Curves encourages women to feel comfortable with their bodies. Its brochures picture normal-sized, middle-aged women. They also picture overweight women without placing them in a degrading "before" box.
Curves is the largest fitness franchise in the world. There are approximately 7,075 Curves fitness and weight-loss centers in the United States, including 40 in Kansas City, and a total of 8,043 worldwide. Last year franchise owners reaped $760 million in membership fees, and the corporation earned $100 million from the sale of franchises, product royalties and monthly franchise fees.
The clubs are exclusively for women, but despite the cutesy cursive logo on the awnings above their storefronts, these aren't Barbie dream gyms with bubble baths and tasseled exercise bicycles. Most Curves members don't want a health club with frills. Many have tried fancier facilities, only to be alienated because the wall-to-wall mirrors made them feel like funhouse freaks next to their tanned and toned neighbors, or because they grew tired of waiting in line while buff athletes ran mini-marathons on treadmills, or because they hated the singles-barbell atmosphere.
At Curves, there are no lockers, showers or mirrors. There are few, if any, treadmills. Instead, there's a circle of about a dozen easy-to-operate hydraulic machines. Every 30 seconds, an automated voice prompts members to move to the next station, where they either run in place on an elevated rubber mat to boost their heart rates or work a different muscle group. Members can enter the circle at any point, eliminating the need to wait at any station.
Circuit-training workouts emphasize camaraderie, and members of the circle often bond, feeling the burn together.
But now some members are steaming about a different issue. Addie Dietrich found out about it when her friend called to tell her that Curves cofounder Gary Heavin is a born-again Christian who funnels millions of dollars in company profits to radical anti-abortion organizations. Behind the fitness center's self-empowering, safe-house façade was just another male millionaire from Texas with a religious take on reproductive rights.
Dietrich searched the Internet, where she found conflicting information. Eventually, though, it became clear that Heavin is a proud pro-lifer who makes charitable contributions based on his religious beliefs. The next day, Dietrich canceled her automatic monthly payments to the gym.
"As a person who supports women's choice and sexuality education practices, I couldn't in good conscience go over there and put my money into an organization that subverted those issues," Dietrich says.
Another Waldo Curves member, Nancy Clark, continued her workout program as she mulled over the new information, but she found it increasingly difficult to remain focused on fitness.
Ultimately, Clark asked for a refund for the remainder of her contract. "With its right-wing fundamentalist approach to life, Curves is taking away women's rights as it publicly declares the opposite," Clark wrote in a June 14 letter to Waldo franchise owner Dana Willett. "If one function of Curves is to raise money for anti-women's rights causes, but women are not informed of that function before they join Curves, that is deceit," she added.
Only a small percentage of local Curves members have cancelled their memberships. But the controversy that caused them to do so is a larger story, one that involves the dangers of half-cocked journalism, the viral speed of Internet accusations and the power of politically correct spending habits.