Friday, May 6, 2011

Body Central

Body Central just after closing (January 2007)
Body Central

Location: 545 Ross Street, Santa Rosa, California, USA

Founded: 1997

Closed: January 8, 2007

Shannon Hartnett was as close as you could get to a natural-born athlete. As she told Iron Man Magazine in 2003, "Even when I was a little kid, I'd leave in the morning and come home at nine o'clock at night. I was always climbing trees and riding my bike." So it's no suprise that she played Little League baseball and Pop Warner football, competed as a heptathlete in college, did a stint as a bodybuilder, has dominated women's Highland Games (in wire hammer throwing), and has been an avid diver for years. Along the way she took a shot at Mount Everest, appeared in the "World's Strongest Woman Competition" on TV, played professional football, and came close to making the 2002 U.S. Olympic bobsled team.

And then there was Shannon's health club, which she opened in 1997.

Shannon runs a women's gym, Body Central, in Santa Rosa, California, which she opened because she noticed all through college that women tend to feel out of place in co-ed gyms. "They felt they had to be dressed to a tee to come in and train," Shannon recalls, "and here they can come in with their bedheads and old workout clothes. They don't have to primp for an hour to come in." Shannon emphasizes that Body Central is more than just a gym. It's a place for women to network and a wellness center that offers serious things like mammograms and "fun stuff like belly dancing."

In addition, the advertisements mentioned that they offered "free childcare, towel and locker service, over 30 group fitness classes each week and much more."

The naive among us may not see too much that's sinister about comfortable women working out. What's so wrong about a little belly dancing, getting a breast cancer screening, and chatting a bit with some of the other ladies--all while having a safe to place to leave their kids? What's the big deal about staying in shape without all the hassles of a co-ed gym? Some women just want a little privacy while they bench press--without all the sweaty guys. That's not too much to ask, is it?

Well, as it turns out, that IS too much to ask for--at least in California.

Even though Body Central did not function in any way, shape, or form to rob men of business networking or economic opportunities (unlike traditional men-only spaces, which have often functioned to block women's professional advancement), it was sued anyway. It was sued by a conservative, libertarian, men's rights type who just couldn't stand the idea of a few women lifting weights without the guys being free to check 'em out at will.

And he won. He put Body Central out of business--which I dare say was his motive all along, not a gym membership. (Observe that no other men showed any interest in joining.) And he succeeded, at least in part, by targeting a single club owned by an individual woman, and not one of the chains. And note in the article below that this guy had a long history of targeting (and harrassing) women's gyms and their owners with lawsuits. So we hardly had a lone dude looking for a convenient place to get in shape. This was a well-organized, well-financed man with an anti-woman agenda.

The article below from not only reports on the closing of Body Central in 2007, but on the various efforts to date to close down women-only gyms:

Brown wrapping paper covers the windows and doors of a Body Central fitness club in downtown Santa Rosa, CA. The women-only club shut its doors on Jan. 8, the end of a long battle that began with a complaint filed in 2003 by a man who simply wanted to join.

This case is far from simple. Although eight states have laws that allow single-sex health clubs, California is not one of them. That fact, along with a challenge by a Santa Rosa man against Body Central and another women-only club in California, has put single-sex clubs in question in the state. California's battle could be a precursor to battles in states without laws allowing single-gender fitness facilities — should someone decide to challenge them.

Shannon Hartnett was the owner of Body Central. It is not known whether the ongoing litigation and publicity led Hartnett to close her doors. One person who has been monitoring the situation thinks it did.

“It forced her to become coed,” says LaRaye Houston, co-owner of Elan Health and Fitness Center in Petaluma, CA. “For her, she didn't want to be a coed facility. And the cost of changing over to a coed facility, I don't know that she would want to take that on.”

Houston did take that on. In August 2003, a complaint was filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) by a man who said he was discouraged from joining Elan Fitness.

That man was Phillip Kottle, a Santa Rosa citizen whom the Santa Rosa Press Democrat described in 2004 as a 59-year-old real estate salesman and registered Libertarian.

In July 2003, Kottle went to Elan Fitness to ask about a $99 membership offer. He said the manager told him that men could use the club only one day a week and the monthly fees were the same for women and men. Elan Fitness offered to give all men full access to the club's classes and facilities, with the exception of showers and lockers.

After a settlement could not be reached, the DFEH filed a lawsuit against Elan Fitness in October 2004 on the grounds of sex discrimination.

“We said, ‘Sue us,’” Houston says.

The lawsuit, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, challenged a 1995 state Supreme Court decision that said private clubs that operate as a business must follow state laws banning discrimination based on sex, race, religion and other factors.

The two parties reached a settlement in January 2005. Houston did not want to comment specifically on the case or the settlement but did say she has made no changes in her club's facilities.

