Curve ball

Curves gym, with its no-stress workout for exercise-averse women, is the fastest-growing franchise in the U.S. But revelations that its founder gives millions of dollars to antiabortion groups has its customers divided over just what a "female-friendly" business is.

Published May 20, 2004 3:19AM (EDT)

If you live near a Curves health club (and with 7,500 of them dotting the U.S., Canada, Europe and Mexico, trust us, you do), you may have barely noticed its unprepossessing exterior. Each location in the chain of women's gyms takes up only 1,000 to 1,800 square feet on a given sidewalk or strip mall, and is adorned with a violet-and-white awning bearing a Barbie-style scripted logo that makes the place look like a hair-scrunchie kiosk from 1986. But Curves' spare exteriors, and the minimalist fitness programming that goes on inside, have helped the chain become the country's fastest-growing franchise. It boasts nearly 3 million members, and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest fitness center franchise. Curves locations are so ubiquitous that they seem to act as antimatter counterparts to business brethren like McDonald's and Starbucks, popping up on every corner to suck that extra fat right back.

But these days, the women's gym first franchised in 1995 by Waco, Texas, fitness entrepreneur and born-again Christian Gary Heavin is not just doing battle with the saturated-fat-mongers across the parking lot. The past month has seen a whirlwind of confusing press about how much -- if any -- of Curves' profits Heavin gives to anti-abortion groups, and what kind of anti-abortion groups. The storm has left Heavin, franchise owners, gym members and the media locked in a battle that illustrates the confusing powers of the press, the Internet, and political and religious conviction. What seems clear is that Heavin is a committed foe of abortion who has contributed his own money to health agencies that discourage terminating pregnancies; he even blasted a local chapter of the Girl Scouts in print for its associations with Planned Parenthood. But Texas Planned Parenthood leaders have praised some of the health centers Heavin funds, and some feminists continue to defend Curves as one of the most pro-woman health and business ventures in the country. The fracas, which has included imprecise reporting and a scattershot boycott, prompts the question: What does it mean for a business to be good for women?

Until a month ago, Curves felt like one of the most female-friendly businesses around. The Curves program (three 30-minute sessions a week; no more, no less) is created specifically for big women, middle-aged women, elderly women, women who haven't exercised in years -- women who haven't exactly felt the love in expensive gyms that offer kickboxing and Yogilates classes. The 30-minute circuit involves a series of stations and combines a cardiovascular workout with hydraulic weight-training, designed to grow with a body's capabilities. The gyms are designed for women, too: There are no mirrors, patrons are encouraged to come with friends, and machines are arranged in one down-to-earth circle. Membership prices vary from $29 to $59 a month, depending on location. Until this year, the proliferation of Curves has been entirely due to word-of-mouth business; the company had no national ad campaign.

The chain has drawn hopeful small-business owners -- most of them women. The price to purchase a location is under $30,000, and an additional monthly royalty fee hovers around $400, plus approximately $200 a month for international advertising. Rents tend to be manageable because of Curves' minimal square-footage requirements. With branches everywhere, from New York and Los Angeles to North Pole, Alaska, the chain is supposed to top out at the end of 2004 with 9,000 locations. All in all, Curves' history had read like a business chapter from "Our Bodies, Our Selves."

Until April 20, when San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll published a brief item alleging that 49-year-old Heavin "is a heavy contributor to several organizations allied with Operation Save America, the rather more muscular successor to Operation Rescue, the anti-choice group." Carroll's piece also mentioned an interview with Heavin in Christianity Today, and implied that in it, the fitness guru had boasted about giving away "10 percent of Curves' profits" to anti-choice groups.

A week later, Chronicle columnist Ruth Rosen wrote a longer follow-up to Carroll's piece. In it, she extolled Curves' seemingly feminist virtues, and then identified Heavin as a former deadbeat dad who last year gave "at least $5 million of his profits to some of the most militant anti-abortion groups in the country." Again referencing an interview in Christianity Today, Rosen wrote of Heavin's pride in his anti-abortion activism. She pointed out that half of the $10 million (which she called "10 percent of their company's gross revenues") the Heavins doled out to charity last year went to "three Texas organizations to fund 'pregnancy crisis centers' supported by Operation Save America -- the same organization that blamed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on God's retribution for abortions." Rosen also interviewed several Curves members who had quit the gym because of Heavin's reported donations. "Here, then, is a feminist dilemma," concluded Rosen. "What to do? Your decision. There are alternatives, including just plain walking."

