On Loving a Company That Doesn't Know How to Love Me Back
A Culture Study Takeover with Wendy Robinson
Welcome to Culture Study Takeover Week! I love running this newsletter, but I also periodically need to take a small break from running this newsletter, because everyone is beloved and worthy of rest. Subscription dollars make it possible for me to pay an excellent rate for someone to curate the newsletter — and give a platform to people with different identities and perspectives than my own. This week, that perspective comes Wendy Robinson, and even if you don’t give a shit about Peloton, this essay will make you think.
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I was already nervous by the time I pulled on my favorite leggings and wiggled my feet into the stiff cycling shoes that had arrived with my brand new Peloton bike. From the lurking I’d done in various Peloton user groups on Facebook and Reddit, I knew that new riders were often anxious about clipping into the pedals or even just surviving their first ride. But as an experienced exerciser, I wasn’t worried if I’d have the cardio capacity or leg strength to handle a 20 minute beginner ride. I was more worried that I’d just paid an awful lot of money to invite some unwanted fat phobia into my own house.
Entering any fitness space as a fat person can be a fraught experience — even, as anyone who has ever been screamed at by a DVD of Jillian Michaels can tell you, when that space is a small corner of your own living room. Fitness spaces can feel unwelcoming if you happen to exist in a body that too many trainers and coaches can only see as a “before” picture, especially if you aren’t actively seeking to lose weight. Despite ample research that proves that exercise, while good for many things, doesn’t actually result in weight loss for most participants, the fitness industry is still steeped in diet culture. Success is often described in aesthetic terms, and there is a pervasive assumption that fat people don’t actually like working out.
If you are fat, you must be motivated by a desire to get smaller. I knew, prior to that first ride, that I wasn’t expecting having a Peloton would result in weight loss for me. I was (and am) fine with that. But I didn’t know how Peloton, as a company, or its trainers dealt with the topic of weight. I knew that Peloton promoted the idea that they are a unique and welcoming fitness community, but as any fat person can tell you, it’s rare to find any community that is free of fat phobia, intentional or otherwise. At the risk of sounding like a chubby Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder if my new BFFs Tunde, Cody, Christine, and Hannah would talk about my body as a problem that needed to be solved.
The answer to that turns out to be more complicated than I expected.
We were six months into the pandemic when I became one of the many new Peloton riders in 2020. My YMCA membership was on indefinite hold, and the boutique studio where I was taking small-group strength training classes had, like so many other small fitness studios, gone out of business. Throughout the late spring and summer, I’d attended small-group training sessions in a parking lot and replaced my usual pool swims with long swims in a nearby lake. Those chances to move my body were an essential part of managing the extreme job stress I was experiencing, but the coming Minnesota winter meant that I was on borrowed time for outdoor workouts.
I’d only done one or two spin classes in the past, but the Peloton concept made sense to me. After years of competitive swimming, a handful of triathlons, and dabbling in countless fitness trends and trainers, I’d figured out that I’m someone who really, really likes to be told what to do when it comes to exercise. I like the structure of having a coach or a trainer who plans the workouts. I love both variety and being able to measure my progress, and I have a bone-deep competitive streak. The idea of a fitness platform with tons of options for types of classes, music, and instructor styles that would let me break a sweat in my house when it was -20 outside made the price tag seem pretty reasonable (and, it’s worth noting, it ended up being cheaper than a year of a gym membership and my small-group classes). And, as a fat woman, there was some comfort in the idea of working out at home and avoiding the feeling of hyper-visibility that comes with exercising in public which often involves some variety of condescending encouragement or literally getting moo’ed at while jogging.
Fast-forward to the present. After 20 months, I’ve completed over 1300 workouts, including 200 yoga classes, 240 strength training classes, and over 630 cycling classes. I’ve done an unofficial 50-mile Pelofundo ride with a team I found in one of the many Peloton Facebook groups. I’ve taken at least one class with every instructor on the platform, including in Spanish and German. I’ve described the bike as the “hands down best pandemic purchase ever” so many times that I’ve talked at least 10 friends into getting their own Pelotons. As my husband, who is in charge of our laundry situation, can attest, I’ve purchased many, many Peloton-brand leggings and sports bras. I’m not overstating it to say that I love Peloton.
