[EXCLUSIVE] There’s More To Sofia’s Story: The Girl That Was Publicly Shamed By A Malaysian Gym
Recently graduated Sunway University student, Sofia Cholan, found herself on the receiving end of rude customer service after inquiring about losing weight with a fitness gym that was “for women by women”. Her story was published by local media sites after it started showing up all over Instagram. The issue? Their snarky and sarcastic response to her question. The gym also posted pictures from her personal Instagram profile, alongside her message to them – without her consent. And while the gym has gone on to “share their side of the story”, Sofia has also come up to say that she’s not backing down.
What made you reach out to them?
I have always struggled with my weight. Growing up, I was always the biggest girl in class or the fattest in the room. It didn’t bother me much when I was in primary school even though other kids would call me names like “gajah” or “badak” because, innocently enough, I know those animals to be cute despite being big. But when I got to secondary school, it became more apparent that being “fat” is bad. I had been diagnosed with Asthma when I was 7-8 years old and when my asthma acted up, I had to be put on steroids which had side effects like an increase in appetite. Now, I’m not blaming some pills I took, but it definitely didn’t help with trying to lose weight. The older I got, the harder I was on myself. My closest friends were runners or school athletes and I never made the cut.
I remember that when I was 13, I had posted a photo of myself in a bikini top on Facebook. It wasn’t even a full photo, just a top portion selfie and people were commenting saying that I should be embarrassed to even wear a bikini with the size I am and how I look. Some people even said that that photo made them sick. Of course, shortly after, I had it removed because I was just so upset about it. Just a year or so after, I had posted another photo (sort of like an ootd but ootds didn’t exist back then) and my caption was “I may be a size 10 but at least my personality is a 10/10” – looking back now I am cringing haha but what I said is still relevant (though I’m no longer a size 10). I’ve always believed that personality matters. People should strive to look and feel good but it shouldn’t come at the cost of losing your personality. People were saying that I “definitely don’t look like a size 10 more like an XXXL” and some even took a hit to my confidence and said that I shouldn’t be posting photos all together because of how I looked.
I tried not to let this affect me but the harm was there in my subconscious. I was watching Oprah with my mom once and the episode was of this woman who did surgery to make her stomach smaller and I turned to my mom and said “Mommy can I just do that? Can we do that surgery so I can be like my friends?” but my parents refused, saying, “When she’s older she’ll feel self-conscious and work the weight of”. So, I did. A couple of years ago, I took part in JK1M (Jom Kurus 1 Malaysia) with my cousin who is also struggling with her weight. I lost about 3-ish kgs in about 60 days. I was very happy, and I wanted to continue in their next season but shortly after, I enrolled for uni and couldn’t commit to the schedule. Now that I’ve been working for a year and I know how to manage my time well, I want to put in focus towards losing weight, getting healthier and looking and feeling my best.
And then I saw their post.
Like a lot of people, I had just got up and was about to start my day. I did a bit of scrolling on Instagram’s explore page and a post caught my attention. It was about this girl who went from 105kgs to 70kgs. She was not named but I saw that the post was from a fitness page, so I clicked on it to read more. Since there were no credits to the post, I assumed it was a testimonial from her and found that they had a weight loss challenge.
At that point, I got super excited. Especially seeing their tagline of being run “by women for women” and standing up for women empowerment. I thought to myself, finally, a gym where I could work my weight off and be confident and comfortable. I had tried going to the gym on my own, whether it was the facility at my condo or even a commercial one. I was always intimidated. It’s like that feeling you get when you go to the bank asking for a loan when other people are going there to check on their premium wealth accounts. You know that most people at the gym are there for maintenance but you’re there to get help.
The way I approached them has been perceived in so many ways, but honestly, my intention was purely to be part of their weight loss challenge or even their classes, and because the weight loss challenge was promoted as “completely free” and their classes were at RM880 for 10 classes, I asked if there was a way they could do it for a minimal fee and face for losing weight. Why? Because they had posted a testimony of a girl who did exactly that. Loose weight. She didn’t look like an influencer or someone who would have hundreds of thousands in followers. She looked like an average Jane who went through a weight loss journey and was recognized for it. I did not want nor did I even mention that I wanted it free because businesses are going through a hard time with MCO and with them not even being able to physically operate, I personally thought a bit of money even if not the usual price is still better than nothing.
But then they replied.
I was completely taken aback. It was shocking to me that a gym that empowers women would reply in a manner of sarcasm and snark. The thought crossed my mind, had I been a walk-in customer asking the same question, would I have been met with the same type of response? Would he/she analyze the shoes I wore or the brand of my clothes? I was in the midst of replying the gym when I received a message request from someone I did not know. This person sent me screenshots of the post the gym put up about me.
