The personal trainer, entrepreneur, and fitfluencer gets real about being a "thick" Black girl in the fitness industry.

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Credit: Courtesy of Ajahzi Gardner

Ajahzi Gardner has taken the fitness world by storm with her larger-than-life curls and unapologetic mid-workout twerk breaks. Gardner, 25, was just a junior at The University of Nevada, Reno with aspirations to become a physical therapist when she created an Instagram account to track her meals and gym progress. Today, the account has evolved to include workouts, motivational tips, and healthy eating ideas, and has amassed more than 382K followers and counting.

Gardner, who grew up playing recreational and competitive team sports, has always been active. But she really embarked on her personal fitness journey when she launched her social media account as a way to find a sense of community, comradery, and, at least initially, accountability.

Gardner came onto the fitness scene in 2016, during a time when you could argue that flat abs, lean legs, and zero cellulite were still part of the status quo of the "ideal body." The body-positivity movement was only beginning to gain steam and social media influencers, trainers, and models popping up on feeds were mostly white and cisgender. Gardner — a biracial Black and Asian American, full-figured woman with a head full of big, bouncy curls — was an exception to a largely white, thin norm. (Related: What It's Like Being a Black, Body-Positive Female Trainer In an Industry That's Predominantly Thin and White)

Fast forward to today and Gardner is no longer alone in her digital fitness circles. Many other women of color are using their platforms to advocate for better representation of people who look like them. Gardner uses her voice to encourage her followers to embrace their natural physiques, — curves, dips, rolls, all of it — and proudly.

Gardner says she prides herself on being transparent about the long journey it has taken to become authentically confident in her own body. Take a quick look around her social media, and you'll find posts with brutally honest captions about her struggles to maintain a positive body image, but also important reminders to be grateful for what the body can do, as well. (Related: 5 Shape Editors Share How They Really Feel About Their Body)

To get a closer look at how Gardner navigates her own self-acceptance and love, Shape spoke with her about what it means to truly embrace her body as a curvy, Black woman and fitness trainer in 2021.

How has your outlook on health and fitness changed?

"I spent the beginning of my fitness journey dieting, [eating] super, super low calories, and plummeting my metabolism, and honestly just trying to just be the skinniest version of myself. I was thick my entire life. I've been curvy my entire life.​ I remember going to get my physical in eighth grade, and I was already 155 pounds. Everybody [else] was barely breaking 100 pounds at the time. So, I've had a lot of — I wouldn't call them insecurities with my body image, but just a very strange relationship with my body image from lack of representation and inclusivity.

I feel like until this past year and a half or so, I was just trying to fit the fitness, Instagram girl mold. And now I just navigate my own path and tell my own story. [I'm] not trying to be the skinniest, tiniest version of myself, and I don't feel like I need to track every calorie and work out every day and do cardio every day to [be] lean."

How do you balance working toward fitness goals while also listening to your body?

"I wish there was a straight answer to that. I don't think you should ever feel obligated to be disciplined every single day or never indulge in a meal you really like and want. Obviously, if I were to eat junk food all day, I'm not treating my body the way I should, and my body deserves nutritious foods that make me feel good. I feel like when it comes to fitness and diet for some people, it's black and white. You're either on point — tracking macros, training six days a week — or you are just not tracking anything and just working out when you feel like it. There's often no gray area.

I think the mind shift you have to make is: work out and eat healthier because it makes you feel good...and you will see the results that come with that [attitude]. I want to be mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy, and I feel like [if] I sacrifice every other aspect of my life and wellbeing to reach fitness goals, then I wouldn't feel healthy." (Related: It's Okay If You Want to Lose Weight you've Gained Over Quarantine—But You Don't Need to)

You're very honest about having "bad body-image days." When you have those moments, how do you snap out of it and find your confidence? 

"It wasn't until recently that I was even comfortable just being my truest, thickest self. And that happened because of COVID-19 after all the gyms closed. I just remind myself that I am so much more than my body, and the experiences that I have are so much more important than me being at my absolute leanest. If I'm a little bloated, [the experience] was worth it.

When you're thicker, you often have more dips, dimples, waves, and rolls, and with social media, [people] are obviously posed and angled and that's one thing you definitely have to remind yourself. I know how to pose, but I know that when I sit down, I still have belly rolls. That's where you have to realize that what you're seeing online, isn't always reality. You just can't play that comparison game."

Why is it so important to see trainers and influencers who look like you in the fitness industry? 

"Representation is literally everything, and when I came into the fitness industry, there wasn't any. Even to this day, I go out of my way to find Black women to follow or women of color in general. I spent so much time trying to be a tiny person because I was in an industry that was oversaturated with tiny, white women. But when I built my own platform, I knew that I was serving as representation because I had curly hair and my body was thicker." (Related: Black Trainers and Fitness Pros to Follow and Support)

What advice do you have for anyone struggling to accept their body as is? 

"I just always remind myself that I am so grateful for my body. At the very least just appreciate your body for getting you through the day. I think about all the things that I'm able to do because I'm willing to have a little extra weight on me, whether it's letting myself get some Chick-Fil-A, going out with my girls and having cocktails, or having dessert after dinner. Those experiences and those indulgences make my soul happy. (Related: Can You Love Your Body and Still Want to Change It?)