It was a sharper battle cry than Carroll's, and no sooner had both pieces been published than they were burning their way across the blogosphere with the speed of the Paris Hilton sex tape, hopping from in box to in box and being referenced in gender and fitness chat rooms. "Here's a guy making money off women, and he's donating money to undermine women's rights. I am so not ever going to set foot in one of those places," wrote Gaiagurl in a comment that summed up many of the Web exchanges on the subject. Ten years ago, I had probably already scarfed my weight in Domino's pizza when someone hazily mentioned to me, in my sophomore year of college, that the company's owner was a vocal and wealthy supporter of anti-abortion groups. The story, which was true and inspired a Domino's boycott by the National Organization for Women, had been passed by word of mouth for years. Now, it only takes minutes to make sure that every wired, politically conscious consumer knows where not to spend their money.

Except that in this case, some of the information may not have been accurate.

The day after Rosen's column, Curves issued a press release headlined "Curves Founders' Make Large Charitable Donations -- But Not to Radical Pro-Life Groups." The release quoted Heavin as saying "Neither Curves International Inc., nor my wife, nor I gave money to Operation Save America or any other radical pro-life group." It went on to explain that the Heavins "support organizations that contribute to the overall health and wellness of women and their families" by donating to three specific health charities in central Texas: Care Net, the Family Practice Center of McLennan County, and the McLennan County Collaborative Abstinence Project. The release also detailed the Heavins' other contributions, to Shriners Hospitals, the Natchez Children's Home in Mississippi, the American Cancer Society, the Arthritis Foundation and the American Heart Association. According to the press release, the couple created a $2 million endowment at Thomas Edison State University in New Jersey, and funded a five-year, $5 million medical study on methods of improving women's health at Baylor University.

On May 13, the San Francisco Chronicle published a lengthy correction to both Carroll's and Rosen's stories. The correction refuted Rosen's description of Heavin's chosen charities as "some of the most militant anti-abortion groups in the country," stating: "That characterization is not accurate." Neither, according to the correction, was Rosen's assertion that the donations fund pregnancy crisis centers: "Only one of the recipients, Care Net, operates pregnancy centers that are designed to dissuade pregnant women from having abortions while offering other support services to encourage adoption." The paper specified that Heavin has pledged $1 million to Care Net over the next five years. His largest contribution, $3.75 million, is to the Family Practice Center of McLennan County, which provides health care to many uninsured Texans, and "does not provide abortions but is not actively involved in the anti-abortion movement." Heavin's third Texas charity, the McLennan County Abstinence Project, which will receive $250,000 over five years, does not mention abortion or birth control as options when counseling teens on their sexual health. The correction clarified that contrary to both Carroll's and Rosen's pieces, Heavin's contributions were not any percentage of Curves' revenues, but part of Heavin's "personal wealth." It also corrected both Rosen and Carroll by noting that quotes they attributed to Heavin's Christianity Today interview actually came from Today's Christian, a magazine affiliated with Christianity Today. And, the correction stated, contrary to both journalists' suggestions, Heavin is not allied with Operation Save America, but had been praised by its members for his donations to the above groups.

In an e-mail to Salon, Rosen, a former historian at the University of California at Davis who has been with the Chronicle for four years, wrote, "Before I wrote my column, I called the public relations officer at Curves, who verified all the information I had gathered. After my column appeared, however, a new public relations officer sent out a press release saying that there were several errors in my column, including that Gary Heavin, who has said and written that he opposes abortion, did not give $5 million to three crisis pregnancy centers. That turns out to be true. He gave $5 million to three different nonprofit groups in Waco, Texas, all of whom are anti-choice and do not discuss or provide birth control. One is a pregnancy crisis center, another is an abstinence-only promotion collaborative and the third is a Catholic family practice center." Carroll, who is currently traveling across the country, could not be reached for comment.

It looked as though the charges against Heavin were not as distressing as they had appeared: He had given his own private money to anti-abortion groups, but not the kind that picket and hold bloody fetus posters or encourage violence. Some would argue that for pro-choice activists, these kinds of institutions are even more invidious, since they are more rational and try to take the place of groups like Planned Parenthood; others say that they simply provide another choice for women. A philosophical question had been raised about what it means to be militant, what it means to be anti-abortion, and what it means to patronize a company whose CEO may have radically different beliefs than many of his clientele.

But there were other questions as well, specifically about the legions of women who had not been paying close attention to every twist and turn of the reporting. No matter what details the correction clarified, the original alarm had been raised across the country, and members were dropping out of Curves. Charylu Roberts, who, with her business partner, Cinnamon, owns two San Francisco franchises, lost 16 clients in the weeks following Carroll's column. Only two new members joined her gym during a period in which she had been averaging 10; she estimated her losses at around $10,000. Anne Marx, a lawyer who owns two Bay Area Curves locations with her husband, said that her Rockridge franchise was hit the hardest, fastest. In a matter of days, Marx said, she had lost six customers, and her total climbed to 13. "There was something about being in a slightly wealthier area where women felt more empowered," said Marx, noting that one of her customers actually told her, "I know I can go somewhere else that will cost more money. Not all women have that option, but I do." Then there was the fear that pro-life activists, who had surely heard the call of a fellow traveler running a business they could support, would join the gym.

