Is Skinnypigs Fitness Empowering or Demeaning Women?

Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss

At the beginning of the week, you probably hadn’t heard of Newcastle-based women’s fitness company, Skinnypigs Fitness. Thanks to a questionable banner and subsequent backlash on Twitter, however, that may now have changed.

Earlier this week, an image of the fitness company’s banner circulated online after a concerned parent complained about it’s body-shaming messaging and placement near a school. Complaints via social media happen more and more frequently nowadays, and it’s often the case that you’ll receive a polite but, ultimately, unsatisfying response.

With Skinnypigs Fitness, it went a little differently…

“We caught sight of that banner when I was taking my 8-year-old to school,” says Tricia, who took the original photo of the banner and shared it on Twitter. “My son saw it and said it was ‘really gross’, and that it would ‘make girls think they should be in bikinis’. My 10-year-old daughter walks herself to school and would have already seen it on her way in – she has previously expressed concerns around ‘fat’ and her appearance, and I think the banner would only reinforce those insecurities.

“I really thought it was massively inappropriate near a school – and pretty tasteless anywhere else – so I took a picture and when I got home I put that picture on social media. I started tweeting Skinnypigs, who said nothing for hours. I also used their website and spoke to their social media director who initially told me she was sorry I was ‘deeply offended’, but that I had ‘misunderstood’ the banner. She said that they had helped hundreds of women, but if I was so offended they’d take it down. After a brief but terse exchange, she finally said that the banner would not come down after all, and I would have to speak to the director.”

The banner itself has now been taken down. According to Skinnypigs and their supporters, it was vandalised. Many parents in the area, however, say that the banner was removed by the territorial army (TA) whose building the banner was on, as classes are held there.

“The owner of Skinnypigs comes onto Twitter, he is mocking right from the start,” continues Tricia. “We have a Twitter spat that lasts into the following evening, only stopping when I am at work. He tells me I’m unhinged, he says I have texted his company phone – I haven’t.”

From @SkinnypigsUK on Twitter

“He tells me I’ll die of loneliness, that I should ‘try Tinder’. His friends pile in, telling me that they pity my children. I have seen Jonathan Hair’s Facebook page, at around 7pm he’d invited his followers to join him on Twitter to ‘tear us some new sphincters’. At the time it felt like it was just me, receiving a stream of abuse from all these people – and the Skinnypigs owner liking every comment on the way, no matter how vicious. I now know this was happening to several women at the same time.”

It seemed to be an open-and-shut case of another misogynistic company targeting women’s insecurities and getting aggressive when being called out. A quick look on the company’s Facebook page or Twitter feed, however, revealed many women praising both the company and the owner, Jonathan, for empowering women with their classes.

“The company is amazing,” says Lindsay, a current Skinnypigs customer. “I went to the doctors as I had anxiety, and they recommended exercise. I went to Skinnypigs and never looked back… it was the first fitness class I had ever been to where I didn’t feel like people were staring or judging, and I’ve tried a lot. My overall physical and mental health has improved and this is solely down to Skinnypigs. They offer nothing but support.”

Another Skinnypigs customer, who wished to remain anonymous, told us about the other ways Skinnypigs supports women’s fitness. “It’s the first time I’ve looked forward to exercising,” they told The Nopebook. “Skinnypigs also offer a nutrition plan where they encourage you to eat and not starve yourself in any way. There’s a Facebook group dedicated to nutrition where we all support each other if we struggle with following the plan, we pitch new recipe ideas. So it definitely encourages you to get fit and healthy rather than skinny. The instructors can see where to push you but also recognise when you’re pushed to your limit.”

Layla is another satisfied Skinnypigs customer, who spoke of their supportiveness and focus on fitness and health over weight loss. “I feel Skinnypigs promote body confidence and fitness, it’s not about body shaming as there are women of every shape, size, age, race. One of the first things they tell you is to ditch the scales as they’re not about weight loss, it’s about being healthy and fit… I think it’s a fantastic local organisation that offers me as a single Mam flexibility, as there are so many classes that allow me to bring my son along and through that he has become more active and knows the importance of fitness.”

