Meet the fitness brands tackling fat phobia and industry intimidation

The fitness industry’s lack of inclusivity has paved the way for a number of challenger brands looking to disconnect themselves from the clichés of the market and eradicate “fat phobia”.

The fitness industry isn’t exactly renowned for championing inclusivity. You only need to skim through a couple of pages of highly toned models in a health magazine to work that out.

Many brands claim to adopt inclusive branding and practices, but lots of sportswear giants are either ignoring or struggling to cater for an audience that doesn’t fit the fitness model or athlete mould.

Last year, a study by international lingerie brand Bluebella, which drew on data from the NHS and Office for National Statistics (ONS), found the average size for women in Britain is 16. Yet brands such as Lululemon only produce clothing up to a size 16 or 18, thereby excluding half the population.

Many fitness studios and gyms also risk intimidating or alienating potential clients by creating a playground for the elite and have been accused of pushing artificial goals by only using models in their ad campaigns.

Some, such as premium studio Equinox Fitness say they don’t mind because “that’s not the market we’re targeting and we’re okay with that”.

You can’t claim to be a body positive or feminist brand while at the same time excluding half of the population from shopping with you.

Micki Krimmel, Superfit Hero

But there’s more to the fitness industry than steel abs, protein shakes and hot pants. And brands are finally starting to wake up.

For instance, Sport England’s hugely successful campaign ‘This Girl Can’, the latest version of which has just been unveiled, challenges stereotypes by using real women, in real situations exercising.

Now, businesses are finally following suit and taking a stand, paving the way for a number of niche challenger brands looking to disrupt the industry, disconnect themselves from the clichés of the market and create a much-needed inclusive sub-category for consumers who desperately want to “feel comfortable”.

Banishing ‘cliché’ branding

Walk into a yoga studio and you’re almost always greeted by white interiors, various oriental ornaments and dead silence. An intimidating scene for most, even for Michele Pernetta, founder of London-born yoga franchise Fierce Grace. And she’s been in the industry for 25 years.

The brand is no stranger to quirky, unique and challenging branding. Its marketing materials read: “Our studios do not alienate people. They have no pretences, they are not zen, white, silent, pure”.

Pernetta says during her two decades in the sector she noticed branding has become increasingly off-putting, not only to people who regularly work out but to people who don’t fit the traditional mould too.

“When I launched Fierce Grace it allowed me to go against the grain of what you see in normal yoga magazines, and I was able to do this full gusto,” she says. “Our aim is to demystify yoga and avoid awful clichés like ‘white’ and ‘organic’.”

“I avoid it not just for branding purposes but because it is literally of no use to people. It might be aspirational for tiny percentage of people who come but it really isn’t for the audience that I believe needs [yoga] the most.”

From an older man mastering an arm balance with his walking stick in sight, to a bearded gentleman dressed in ‘biker-inspired’ attire sitting cross-legged meditating, Fierce Grace’s marketing is less than conventional. Rather than using models in its advertising, Pernetta says she chooses to use her own students which she believes will attract a different client-base.

“We’re not focused on things like, ‘look at Cindy over there in the splits’. Instead we’re saying ‘wow, look at John who is five inches closer to kneeling than he was last week’,” she explains.

Our message is to demystify yoga and avoid awful clichés like ‘white’ and ‘organic’.

Michele Pernetta, Fierce Grace

Fierce Grace has grown rapidly since its inception in the UK in 2013. It now has more than 60,000 students (40% of which are male) across its franchises in 13 countries including the US, Italy, France, Ireland and Spain. It also now has seven London-based studios.

According to Pernetta, some success comes from deliberately leaving the word ‘yoga’ out of the name in an attempt to make people feel comfortable attending the studio.

“We didn’t want the name yoga in there; of course it’s yoga, but it’s just a way of living so we didn’t think it was needed. I wanted a name men were comfortable saying,” Pernetta says.

Rather than using models in its advertising Fierce Grace uses its own students to attract the “people who need yoga the most”.

Global gym franchise, DW Fitness First, is also using its members in its activations.

Playing on success-stories, the company chooses to use members who are at the end of their journey and essentially represent what a fitness model looks like anyway.

The brand has done this so clients have the chance to tell their own success stories and to show there’s a tipping point between being completely unhealthy and showing members the right attitude.

Another brand challenging stereotypes is US active wear label Superfit Hero, which caters for women from a XS to 5XL. Its founder Micki Krimmel says the fitness industry “thrives on self-loathing” but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Her idea for the brand stemmed from the urge to provide a product that would empower women who wouldn’t normally feel comfortable enough to exercise because they can’t find clothing that fits them.

“Superfit Hero was founded with the message first. I knew what story I wanted to tell and what impact I wanted to have before clothing became the vehicle for the message,” Krimmel says.

“Nike, Adidas, Lululemon, you name it, none of them were addressing the plus size market in 2015. The average American woman was wearing a size 16 (UK 20) and could shop with none of these brands.”

Krimmel adds that it took minimal research to uncover a huge opportunity to connect with a previously ignored market, and one that she believed was “primed for growth”.