My heart literally sank. I couldn’t believe that an establishment would do such a thing to someone who simply asked a question. Some comments from the public suggested that maybe I had not posted all my communication with the gym and that there was more to the story, but there really isn’t. My first ever encounter with the gym was that morning when I dm-ed them inquiring about their services and telling them my struggle and goals. I had shared, in-depth, about my weight and even my financial capabilities because of their portrayal for women empowerment.
I felt regret, regret for opening up, regret for reaching out and regret for trusting this establishment in hopes of bettering myself.
What happened after it blew up?
It was over a day later after the incident happened and the story blew up that they finally reached out. They sent their apology to me through DM about half an hour before releasing it publicly.
Taking context from their apology – they said, “After sleeping on it and waking up this morning we had time to ponder upon the things that have happened”. I felt that it was an insensitive start to the apology simply because if you know that someone is hurting because of something that you did and if you were truly sorry, you would own up to it immediately. You wouldn’t need to think about whether it was right or wrong or whether it was necessary to apologize.
They also moved on to say that they want to have their side of the story heard to and proceeded with informing the public that they were not informed that I wanted to be a part of the Extreme Weight Loss Challenge and that the interest addressed was for a minimal payment in consideration to be the face of their gym for marketing purposes. Firstly, if they didn’t know what my inquiry was for, then why not ask? Yes, I said I would pay a minimal fee and their classes were over my budget – but seeing that they have a completely free weight loss challenge and I am asking about losing weight, wouldn’t that be where they direct me? I also never implied I wanted to be the face of their gym but solely for losing weight, because testimonies do work. They do not depend on the number of followers one has; they depended on your progress during the challenge.
Lastly, towards the end of their apology really made me realise that this gym doesn’t know what they did wrong was the fact that they said, “We do have some criteria in accepting students – some of our criteria that we look for in a student are honesty, dedication, integrity and hard working. After some deliberating, we find that she did not meet most of our criteria”.
Again, how did they come up with this conclusion? When did they deliberate? I have never spoken to them on the phone or met them for an interview for them to be able to judge my character in such a manner. I felt so belittled and insulted that someone who doesn’t know me, is making assumptions about who I am just because I asked for a discount and they didn’t think I deserve it. Overall at that point, I was devastated because, by the time I had replied to their apology on DM, it was already public by them (again).
What do you think it means for a brand to be “for women”, or “for people”, in general?
Generally, any establishment should never speak to customers or potential customers this way. It is beyond me why they thought it was okay to do what they did especially being a gym for women. If an establishment wants to represent themselves as one that celebrates people and empowers them, they should first be empathetic. There is no reason to ridicule someone. Secondly, in this day and age where people’s rights are a strong concern (as it should be), they should deal with the consequences of their actions by reinforcing the values that they say they stand for and not continue to belittle people and slander them.
If you want to stand “for women by women” then do it – be kind, build each other up. If you don’t like something or don’t agree to it, say it. But say it professionally and with decency. Don’t say you’re “for women by women” but shame women who have insecurities because you think you can. In the same way, I’m standing up for the people who are looking for help but instead get this sort of treatment. I learned that standing up for myself or anyone else during any sort of injustice is always the right thing to do. My mum taught me this.
She was ill since I was very young. She had lupus and was later diagnosed with kidney failure. The benefit of being raised by someone who was living on borrowed time is that they instil values in you at a young age. At least, that was how it happened for me. When someone would bully me in school or call me names, my mom didn’t tell me to let it go or to fight back. She would go to school with me and speak to the kids, asked them why they did it and whether they would like it if that had been done to them. Having a mother who was always passionate and strong, she taught me that knowing who you are, why you are that way and what your capabilities are should make you confident. That relying on other people’s perception of you doesn’t make you confident, it makes you depend on it and without admiration, you would then in turn not be confident and that’s not how it works. Even during the worst times of her illness, and people were giving her sympathy, she was still confident. She still cooked (because it was her favourite thing to do) and she still dressed up. Because to her, you can’t take my confidence away from me when it comes from within.
Therefore, standing up for myself against this gym was important to me. Not because I wanted to gain a following or I wanted to make myself the topic of the week. I needed them to know what they did was not okay and they shouldn’t ever do this to anyone else again.
I believe that people today are more capable of defining their own kind of beauty. In the past several years, there has been a rise of several gorgeous plus size women such as Ashley Graham and locally, Nalisa Alia Amin who defy the conventional beauty standards on the runway. Furthermore, big brands such as Fenty beauty and homegrown brands such as Nita Cosmetics, also acknowledge and stands for diversity, empowering women no matter their skin tone or size. At one point, media was a shaper. It set the trend on what society should look like but now, I personally feel that media is a mirror that merely reflects what’s in the society. It is up to us to shape and define it.