Franchise owners -- many of whom had been aware of their boss's religious convictions and his pro-life stance, but considered it a quiet reality unrelated to Curves' business practices -- were poring over information and talking to Curves executives to determine where Heavin really stood in relation to radical anti-abortion groups.

In her e-mail, Rosen referenced an editorial Heaven wrote for the Waco-Tribune Herald on Feb. 28, 2004, in response to a local boycott of the Girl Scouts for having named Planned Parenthood of Central Texas executive director Pam Smallwood a "Woman of Distinction." In it, Heavin derides Planned Parenthood literature, asserting, "I have a 10-year-old daughter. I would absolutely not allow her to be exposed to this material. I don't want her being taught masturbation and told that homosexuality is normal." Heavin identifies his $5 million gifts to the three Texas health charities as a venture called "the Women's Health Collaborative Project."

It's this umbrella organization that has created the most confusion about Heavin's alleged ties to Operation Save America. The confusion stems from a letter posted on the Operation Save America Web site by Rusty Lee Thomas, an assistant director at Operation Rescue/Operation Save America. In the letter, Thomas describes telephoning Heavin last year for support in his mission to destroy Planned Parenthood; his letter asserts that Heavin was supportive. He then reports on Heavin's formation of the Women's Health Collaborative Project and commends Heavin's three charities as worthy participants in the anti-abortion crusade. Thomas concludes that "Mr. Heavin has removed the mask of legitimacy from Planned Parenthood and is helping to make their 'services' obsolete." Thomas' letter, which was signed "In King Jesus' Service," was headlined "Women's Collaborative Effort" -- close enough to Heavin's "Women's Health Collaborative Project" that it looked like there was a link between the men, and thus between their organizations.

But even Planned Parenthood's Smallwood drew a very sharp line between the fuzzy Operation Save America connections and the charities to which Heavin has actually contributed. By phone, she emphasized that there has been a lot of "misinformation" on the Web regarding the Curves founder. The Heavin-supported Family Practice Center, she said, "is a very necessary and worthwhile organization in Waco. They don't practice abortions, but they are a primary care facility for indigent populations and people who are uninsured. Without it, thousands of people would not be able to receive medical care." As for the Care Net Pregnancy Crisis Center, Smallwood said, "Although we don't agree certainly on abortion, they do not participate in demonstrations against our organization, as some other groups do." And about the McLennan County Abstinence Project, Smallwood said, "Again, we don't agree with each other's approaches regarding sex education. But they are not in the business of attacking us or demonstrating in front of Planned Parenthood, as are some of the organizations it was initially suggested Mr. Heavin was connected to. I have no idea how that information got started," she said.

"I had a 40-minute phone call with Gary Heavin," said lawyer and franchise owner Marx. "I asked him questions like a lawyer asks questions, so that I could go back to my customers and tell them the truth: that he had no relationship to Rusty Lee Thomas, no relationship with Save America, no relationship with Operation Rescue." Why does she believe him? "He's not backing away from what his beliefs are," Marx said. "He's not apologizing for what he does believe but he is clearing up things that are not accurate."

Indeed, in a letter sent to franchisees on Friday, May 14, the day after the Chronicle correction, and obtained by Salon, Heavin expressed his concern about the fallout from the story at the same time that he underlined the strength of his beliefs. "Imagine having to defend a five million dollar gift that went primarily to our local county health clinic that simply cares for the indigent," wrote Heavin. "Or having to defend a gift to a crisis pregnancy center that provides health care and adoption services so that women who choose to keep their babies might be able to do so." The letter went on, "I will be careful to support organizations that are responsible and reasonable. Unfortunately, the experiences of the past two weeks have shown us that being pro-life and Christian are qualities seen as unreasonable by certain groups. I will not compromise what I believe in just because there's a chance someone may choose to distort it." Heavin signed the letter, "God bless you and your Curves."

Of course none of this answers the question of how pro-choice women should digest all this news. For some, the argument revolves around the way the franchise owners and Curves customers -- many of them lifelong feminists -- have been hurt.

Charylu Roberts, who bought her Curves locations in June 2003, said she knew from the start that she and Heavin didn't have a lot in common. "I found out right away that Gary Heavin was a Christian and that Curves was out of Texas; that set off red flags, and so I did further research," she said. "I worked for Planned Parenthood for two years; I've had an abortion. I'm one of the strongest pro-choice people in the universe. You better believe I did my homework." But, she said, she was satisfied enough with what she found -- that her CEO was a Christian fundamentalist, but that he did not contribute to causes that she radically opposed. "For me this was a dream come true," said Roberts, who has owned a music publishing business for 17 years. "It was a chance to give back and work with women and women's health issues, and it was a good thing for women first getting into new businesses."

