I still find myself filled with self-loathing as I try in vain to escape from all those video screens during my workout. I know that only 5% of women have that naturally thin physique and only 8% have an hourglass figure. I know that many, many of the models, actresses, and singers (and increasingly, the men, as well) in Hollywood are anorexic, bulimic, compulsive overexercisers, and otherwise engaging in ridiculously unhealthy measures. I know that they are often weak and exhausted from not eating properly and trying to maintain unrealistic weights. And I know that the death rate for eating disorders is one of the highest for any psychological disorder, and that half of those deaths are from suicide. So thin definitely doesn't equal happy.

But those videos are still trying to convince me that the only things that might make me a worthwhile person are being thin and pornographically sexy.

I was raised by someone who told me she jogged because it made her feel strong and competent, so to me that's what exercise should do -- make you feel good about yourself. As a psychologist, I know that helping women experience embodiment -- feeling attached to your body as a strong, effective machine -- is key to helping them live happier, healthier lives.

I just wish my gym knew that. And cared enough to do something about it.


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