The Student
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‘Slavery was hard and so is this’: PureGym misses the mark
by Molly Workman, 15/10/20

October’s here, meaning bronzed leaves abound and early dusks now fill the sky. Halloween isn’t the only celebration that is beholding the nation, as Black History Month captures the heart of many after a tumultuous year of protest and comradery.

Amongst those getting a head start on the festivities is Sainsbury’s, who recently vocalised their support for the initiative; Edinburgh University, from whom I received a friendly email reminder; and PureGym PT Matt Simpson, who earlier this week excitedly debuted his new workout routine on Facebook to honour the occasion.

The latter, however, has – to PureGym and much of social media’s dismay – quite catastrophically missed the mark. The Luton and Dunstable branch of the popular Leeds-based gym faced intense backlash after assistant manager Simpson posted a commemorative workout entitled ‘12 Years Of Slave [sic]’, an odd and inexplicable grammatical twist on the original title of the Oscar-winning 2013 film about the experiences of Solomon Northup. More problematic than this linguistic variation would be the fact that Simpson, in an unfathomably tone-deaf move, compared one of history’s most hideous anthropogenic atrocities to an exercise routine of his own devising, clarifying the comparison with a simple slogan: ‘slavery was hard and so is this’.

The issue here isn’t malicious intent. In the shamed PT’s apology, he appealed to angered gym-goers and non-gym-goers alike, describing himself as a ‘proud black man wanting to bring his history together with his passion and profession.’

Indeed, as he references on his Instagram page amidst all of the fallout, ‘Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said [to] judge [people] on character’ and he is, in fairness, ‘owning this’.

Yet, the trivializing of the Euro-American slave trade – which involved the forcible transatlantic transportation and enslavement of 10-15 million Africans, many of whom perished as a result – is a gross act of insensitivity. Comparing the excruciating labour and inhumane conditions inflicted by slave-owners upon slaves to a routine of burpees and push-ups is wholly unacceptable.

Team GB sprinter Dina Asher-Smith has responded that, ‘it is important for everyone to understand why it is so offensive and inappropriate to make this allusion’, whilst Luton North MP Sarah Owen cites the ‘offensive advert’ as corroboration of Black History Month’s import. Using slavery as a marketing ploy is never justifiable, and using it as a marketing ploy whilst purporting to – nay, in order to – support Black History Month is even worse.

Thus, the heinousness of the practice of slavery must never be understated. An unforgivable stain on anthropological record, it is a root cause of the systemic racism that remains rife to this day. In some ways, though, Simpson’s epic mistake should not exclusively inspire despair. One social media response reads, ‘has 2020 not happened to PureGym? If PureGym’s questionable marketing strategy shows us how far we still need to go, perhaps the backlash that ensued shows us how far we’ve come.

Image: worldnewsback via Flickr