However, as a fat rider, I’m never fully sure if they really love me back.
After all those classes, my initial fears about overt fat phobia or talk about intentional weight loss have been put to rest. It’s pretty clear Peloton has a philosophy when it comes to talking about weight. And that philosophy is simple: don’t talk about weight. And while I appreciate the gift of 20 months without ever hearing the dreaded words “beach body”, I’ve also grown tired of never hearing anything that acknowledges that bodies like mine (tall, strong, and a size 22) are just as important to the Peloton community as bodies that look more like the bodies of my favorite instructors.
When Peloton instructors talk about bodies, they say things like, “Treat your body like it belongs to someone you love!” (Hannah Corbin) or, “Work out because you love your body, not because you hate it!” (Emma Lovewell). They tend to focus on process and work and breaking your own barriers. When they mention body change, they talk about getting stronger, not getting smaller. Nobody promises weight loss. They acknowledge that some rides are harder than others and that some riders are new or injured or pregnant and might need to make modifications. And the consistency with which weight and weight loss is not talked about makes it seem likely that this isn’t accidental.
All Peloton instructors go through months of rigorous training before they begin offering classes on the platform, which means there’s an almost palpable brand consistency even amongst the newest instructors. And that brand is all about community — which starts with being welcoming, at least on the surface, of riders with a variety of body types. But that “all are welcome” vibe also seems to be based in large part on an intentional decision to not talk about how different bodies might have different needs. Peloton’s vibe seems to be “we don’t see size!” in the same way that some allegedly well meaning white people are happy to report that “they don’t see color!”
It is a strange feeling sometimes, to feel both welcomed and invisible.
A few months ago, I was taking a yoga class that called for moving my body into a posture known as eagle arms. This posture is great for stretching the shoulders and back but can be difficult for people with large breasts to do. As I tried to figure out how to modify the move, I realized that I’d never heard an instructor in any class call out a modification that was specific to having a larger body. In yoga classes, there are sometimes modifications given for how to use blocks to compensate for a lack of flexibility caused by all that cycling or running. In strength classes, there are modifications given for how to do some moves with just body weight for those who are still building strength. But as someone who is generally flexible and who has been lifting weights for years, those aren’t the modifications I need. I need help knowing how to accommodate large breasts and a belly that will meet the top of my thighs in a forward fold long before my chest ever could. Even in the instructional videos for how to set up your bike, there are suggestions for how to modify for height and leg length, but nothing that acknowledges that some larger riders may need to accommodate for a bigger belly or butt that doesn’t fit comfortably on the seat (which only comes in one size).
Part of what makes this problem so maddening is that it would be so easy to solve. Peloton could make a series of short, standalone videos showing modifications for common moves that members could watch and practice on their own. They already do this for some trickier yoga poses, but I suspect that a hurdle to this is that to do these videos would require thin instructors to talk about the fact that some bodies are fat and to have some sense of what kind of modifications might be most helpful. Talking about fat can be hard, perhaps especially so for people who have only lived in thin bodies. This is one of the reasons why so many users like me would love to see Peloton expand its vision on what diversity looks like. In the ten years Peloton has been featuring instructor talent, they’ve had instructors who represent diversity in terms of sexual orientation, age, and race. But diversity in terms of weight has been, and continues to be, effectively non-existent. When the only nod to body diversity is the fact that the two oldest instructors (Jenn Sherman and Christine D’ercole, both in their 50s) wear tank tops instead of just sports bras, it’s pretty clear that Peloton has a long way to go in terms of representation.
In March 2022, Peloton announced the hiring of Logan Aldrige as their first-ever adaptive fitness consultant and future instructor. Aldrige, who is an amputee, will be a part of efforts to make sure Peloton customers with disabilities are well served. According to Peloton, “In addition to adding Logan to our roster, we are working across Peloton to keep accessibility top-of-mind for our Members. We are investing in product improvements to create inclusive fitness experiences for Members with disabilities.”