“These athletes take their practice seriously enough to invest in proper clothing to get the most out of their workout. They want to shop from a brand that respects their efforts and honours their participation no matter their size or fitness level,” she explains.

Fear of ‘fat’

Krimmel believes brands are starting to address the imbalance by using more diverse models and are making an effort to represent “the upper edge of their size range”. However, she argues they’re still not doing enough.

“You can’t claim to be a body positive or feminist brand while at the same time excluding half of the population from shopping with you,” she says.

“Unless and until other brands catch up, we’ll proudly continue to be the most size inclusive premium performance wear company on the planet. Our goal is to create a community of passionate repeat customers who believe in our message and rely on us for our superior product.”

According to Krimmel, many companies are still reluctant to get involved because they, along with the general population, have “fat phobia”.

“What is it that prevents other activewear companies from addressing a broader market and including more body types in their ad campaigns? The answer is simple. It’s fat phobia. Does fat phobia alienate a core customer base? It sure as hell does,” she says.

Sometimes we get overweight people who say: ‘I’m a fat person on a bike, I don’t need a shirt to tell people that.

Lynn Bye, Fat Lad at the Back

Reiterating this point is co-founder of British cycling wear brand Fat Lad at the Back (FLAB), Lynn Bye. She explains her husband Richard Bye struggled to find cycling gear that fit him so they took a punt and set up a sportswear brand catering for larger sizes. The launch of Fat Lass at the Back followed.

However, while the move has been met with praise, Bye acknowledges it’s hard to please everyone.

“It’s quite an emotive subject because some people love Fat Lad and some hate it,” she says.

“Most of the haters are thin people who feel obliged to be offended on behalf of fat people. And sometimes we get overweight people who say: ‘I’m a fat person on a bike, I don’t need a shirt to tell people that’.”

This sensitivity has prompted the label to launch a stealth range, which is unbranded, however Bye says the company only has positive connotation for the “f-word” – fat.

Fat Lad at the Back says some people hate the brand and some love it.

“When people are offended by it, it’s more about their attitude to fat rather than their attitude to the brand,” she explains.

FLAB offers 11 sizes and is available online in 42 countries. It uses “real people” in its campaigns and acknowledges the challenge of operating in a niche industry. Bye says having to pay up to 30% more to create bigger sizes stops other brands from entering the market, so there’s not a lot of competition around. But even if there was, she believes FLAB is able to support what it preaches.

“We’re not just about selling shirts and making profit. We’re not just a cycling brand, we’re a brand that has ethics, and ethics that are important to us.”

Industry intimidation

While all three brands are vastly different, they all set out with a similar mission – to rid industry intimidation and create a comfortable environment for people.

Fierce Grace’s Pernetta says her branding really struck a cord with people who had been put off by pictures in traditional yoga magazines.

“That kind of [traditional] branding and messaging will attract a traditional yoga crowd but we get those people anyway because they come, try it and understand the yoga system,” she says.

“But I’m not trying to reach those people with my message, I’m trying to reach the people who would never normally have felt comfortable coming. Yoga must be taught in a way that is empowering, not condescending.”

Does fat-phobia alienate a core customer base? It sure as hell does.

Micki Krimmel, Superfit Hero

Krimmel agrees the fashion industry is not known for its inclusivity, and the fitness industry is even worse. She explains when the “two industries cross paths” most of the ad campaigns generated by activewear companies only focus on one body type.

“[The campaigns suggest] only one type of body belongs in the gym or is worthy of being considered ‘athletic’,” she says.

“Anyone who has actually been to any gym knows that’s not true. Anyone who’s ever played a competitive sport knows that’s not true. Anyone who’s ever run a marathon, been to a dance class, or watched the Olympics knows that athletes come in all shapes and sizes.”

Superfit Hero caters for women from a size XS right up to a size 5XL.

Success is more than numbers

Success for these brands stretches beyond revenue and instead relies on making a difference to people’s lives and wellbeing.

Superfit Hero is doubling sales each year and growing the business organically without institutional investment, however for Krimmel, creating a brand that people want and need means more.

“Initially, we were simply looking for growth. Traffic, sales, conversions, are they all trending in a positive direction? Is this brand something people want?” Krimmel asks. “We’re confident now after three years of increasing growth that we’ve made something people want.”

FLAB, on the other hand, measures sales growth and community social growth, but Bye admits the brand still has a job to do to change people’s perceptions.

“You don’t have to be fat to wear Fat Lad, you don’t have to be a virgin to go on a Virgin train. We are quite niche and I still don’t think people ‘get us’,” Bye adds. “Often we get emails from people saying I would wear your stuff, but I’m not fat and I’m not at the back. Success will be when we don’t have to hear that stupidity from people.”

For Fierce Grace, its goal is to reach people who would never normally feel comfortable going to a yoga studio. And once they do, it is up to Pernetta and her team to make yoga a way of life for their clients.

“If we were an author and every single person said ‘your book changed my life’, that’s success for us,” she adds.

Encountering consumers who are offended by the term “fat” and removing the stigma attached to yoga, are just some of the hurdles these brands face when trying voice their opinion and take a slice of the market.

But maybe, just maybe, if this sub-category continues to grow, everyone will be able to go to the gym without fear.