However, as many people on social media pointed out, the issue was not with the classes themselves; it was with the negative message the banner sent, especially considering it was near a school. While the classes may focus on health, the banner itself focusses purely on losing weight to “look better naked”, including a ‘before and after’ style image of a larger woman, and a slim woman in a bikini. As far as negative motivators for weight loss and perpetuating body-shaming for larger people goes, this banner is pretty up there.

The Nopebook got in touch with director and founder of Skinnypigs, Jonathan Hair, to speak to him about the company, the advertisement and the backlash on Twitter.

“When I worked as a personal trainer, women would come up to me thinking they were going to be judged for wanting to change the way they look,” says Jonathan. “I want women to feel genuinely happy,” he continues, “strip away the gimmicks and have them be genuinely happy in their skin.”

Of the flurry on Twitter over the last 24 hours, Jonathan said: “The context was severely missing. People saw one tweet and just jumped in. The company is seven years old, and it’s been peace and quiet on social media in all that time. It’s people judging from the outside in. Some people just thrive on the nastiness of Twitter, it’s like an online lynch mob.”

When questioned on the potential body-shaming connotations of the banner, he said: “I think it depends on how you’re reading it. The message is all tongue in cheek, even down to the names of the exercise in our classes, the women all get a laugh out of it.”

While this ‘tongue in cheek’ rhetoric surrounding body image might be fine amongst a group of friends, when presented to a wider group there’s a lot of room for it to be interpreted differently – which is extremely problematic, especially when this message is put in front of children.

The founder of Skinnypigs also cited (both to The Nopebook, and subsequently on Twitter) Gok Wan’s TV show ‘How To Look Good Naked’, and how he never got any “grief” from people for the message his show was sending. This sort of missed the point, however, that Gok Wan wasn’t telling women they needed to change their body to look good naked – he helped them come to realise that they already looked good naked, no weight loss or shape change neeed.

There seems to be a lack of understanding about the potential influences that would cause women to want to change the way they look – influences such as the very banner Skinngpigs has touted the last seven years. It’s great that so many women have found Skinnypigs a supportive place to improve their health and be happy in their own skin, but in trying to drum up more business the company is using messaging that contributes to women being unhappy in the first place.

Many women have messaged the fitness company on Twitter in regards to the banner, concerned about the body-shaming imagery and slogan. Some of these are quite understandably angry, and the image has been Tweeted out to national newspapers and the Advertising Standards Authority. This would get up the hackles of any small business owner, but the responses by the company’s official Twitter account range from unprofessional to outright abuse.

From @SkinnypigsUK on Twitter

“I don’t deal well with trolls,” says Jonathan. “I don’t use Twitter very often and I wish I’d never got involved… if I hadn’t it would have just gone away. People use the word ‘offended’ to beat people over the head, they want to see blood. I think it’s disgraceful. I employ forty women, many with kids at home. That’s why I get so defensive. People forget that there’s real world consequences. I couldn’t even tell you how many hacking attempts I’ve had [over the last 24 hours] on my social media and website.”

Despite his reasons for lashing out at those questioning his marketing tactics, there are were Skinnypig customers who saw the comments made and were clear that they were not happy.

“I’ve been to Skinnypigs and enjoyed it, but surely this tweet deserved a ‘we take your comment on board and have a think’ not a tirade of abuse,” says Gemma on Twitter. Another customer, Lauren, said: “As someone who attends Skinnypigs, I’m pretty f*cking disappointed with these responses. How derogatory and judgmental.”

From @SkinnypigsUK on Twitter

Another customer, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the conduct on Twitter was “disgusting”. “For someone who claims to be empowering women (and who makes a lot of money from them), he certainly doesn’t seem to like them much,” they told us. “The use of the word ‘feminazi’ was particularly repulsive, and saying they would end up lonely just because they didn’t agree with his poster? It sounds like a child’s response. It’s a shame because the exercise classes are a good workout but I’ll never use them again – not a chance that I’ll give him any money now.

Even with the best intentions, the overall message Skinnypigs Fitness is putting out into the world contradicts what Jonathan claims to be his driving force. It might have come from a place of wanting to help women be happier in their bodies, but it’s very hard to decipher that intention from the message it’s actually sending. Especially considering we live in a society that routinely shames women for being a certain shape or size. And however well-intentioned those advertisements were, laying into women on Twitter with concern for the potential harm it could cause their children is not the way to address the problem.

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