Women working out at a Curves gym

(WOMENSENEWS)–Many of the nearly 3 million women worldwide who belong to Curves claim the fitness center has been their salvation. They report sticking to the exercise regimen, losing weight and staying trim for the first time in their lives. They appreciate Curves’ relatively low membership fee and the understated facilities. And they love the warmth and encouragement generated in the female-friendly environment.

At least they did until Gary Heavin, the founder and CEO of Waco, Texas-based Curves International was outed for being anti-choice.

Since the San Francisco Chronicle ran two articles in April stating that Heavin (pronounced Haven) had supported anti-abortion groups, numerous pro-choice Curves members have begun wondering if membership in the nationwide chain means they are working out or selling out.

“This is an absolute quandary,” said Vicki Schauffler, a 55-year-old real estate broker from Wellesley, Mass., who lost 63 pounds and 48 inches after she joined a local Curves a year ago. “It’s fast, easy, convenient, and you really do see results. It’s the dream thing, and (Heavin’s) out supporting everything that I hate.”

The San Francisco Chronicle caused a stir when Jon Carroll wrote in a column on April 20 that recipients of Heavin’s donations were allied with Operation Save America, a radical Dallas-based anti-choice group that harasses women going into abortion facilities and tries to close clinics by barricading doors.

A week later, columnist Ruth Rosen wrote that, at least $5 million of Heavin’s profits went to three Texas organizations that fund “pregnancy crisis centers.” These centers, she wrote, were also supported by Operation Save America, “the same organization that blamed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on God’s retribution for abortions.”

Curves denied the reports and the paper issued extensive corrections stating that Heavin did not financially support organizations affiliated with Operation Save America and that Operation Save America did not provide financial support or have an alliance with the women’s health clinics Heavin had donated too.

But the articles brought to light Heavin’s background as an anti-choice born-again Christian with a history of putting his money where his beliefs are. He has pledged millions of dollars of his personal money to adoption clinics and abstinence-only programs and has cut funding for organizations that support Planned Parenthood.

“Personally, I don’t believe abortion is healthy and therefore I discourage it,” Heavin told Women’s eNews.

Donations to Crisis Centers, Health Care

Heavin, who has built Curves into the second fastest growing franchise after Subway, with about 7,000 outlets around the world, said the misinformation in the San Francisco Chronicle was based on a series of recent pledges he made to various health organizations in Waco. Those included a five-year $150,000 annual donation to Care Net, which runs pregnancy crisis centers that dissuade pregnant women from having abortions and offer support services to encourage adoption.

Gary Heavin

In addition, he pledged $600,000 a year for the next five years to replace state funds that were cut from the Family Practice Center of McLennan County, a provider of health-care services to Central Texas residents, many of whom are uninsured. The center is Catholic-run and does not provide abortions but is not active in the anti-abortion movement. He also pledged $250,000 over five years to the McLennan County Collaborative Abstinence Project, which encourages teens to remain abstinent.

“I made the donations without publicity in my little community,” said Heavin. “We have a budget crisis (in Texas) and it’s a pretty honorable thing for an individual to step in and replace funding that the state isn’t giving.”

In 2002, however, Heavin flexed his financial muscle by pulling support for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s fundraising events, such as Race for the Cure, because he opposed the foundation’s support of Planned Parenthood. Heavin said he opposes abortion and groups that facilitate it because he believes abortion is unhealthy for women. He declined to discuss the potential ramifications for women’s health if abortion was not an option.

Departures Hurt Franchise Owners, Not Heavin

Since the brouhaha began, several of Curves franchises have reported a spate of women terminating their memberships. At one franchise in Seattle, four members dropped out and 16 members reportedly left a Curves outlet in San Francisco. Some clubs are also reporting that new members are signing up at slower rate than in the past.

Given the political climate, some women say they are particularly sensitive to having a rich man from Texas tell them what to do with their bodies, even if Heavin has helped them get healthy and fit.

“I make choices everyday and I try to make decisions that are in keeping with my values,” said Ann Podolske, 45, of Northampton, Mass., who has vowed not to rejoin Curves when her membership runs out early next year. “It makes me feel better in the face of all this stuff that is infuriating to know that my money is going to a good place.”

Yet, others say leaving Curves ends up hurting the people, often women, who own the franchises, not Heavin. Erica Lyon, a franchise owner in Seattle, said that she has to pay her $395 a month to Curves International for the remaining eight years of her 10-year contract even if all of her members bail.

“Economically, by quitting your Curves membership you’re not impacting him at all because regardless of what you do, I will have to pay him my fees for the next eight years,” said Lyon.

Lyon plunked down $20,000 to get the franchise and signed a 10-year contract as well as a non-compete clause that keeps her from closing her Curves and opening a new club under a different name.

Shopping Baskets ‘Half Full’

The Curves dilemma underscores a bigger issue of what consumers can do to ensure that their money is not inadvertently helping support causes they do not believe in. Unfortunately, the answer is, not much.

“If we actually lived out all of our values in the marketplace, we’d be left with shopping baskets that were half full,” said Shelly Alpern, director of social research and advocacy at Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm based in Boston.

Alpern said that consumers have little say over what CEOs do with their money and little effect particularly when companies, like Curves, are privately held. Boycotts, she said, only work when they are very visible and well organized.

But one thing Alpern said pro-choice Curves members could do is raise money for pro-choice groups and let Heavin know they have done so.

Alpern suggested that women write to Heavin saying, “I’ve decided not to boycott Curves, but this has motivated me to make a pledge to a pro-choice group.” Such actions might have an impact if Heavin realizes he’s actually generating support for abortion rights, she said.

Taking Action

Several Curves members are already taking action. After Teresa, from San Francisco, read the articles in the Chronicle she started a Web site called Curvers for Choice, where women can discuss the controversy. She also did some math.

“If Curves has two million customers and half are pro-choice, then if only 25 percent gave a contribution of $25 . . . women would do as much for pro-choice organizations as he has done for anti-choice organizations,” said Teresa, who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution from anti-choice activists.

Lyon, the franchise owner in Seattle, has pledged to donate $395, the equivalent of one month’s franchise fee, to Planned Parenthood in Waco and has encouraged her club members to give, too. Some, she says, have.

Kimberly Smith, a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood and a Curves member in Manhattan, said she thinks she can do more to generate support for the choice movement by sticking with Curves than by opting out.

“If you’re a pro-choice woman and you choose not to join Curves, you’re not doing much for the movement,” said Smith, 31, who makes sure to don her Planned Parenthood t-shirts to the gym. “I found this a great opportunity to talk to people about these issues. It’s so much more important to activate people then to go to Bally’s instead of Curves.”

As for Heavin, he said he’s not worried about the money and support he may be inadvertently generating for pro-choice groups.

“I respect freedom of speech and I expect it in return,” he said.

Jennifer Friedlin is a writer based in New York.

For more information:

San Francisco Chronicle–JON CARROLL
Tuesday, April 20, 2004:

San Francisco Chronicle–
“What’s wrong with Curves?” Thursday, April 29, 2004 by Ruth Rosen:

Curvers for Choice: