On any given day, a Google image search for the word “yoga” serves up an endless, scrolling gallery of mostly thin, blond women getting their om on. It’s laughably predictable. Try it!
But seriously. The fitness industry has long been catering to a predominantly white audience. As a result, it’s usually oblivious to issues of access, diversity, inclusivity, and intersectionality, as are a great many of its trainers and instructors, both in terms of staff at a given gym and more prominent influencers. In general, it doesn’t seem like fitness professionals are interested in the greater conversation about racism in America. This is something that became painfully apparent to me in August 2017. In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, which unequivocally revealed that racism is indeed still an issue in the United States today, I noticed in my own social media feeds that many of the industry’s most influential figures chose to remain silent and continue about their lives and typical posting habits, business as usual. At a moment when my feeds were otherwise full of people talking about and processing their feelings about Charlottesville, so many white fitness pros were choosing to stay silent on those topics. But as a health and fitness professional who’s been a trainer for the last four years, I can tell you that it’s crucial that our industry considers the intersection of race (and racism) and fitness.
Fitness and wellness go far beyond exercise and nutrition.
After all, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are equally important to a person’s wellbeing. All of these aspects of wellness have a direct impact on physical health. We can’t adequately take a holistic approach to wellness without addressing racism and how it affects wellbeing and prevents some people from feeling safe in their bodies.
For many people, especially white people, this may be an entirely new consideration. When you aren’t personally affected by racism, it’s easy to lack the awareness about its effects. That’s a result of privilege. Privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t had any struggles or don’t work hard. Having privilege just means that there are certain things you haven’t had to struggle with. If you aren’t living in a black or brown body, you haven’t had to struggle with the mental and emotional trauma caused by racism, whether it’s caused by daily microaggressions, the persistent threat of physical violence, or systemic barriers to resources. While it may feel easier to keep these considerations out of our practice, creating inclusive fitness spaces that truly do attend to the wellness needs of our clients requires that we discuss racism as well as a myriad of other -isms that inevitably negatively affect our clients.
“Love and light” is not all right.
If you spend much time on fitness social media, you’ll notice influencers and trainers using phrases such as “love and light,” that emphasize a desire (and an imperative) to focus on positivity. Yes, engaging in fitness can (should!) be a positive experience that adds value and allows us to lead vibrant, full, and energized lives. But the fact that exercise can enrich our lives doesn’t grant trainers and instructors permission to ignore the less-than-hyperpositive aspects of people’s lives—specifically the harmful reality of racism—in favor of lighter, happier topics. After something like the events of Charlottesville or the death of another black person at the hands of police, or any other hate crime, “love and light” isn’t going to make me feel like my reality is being taken into consideration. Focusing on “love and light” without acknowledging racism and its effect on the mental and emotional health of people of color minimizes and erases their trauma. How can anyone feel welcome and seen in a space if the person running the space makes them feel invisible or unimportant? People of color need a dose of solidarity and action to go along with all that “love and light.” Engaging in a wellness culture that emphasizes positivity to the exclusion of any other reality dismisses the fact that some of us face difficult things nearly every single day, and we can’t always choose to ignore them in favor of “love and light.”
As a trainer, I frequently encounter clients from diverse backgrounds and need to be able to engage in uncomfortable conversations in order to see things from a different perspective—my clients’ perspectives. I may not experience everything they experience, but I can do my best to understand, empathize, and hold space for them. Most importantly, I can be open to learning more and accepting feedback without centering myself in the conversation. By seeing my client as a full person, I can better understand them and what they need from me, the fitness professional who’s helping them pursue health and wellness.
There are simple ways to make your gym more inclusive, and evaluating the gym space and being open to critique are great places to start.
I used to work out at a gym where a number of non-black clients were using a racial slur while rapping the lyrics of a song. When I expressed my discomfort with the owner, I was told, “they were just singing along to the song. I think you’re taking this too personally.” He disregarded my concerns without even attempting to understand my perspective. While it’s nearly impossible to control what individual members are saying, there is an opportunity correct situations which are brought to our attention. A simple solution to this particular situation is to use the edited versions of songs.
On a separate occasion, I visited a gym that had a sign hanging on the wall which read, “We don’t see color.” While the intention was probably well-meaning, in reality, the sign was offensive. Pretending to not recognize color is erasing people’s identity along with the things they experience every single because of it. The key is to acknowledge people’s differences while still treating every individual with dignity and respect. We can create welcoming spaces without erasure. I took the opportunity to discuss it with the gym manager, and we had a wonderful dialogue. He followed up with me two weeks later to inform me that not only had the sign been taken down, but he also held a meeting with all staff to educate them as well.
If fitness professionals are sincerely interested in serving all clients, and helping them pursue wellness, it’s imperative that we take an industry-wide intersectional approach and embrace conversations about racism and how it affects our clients. And we also need to acknowledge and have a working understanding of gender, sexual orientation, ability status, body diversity, and more, and how those identities, especially when they intersect, affect people’s lives in and out of the gym. This requires taking time to acknowledge and examine our own internalized biases and beliefs and will likely lead to some discomfort—but discomfort is not a bad thing. In fact, leaning into uncomfortable feelings gives way to growth and evolution.
And if this degree of discomfort feels prohibitive to you, just imagine the degree of discomfort that someone who experiences racism in everyday life feels.
This is your call to action.
If this is an entirely new perspective for you, it may feel a little overwhelming. I encourage you to start by broadening your understanding of racism and learning more about intersectionality. If this makes sense to you, or seems like it could, but you’re wondering where to start, one of my favorite resources for people individuals who find it difficult to talk about racism is the book White Fragility. Some organizations who are doing an excellent job of taking an intersectional approach to fitness are Women’s Strength Coalition, Fear Her Fight Athletics, and Decolonizing Fitness. Expand your social networks and genuinely attempt to develop relationships with people of color and other fitness professionals who are already having these conversations. If your location makes this challenging, social media provides ample opportunity to connect with people from diverse backgrounds all over the world. Start somewhere, but start.
Chrissy King is an ISSA-certified personal trainer, a strength and nutrition coach, powerlifter, self-proclaimed truth teller, and writer with a passion for intersectional feminism. She empowers women to stop shrinking, start taking up space, and use their energy to create their specific magic in the world. When she’s not serving her clients by empowering them to create stress-free and sustainable lifestyles and feel confident and empowered in their skin, she spends her time lifting all the weights, reading, traveling, and hanging with friends and family. Follow her on Twitter here, on Facebook here, and on Instagram here.