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AS I SEE IT - Are Gymshark to Blame for Their Own Backlash to Body Positivity? By Isabel Rolfe

On September 7th 2020, Gymshark reposted a photo on Instagram of Nelly London (@_nelly_london) in their activewear to their 4.8 million followers. The reaction to the post was huge with 25.9k comments and 820k likes, whereas the usual engagement was around 600 comments and 45k likes. But why?

The post garnered cruel reactions such as: "Confidence won’t unclog your arteries" (@breed.different._), "It's sad to see that a health company is promoting unhealthy habits" (@irmometro.11), and "Guys, it’s not normal. We have to fight back this unhealthy trend" (@amal_rahmatov).

Curious to see why these people were so enraged, I crossed over to Nelly’s YouTube profile to watch some of her videos, amongst which I found hauls, with her replying to comments from her dedicated subscribers with the sizes she bought - all 10/12 (as pictured below). Yes, 12. The average size for a woman in the UK is 16. We must question the values of Gymshark if its customers expect such a homogenous feed that a woman two sizes under the national average generates this level of hateful response.

It is evidently the lack of diversity that enabled the reactive, disgusting backlash as it presents Nelly’s body as an alternative to fitness, compared with their previous ‘standard’ which was not inclusive enough to reflect the fitness community. Fitness brands should be welcoming to people at all stages of their fitness journey, not just those that have been working out for years, and oftentimes extreme stages. Whilst the trolls are responsible for their own hate comments, I cannot help but think Gymshark enabled them. To post Nelly’s photo on an otherwise uniform feed was essentially to throw her to the sharks, or 4.8 million Gymsharks, and put both her and her body under scrutiny she had not anticipated.

Furthermore, since following Nelly on Instagram, I have seen her do a lot of exercise (which shouldn’t be a prerequisite to wearing athleisure), which firmly places her within the target market of Gymshark, and to claim otherwise, as some of those commentors have done, is ludicrous. Health and fitness do not have a body type or shape because everybody is different - nobody should take it upon themselves to attempt to make a health assessment of someone else based purely on the way they look.

"This also calls into question whether Gymshark’s recent body positivity movement is rooted purely in hypocrisy; are these posts mere tokenism, a performative attempt to reach a wider market that they cannot provide for?"

You would hope these ideals would be reflected in the brand, especially if they decided to use Nelly’s photo for promotion, so I had a look at the size guide on Gymshark’s website which was presented all in inches. To receive some more clarification about which sizes the brand carry, I messaged the live chat, who provided me with an alternative size guide:

  • X Small - UK size 6-8, EU 34-36, US 2-4
  • Small - UK size 8-10, EU 36-38, US 4-6
  • Medium UK size 10-12, EU 38-40, US 6-8
  • Large UK size 12-14, EU 40-42, US 8-10
  • X Large UK size 14-16, EU 42-44, US 10-12

As you can see, the sizing range labels the average size of a UK woman (16) an ‘X Large’, perpetuating the damaging notion that most of the women in the UK are too big for the brand, with a vast percentage of the population not even having clothing available to them. This also calls into question whether Gymshark’s recent body positivity movement is rooted purely in hypocrisy; are these posts mere tokenism, a performative attempt to reach a wider market that they cannot provide for?

Mocking people for any perceived issue with their health is awful, and yet people seem to understand that for genetic diseases; Gymshark made a post of a woman with a stoma which garnered 67 thousand likes and lots of positive comments, and here the clear divide is exemplified – the hate is not about health, but about visual aesthetics. Therefore, to claim the insults comes from anywhere other than their shallow values is false. Some will try to justify the discrepancy with the age old phrase - ‘it’s their choice!’ I wonder then, why things such as smoking or drinking are not mocked to nearly the same extent, even when they are also visible signs of potential ill-health?

Equating one body image or size with health feeds into diet culture and unhealthy obsessions with weight, which in turn shames consumers if their body doesn’t match up. No bodies should be stigmatised. These damaging effects are perfectly exemplified through a comment by @hannahmayging saying, "I cried reading @gymshark replies to rude comments on here. I'm tired of being made to feel huge and unhealthy just because I'm not a size 0."

"People will always be hateful for no reason, but brands based on image should try to alleviate this as best they can."

Since people caught on to the backlash, the comment section has been flooded with an outpouring of positivity, which is wonderful to see. However, this cannot negate the damage done by previous horrible comments. Nelly took to Instagram to share: "There really is only so much trolling one person can deal with, and to be honest I’m struggling". For a slim, beautiful Instagram model to receive this level of hate portrays the awful biases entrenched in our society against varying body types.

Gymshark have since replied to hateful comments with humour and appear to be championing diversity, as well as acknowledging that until now their branding has been imperfect, and they are looking to correct that. To be truly diverse, fitness brands need to consider how they uphold unrealistic beauty standards, have a size range that reflects the society they are selling to, and avoid doing the bare minimum every one in six posts. People will always be hateful for no reason, but brands based on image should try to alleviate this as best they can.

For anyone reading this, please positively engage with attempts at body inclusivity by these corporations; it encourages them to continue promoting representation and diversity, and enables everybody to feel comfortable living their healthiest life. I would further encourage you to vary your feed by following body positive accounts such as @em_clarkson, @danaemercer, @selfloveliv and, of course, @_nelly_london, who have truly made me feel so much more accepting of myself and others, as well as comfortable in my own body.

Credits:

Created with an image by Tammy Gann - "Shape"