The hiring news was rightly applauded in many of the Peloton groups on Facebook. We know that individuals with disabilities are often implicitly and explicitly excluded from fitness spaces, perhaps even more than fat people are, and making things more accessible is always a good idea. At the same time, I also saw some frustrated messages in private Facebook groups and other forums from larger riders who have been pushing Peloton for years to do things to be more inclusive of larger bodies.
There is a community of dedicated fat Peloton users who have been advocating for features and options like expanded offerings of plus-sized apparel and hiring a larger-bodied yogi, strength trainer, or cycling instructor. While Peloton has stepped up in some ways, like offering more clothing options, there is still a lingering a sense of resignation among users who are actively trying to reject diet culture and to embrace that fitness comes in a lot of sizes. It seems that for all of Peloton’s efforts to create a diverse community of riders, they still can’t or won’t imagine an instructor who wears the size 1-3X sports bras they sell.
Peloton is trying to have it both ways when it comes to larger users. On the one hand, being overtly mean or unwelcoming to larger bodies doesn’t make sense. There are a lot of us and we are brand loyal when we find companies that actually want to take our money, sell us cute leggings, and be an emotionally safe space to break a sweat. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if there is a perception at Peloton that a larger instructor would be harmful to their brand or a turn-off to the users who do buy a Peloton hoping to get thin. While I’m personally at peace with the fact that Peloton isn’t the gateway to thinness, judging by the endless comments about weight loss in the various Peloton member pages, many riders, even those in the Health At Any Size Space are desperate for this bike to be the one thing that finally works for them.
While I know that many riders would welcome an instructor with a larger body, I also know that there would likely be pushback and mocking from other riders, especially in the often brutal and body-shaming threads on the official Peloton members page on Facebook. In these online spaces, it’s clear that while instructors are following a playbook that avoids body shaming, Peloton isn’t interested (or maybe able?) to police the vitriol in the community itself.I can easily imagine that there would be users and Peloton critics alike who would find it all too easy to target and troll a plus-size instructor. It wouldn’t be an easy job and the instructor would need a thick skin, but there’s no doubt that there are talented, motivating, and qualified fat fitness professionals out there like Jessamyn Stanley, Mirna Valerio, and Louise Green who might jump at the chance to work for Peloton.
This lack of visual representation and acknowledgement that fat bodies exist (and not just as before pictures) isn’t unique to Peloton. You can see it in companies that have finally started offering plus-size fitness apparel, but don’t carry the larger sizes in stores, relegating larger shoppers to a special section on the website where we often end up paying more for clothing that often isn’t as well made or designed. Peloton’s competition in the home workout space, companies like Echelon and Tonal, are also lacking in representation
I would like Peloton to show that it sees and values bodies like mine. But the lack of representation of larger bodies also speaks to a larger, and far more toxic, problem with the platform and even the most well-intentioned components of contemporary fitness culture. Despite decades of work by activists in the fat acceptance and liberation spaces —and the countless examples of fat athletes competing in everything from 5Ks to Ironmans to the Olympics — fitness and thinness are still yoked in many people’s minds: that healthy equals thin, and that fitness looks like low body fat and visible abs. A growing body of research is proving again and again that diets don’t work, cause harm, and cost people billions of dollars every year. Peloton positions itself as a leader in the fitness space, citing the talent of the instructors, the rabid loyalty of its customer base, and its potential to continue to expand into homes all over the world. So why couldn’t it also become the company that also emerges as the leader when it comes to fitness size inclusivity? Why couldn’t there be a vision of the future at Peloton that looks at someone like me, someone who has spent thousands of dollars on equipement, monthly fees and apparel — brand loyal and near-evangelical about how the bike has changed my life for the better — and says: yes, this is what Peloton looks like, too?
I love Peloton. I’m just asking it to love me back.
Wendy Robinson is a writer, a proud Minnesotan, a big Peloton fan (#ochita on the leaderboard), and a fat lady who is interested in how we unlearn fatphobia and the intersections between fatness and the media and fatness and the fitness industry. You can follow her on Twitter here.
You’ll see more from Wendy in the week to come! And if you want more Peloton content — Culture Study’s got that. Here’s a piece on what it means to ride at any ability, the Peloton star system, the counterintuitive mechanics of Peloton addiction, and towards a unified theory of Peloton.
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