Now she is scared for her business, and nervous about the media machine that set the ball rolling. "Quite truthfully, if I had read just Ruth Rosen's article before buying the franchise I would not have done it," said Roberts. "But I'm in a position now where I need to defend my small business. I'm trying to help women." Roberts said that her six months of Curves ownership have left her satisfied that she is doing good work. "Every day I walk into that place I know I'm helping women. It's frustrating to look at a whole organization as one person, and sort of erroneous. The only people they're hurting are the franchise owners."

Marx, who described herself as pro-choice, agreed, pointing out that franchise owners pay Curves a flat fee, regardless of whether they have 400 members or 10 members. "So the only way our members could try to harm Gary Heavin is if Michael and I went out of business," said Marx. Marx also said that she believes individualized boycott is not effective and is irresponsible, but that collective organization can make a change. As a result, she and her husband have been on the phone with Planned Parenthood and other women's organizations supportive of reproductive choice, trying to devise a way in which Curves members could make donations and be counted as a group.

It's an endeavor that one local San Francisco Curves member has also undertaken on her Web site, Curvers for Choice, on which she encourages women who want to stay at Curves to wear pro-choice gear to the gym and make donations to pro-choice organizations in Gary Heavin's name. Teresa, a 45-year-old Web designer who asked to be identified only by her first name, has loved her six months at Curves. When a friend e-mailed her Rosen's column, she said, "I immediately thought: What can I do in this situation? Do I have to quit?" So she reasoned a way out of giving up her healthiest habit: "I thought I could do something positive for the other side in terms of encouraging other people to give contributions to pro-choice groups."

The director of development for Planned Parenthood of Central Texas confirmed that the organization has received contributions in Heavin's name since the press ruckus. A representative for NOW said there have been no such contributions made yet to that organization. The NOW spokeswoman also said that the organization has been researching Heavin, but has no official position on him. She added that one lobbyist had already pointed out that since Heavin supports groups that advise women who are contemplating abortions -- and NOW advocates choice, not abortion -- that there may well not be any action against him.

For some, the troubling part of the story lies in the speed with which careless information got disseminated. "This is about how easily we believe the press," said Teresa, who said she has gotten e-mails about Curvers for Choice from Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle. "Because Jon Carroll says it's true, it's true." Random calls by Salon to Curves branches around the country -- in Maine, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Massachusetts, Montana and Los Angeles -- turned up no discernible pattern of locations that had been affected by the press vs. those where managers had no idea of the controversy.

Many are upset about the arguments that are springing up between women who disagree about how to react to the information. "There's this idea out there that anyone who is pro-choice enough will quit Curves," said Teresa. "It's sad that people feel they have to make a choice in that way."

One blogger who posted the initial round of news on Heavin's donations and advocated a boycott, disagreed. Pineapplegirl, a 30-year-old Austin, Texas, political consultant who asked not to be identified by her real name, said that she is unmoved by stories of the franchisees being forced out of business. "The franchisee doesn't have the right to say, 'It's not me, I'm different.' If that business owner chooses to get in bed with this CEO, you don't get to benefit from the positive branding and marketing that Curves has built and then turn around and say, 'Oh, I shouldn't be held responsible for the things I don't agree with.'" But Pineapplegirl had not yet received word of the Chronicle's correction. When informed by Salon that some of the facts had been confused, she said, "Well maybe it's much ado about nothing, then."

For some, the corrected facts don't change their resistance to the idea of supporting Curves. A letter sent to the Chronicle by two doctors at the Center for Reproductive Health Research & Policy at the University of California at San Francisco in response to the correction, reads in part: "These corrections obscured the ideological agenda of the individuals and organizations highlighted. This agenda includes preventing women from obtaining abortions and censoring and distorting information about birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases." It goes on to lambaste the three organizations Heavin funds, which they claim "restrict services and distort information. They also endanger health." The letter concludes by thanking Rosen, who they claim "has enabled her readers to make a better-informed decision about whether to support an organization whose owner has an ideological agenda counter to their own values."

It's the kind of intra-movement argument that has feminists on edge. "I have never experienced quite as much intolerance from the liberal side, of which I am one," said Roberts, returning on Saturday from a meeting of Bay Area Curves owners where they tried to hash out how they would get their new, corrected image out and rebuild their lost business. "For some it's enough that he's pro-life. I guess that pisses them off enough to stop right there." But, she said, "I'm still proud I'm part of this company and want to get back to helping women with their health."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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