When “Gymtimidation” Turns Into Discrimination

The issues of acceptance and comfort in fitness centers can pose serious challenges for owners. A healthy gym environment can empower all individuals, regardless of age, gender, ability, and race. However, if managed by inadequately trained staff or run without oversight, a gym can become a divisive place that breeds anxiety and fear. The phenomenon of “gymtimidation” is a popular topic among fitness center owners and gym enthusiasts alike. A 2022 study of roughly 3,000 individuals revealed that 90% of gym-goers are concerned about others’ opinions and 42% of gym-goers experience appearance-based anxiety while at the gym. Notably, Gen-Z gym-goers are the most affected by “gymtimidation,” with 38% of that demographic identifying “fear of judgment” as a reason for disliking gyms.

Feelings of lack of belonging or intimidation can quickly spiral into serious harassment and discrimination issues. Fitness center owners have an obligation to address sexual harassment in their facilities in a variety of situations: employee on employee, employee on gym member, and gym member on gym member. But does a fitness center owe protection to an employee who suffers discrimination from a gym member? Further, how does the law account for fitness centers when employer discrimination claims arise? This topic remained largely ambiguous until the recent case of Europe v. Equinox Holdings.

Case Study: Europe v. Equinox Holdings

On September 22, 2020, Röbynn Europe filed a claim of discrimination based on gender and race against her employer, Equinox. Almost three years later in spring 2023, Europe was awarded $11.25 million in damages by a jury of five men and three women. This case presents a unique situation in which Europe suffered discrimination from both her employer and its clientele. Europe was employed as a fitness manager at Equinox, a high-end gym franchise, in Manhattan from November 2018 until her termination in September 2019.

Europe’s allegations of maltreatment from her employer revealed a common undertone of racist and sexist treatment that her predominantly white, male counterparts did not experience. In her testimony, she recounted numerous times when her male coworkers made openly derogatory comments about black women’s bodies in front of her. In another instance, Europe received a call from an employee who informed Europe that a female client specifically requested a white trainer. After Europe communicated this request to a supervisor, she was surprised to learn the request was granted to supposedly provide good customer service. The supervisor was eventually reprimanded and fired, but on principle, the situation left Europe incredibly distressed. Whenever she brought specific concerns to her supervisor, a formal investigation never commenced. Europe’s complaints of a hostile work environment were met with skepticism and complete denials from management.

Equinox cited Europe’s tardiness as the reason for her firing. Equinox records show that over the course of her 10-month employment, Europe was late to work 47 times, which Europe did not dispute. Instead, she relied on the fact that she was occasionally late but so were other employees—all of whom retained their jobs with Equinox – and that the disciplinary notices for her tardiness coincided with her workplace complaints. These observations led Europe to assert that her lateness was pretext for a discriminatory firing. This trial made clear that even Europe, a professional bodybuilder and personal trainer, fell prey to intimidation and isolation in the gym due to her race and sex.

Protecting Your Employees and Creating an Inclusive Culture

The issue of employment discrimination in fitness centers remains a serious concern that gym owners must address. The phenomenon of “gymtimidation” along with high levels of anxiety and fear in gym environments highlights the apparent need for change. The case study of Europe v. Equinox Holdings serves as a reminder that discrimination can not only be perpetrated by employees but also by gym members.

Creating a culture of zero tolerance of discrimination plays an essential role in combatting harassment and fostering a sense of belonging. Fitness centers need to implement clear policies and procedures that address discrimination and provide comprehensive training for employees on identifying and responding to microaggressions and harassment. Further, cultivating an inclusive environment is vital to creating a supportive gym culture. Initiatives that increase visibility and promote diversity, like the OUT in the OPEN Leaderboard in the 2023 Crossfit Open contribute to fostering a sense of belonging within a gym community. Acknowledging and celebrating different dimensions of diversity allows fitness centers to create a space where everyone feels valued and accepted.

Combatting employment discrimination in fitness centers requires a top-down, multifaceted approach that includes clear policies, comprehensive training, and a commitment to inclusivity. By prioritizing the well-being and protection of all who enter the gym, fitness centers will help individuals thrive, free from anxiety or fear of harassment. Through these collective efforts, the fitness industry can empower and embrace people of all backgrounds, fostering a sense of belonging for everyone while also mitigating legal risks.

Written with the assistance of Grace D’Souza, a summer associate in the Husch Blackwell LLP Milwaukee office.