However, Houston says, “If a man came in and wanted to use our facility, we would not discriminate against him. Period.”

The case involving Body Central originally did not go to court. Kottle filed a complaint with the DFEH in May 2003, five months before the complaint was filed against Elan Fitness. Kottle alleged that he was denied membership at Body Central.

Hartnett told the Petaluma Argus-Courier that she offered to buy Kottle a membership in another gym, then after receiving the complaint from the DFEH, she offered Kottle a membership at Body Central, but he refused. Kottle later declared that Body Central employees called police when he went to the club a second time and tried to join, the Press Democrat reported. Hartnett's offer for Kottle to join came four days after the incident.

Hartnett signed a settlement agreement with the DFEH in October 2004 that required her to open the club to men. She agreed to provide at least one hour of anti-discrimination training to the club's staff and agreed to get rid of all advertising that portrayed Body Central as a women-only club. Hartnett also agreed to pay Kottle $500, and the club was required to provide separate shower and locker facilities within two years.

DFEH later sued Body Central in December 2005, alleging that Hartnett violated the agreement. The lawsuit said the club was still advertising as women only in the newspaper and had signs on display at the club reading “Fitness for Women” and “Making Women Stronger.”

Last June, a Sonoma County judge ruled in favor of the DFEH, saying that Body Central must open its doors to men and stop advertising itself as women only. The judge also ordered the club to provide showers and lockers for men.

In December, the same Sonoma County judge said that Body Central had not provided permanent showers, so the club must start paying fines of $50 a day beginning Dec. 31, and he ordered the club to refund Kottle's membership dues.

After Henry Wolst, a Santa Rosa man, told the judge that he was in the process of buying the club from Hartnett, the judge postponed the fines until Jan. 31 and set another hearing for Feb. 15. Because the club closed, that hearing did not take place.

Hartnett could not be reached for comment for this story. According to published reports, the former weightlifter is training in Omaha, NE, for a future powerlifting competition.

Prior to filing complaints against the two women-only clubs, Kottle filed two other complaints with the DFEH against coed gyms on the basis of gender discrimination — one against Bally Total Fitness in 1996 and one against L.A. Fitness Sports Clubs in 2000. According to the DFEH, no probable cause existed to prove a violation of the statute in the Bally's case, which ended in 1997. The L.A. Fitness case resulted in a pre-trial settlement in 2002.

Legal Background

The DFEH enforces California's civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. Paul Ramsey, chief counsel for the DFEH, says the agency was enforcing the Unruh Civil Rights Act when it represented Kottle against the clubs. The Unruh Civil Rights Act states: “All persons within the jurisdiction of the state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status or sexual orientation are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”

“I don't think there would have been any further effort on our part if (Hartnett) just complied with the original agreement,” Ramsey says.

California tried to pass a bill in 2005 to allow single-sex health clubs, but that bill died in committee on Jan. 31, 2006.

“If that bill had passed, that would have permitted same-sex health clubs,” Ramsey says. “I would have had no qualms with enforcing the law as that statute allows. As the enforcement mechanism for the state civil rights laws, we have to follow what the legislature and courts tell us.”

According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), eight states have laws that allow single-sex health clubs: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wisconsin. A Pennsylvania court ruled in 1992 that one club's women-only policy did not violate the state's anti-discrimination law, but the state does not have a specific law allowing for single-sex health clubs.

Massachusetts did not have a law allowing single-sex health clubs until a 1997 ruling that said Healthworks, a Boston-based women-only health club, violated then-Massachusetts public accommodation laws by not allowing men. In early 1998, in response to this ruling, Massachusetts passed a bill exempting health clubs from sex discrimination law.

In 2003, Wisconsin passed its law allowing single-sex health clubs. Becky Frusher, spokesperson for Curves International, Waco, TX, calls it The Curves Law. The law was sparked by a discrimination lawsuit filed by a La Crosse, WI, fitness center owner against Curves, which caters specifically to women.

“We tell our franchisees, who are independently owned and operated, that they need to learn and educate themselves about the laws in their particular state,” Frusher says.

A Curves in Helena, MT, was recently challenged when a transvestite wanted to become a member. The Curves franchisee allowed the man to join.

Stemming from this situation, Montana tried to pass a bill to allow single-sex health clubs, but the bill died in committee on Jan. 30. Jesse Laslovich, a Montana state senator who was chairman of the judiciary committee for the bill, says a new bill cannot be introduced for another two years.

“The Curves facility hired two lobbyists after the bill was tabled and they tried to revive the bill,” Laslovich says, “but the committee members weren't willing to change their votes and revive the bill.”

Frusher says that Curves was working to pass the bill in California that died last year. IHRSA also got involved in the California bill, says Helen Durkin, executive vice president of public policy for IHRSA.

“Passing legislation isn't as easy as you would think on this issue,” Durkin says, “because it seems to touch all these buttons that are really unrelated to the basic question of: Is there a group of women who are going to exercise in a women-only club that probably wouldn't exercise anyplace else? I think it's a pity and a shame anytime a law for the best of intentions gets in the way of bringing health to individual women. Everyone loses.”

The Impact

The chief concern in women-only clubs is the protection of privacy, IHRSA says. The association says that women-only clubs are not social in nature and are not where business networking takes place. Therefore, no economic harm results from excluding men from women-only clubs.

Sara Kooperman, a lawyer and the CEO of SCW Fitness Education, agrees with IHRSA's stance, especially on the issue of privacy.

“In a health club setting, a lot of women are not going to feel comfortable getting half-naked in front of a guy and sweating,” Kooperman says. “Then it does become a health and public interest concern.”

Victor Brick owns seven Brick Bodies health clubs, most of which are in the Baltimore area. Among his seven clubs are two women-only clubs — Lynn Brick's Women's Health and Fitness. Brick has not encountered men who wanted to join Lynn Brick's. He says the women-only clubs offer a good alternative for women who don't want to join a coed club.

“You're talking emotional and physical duress for some people working out in a coed club,” Brick says. “You don't have to be unattractive for that to happen. You can be very attractive. Can you imagine a 275-pound woman working out in a coed club? How about if you're pregnant? When was the last time a guy was pregnant? It would be like saying, ‘Men have to wear tops on a beach.’ Men don't have to wear tops on a beach, and men don't have to worry about working out in coed environments. Women do.”

Cuts for Men has 75 locations in 22 states and five countries, and two Cuts for Women facilities — one in Cleveland and one in Atlanta. The Cleveland facility is next to a Cuts for Men, and the Atlanta location is close to a Cuts for Men, says Steven Haase, managing director for Cuts Fitness.

So it appears that there is little reason for a man to want to join a Cuts for Women. If a woman wanted to join a Cuts for Men, she would not be excluded, Haase says. But …

“Our solution is obviously created for the male,” Haase says. “There are many women-only solutions out there. It's not an issue for us. It's going to be very rare that a woman does join one of our (men-only) clubs. Given the fact that we are a single-gender club for a reason, we are trying to create an environment where the average guy feels very comfortable. In a traditional coed club, most of our member base doesn't feel comfortable in that environment.”

In the event that a man would want to join Curves, Frusher would tell her club owners to treat him like any other customer. But she questions the motives of a man who would want to join Curves.

“Curves is specifically designed for women,” Frusher says. “The equipment is specifically designed for women. The diet program and supplements are created for women. Our multiple vitamin really has too much iron for men, which can be detrimental to them. There's usually something behind it. They're eitherlooking for a lawsuit, or they're looking for a story. There are a few men in California that I know of who, let's just say, they dress like women, that are members of the club.”

Kottle's motives have been questioned, too. Kottle could not be reached for this story, but in interviews by the Press Democrat, Kottle said he had a right to go to the women-only clubs. He said he liked that Body Central was convenient, never crowded and had fairly new equipment. No men joined the club after he did, Kottle added. “The first month or so (after joining Body Central) I had some nasty comments,” Kottle told the Press Democrat. Later, Kottle added, “Now I'm just one of the girls — or guys.”

Whether or not Kottle was trying to be funny, his battle against women-only health clubs is no laughing matter for owners like Houston, who says several women from Body Central joined her facility after Body Central closed.

“He went after the small guy,” Houston says. “He didn't go after the big guy. He was smart. He went after who he knew would have a hard time fighting it. And you're fighting the state of California. That was a bummer thing about the whole thing. Phillip Kottle had tremendous representation.”

Dirken thinks that a nationwide assault on women-only clubs — if other men try to copy Kottle's actions in other states — is unlikely.

“The law that's really impacting health clubs is state specific,” Dirken says. “While California is one of the larger states and has a large number of clubs … how it's going to be treated in each state is really going to be specific to the law in that state. The challenges exist already. Anytime something gets publicity like this, it could put ideas in other peoples' minds, but going around looking for cases to sue either ethically or because it's a way to extort money, that's been going on for a while.

“There is firewall between legally what's happening in one state to another. With a federal law, and (if a lawsuit) happened in California, it would have instantaneous impact everywhere. But it's a California law. Could it influence other states? Yes, but it couldn't be a direct precedent in any other state.”

As for the future of women-only health clubs in California, Ramsey, the DFEH chief counsel, says he isn't sure whether the state legislature will introduce more bills on the matter.

Houston doubts that a bill protecting women-only clubs will pass in California, but she is committed to leaving her club's doors open.

“I hope to keep running a successful fitness center in the state of California,” Houston says, “which is very difficult to do.”

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