How Latoya Snell, aka the Running Fat Chef, Finds Joy and Liberation In Movement
In October 2012, Latoya Snell felt a sharp, stabbing pain in her back, and over the next "year from hell" was diagnosed with a slew of spinal issues and immune system complications.
To deal with these mounting health issues, Snell turned to exercise to gain control of her physical and mental wellbeing. She ultimately fell in love with running and lost 100 pounds in the process, but with that came disordered eating.
"[I knew about] this type of disordered eating, but I had a hard time associating it with myself," she says. "Unfortunately, educational marketing about the dangers of having an eating disorder doesn't keep marginalized people in mind. Visually, I've mostly seen materials with exceptionally smaller framed women on pamphlets and didn't envision my former 165-pound, 5'3" frame as a person with anorexia. When adding on race and sexual identity [Snell identifies as bisexual and queer], it was a different type of hell." (See: What It's Like Being a Black, Body-Positive Female Trainer In an Industry That's Predominantly Thin and White)
This period of time is what Snell calls a "dark spot" in her life. "I wanted to call myself an athlete but failed to acknowledge that I am an athlete," she says. "There's no uniform or look to be one. Showing up, respecting your boundaries and listening to your body's love language when you need to fuel or rest is how you become an athlete. This is the peace that I've come to with my body and the way that it performs; I'm just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up."
Eventually, Snell found hard-earned self-love, and she's using her personal journey to help the, well, the rest of the world to "catch up," by motivating others through her blog, The Running Fat Chef. In doing so, not only has she reclaimed her own health, but she's also made a name for herself as a motivational speaker, advocate, and athlete, having run well more than 200 road, trail, and obstacle course racing events since 2014. And in her latest endeavor — a collaboration with fitness brand Gymshark on their United We Sweat campaign — Snell is using her platform to empower athletes of all backgrounds to feel confident in their own skin.
"I took on the pseudonym Running Fat Chef after growing frustrated by the way the word 'fat' is weaponized and used as an insult to people," says Snell. "As a former culinarian [she formerly worked as a freelance food stylist, photographer, and within corporate dining and restaurants], I love associating the word 'fat' with being flavorful, full-bodied, and soulful. And when I think about the term fat in regard to the human body, when fat cells release stores, it fuels the body with energy. A few years into my fitness journey, I started questioning why people are whispering a descriptor but abusing the terminology conveniently. To gain power over the word, I infused it into my blog-turned-company name."
Initially, people thought the decision was "bold and slightly absurd," but Snell says she believes the brand's name forces people to confront their own biases about the term "fat" and its historically negative connotations. "For those who are plus-size and felt shame over being referred to by this term, I want all of us to see our power," she says. "It is impossible to live without body fat, and I don't feel shame for having a bit more of it on my body."
Snell hopes that her partnership with Gymshark will help bring the rest of the world up to speed. "I love the messaging and common goal: Pulling people together, celebrating our strength and basking in our wins," she says. "For almost a decade, I've questioned privately and publicly when I will see a version of myself in fitness anywhere. I'm grateful to see more body diversity in sports — whether we're referring to race, size, or ability — but I know that there's a lot more work to be done. Having the opportunity to join forces with a large community to help spread that message on a global level means more to me than I can describe. To be one of the many faces on a campaign that's larger than me makes me feel like we're working toward the inclusive fitness space that many of us want to see." (Related: How to Create an Inclusive Environment In the Wellness Space)
While Snell has worked tirelessly to make strides in her own eating disorder recovery, relationship to her body, and role as an athlete, she acknowledges the myriad obstacles and the intimidation factor that may keep new exercisers on the sidelines.
For those who've felt marginalized in the workout world, she offers some words of wisdom: "If you want to start weaving in fitness in your life, allow it to fulfill you with joy, purpose, and fun," she says. "Don't compare your movement to another person. Each person is a unique moving canvas and doesn't need to flow the same [way] to coexist. Take your time with the process, restart as many times as you deem necessary, and don't stress about being the only person that looks like you in a room. If this is problematic, create your own tribe. Every group starts with one person meeting another with a collective thought. I promise you will not be the only person out there seeking community. And if you desire to move alone, there's nothing wrong with self-discovery and creating your own adventure." (Related: Black Trainers and Fitness Pros to Follow and Support)
As Snell looks to the future of making fitness accessible for all, she reflects on the individuality and diversity that's so central to making it a reality. "Your accomplishment may not look like another person," she says. "Someone else's way of moving is not for public consumption. While it's beautiful to be open and vulnerable about our athleticism, some are either still finding their way, building their confidence to share with others, or may want to keep it to themselves. Let's be mindful of some of our language as we empower others. When in doubt, question if it is okay to offer help, insert an opinion or even compliment. While I am inclined to believe that many of us have the best of intentions, we are not fully knowledgeable of someone else's back story."
And for those who may still be falling prey to pervasive diet culture messaging that tricks you into believing miserable workouts, restrictive eating, and other forms of self-punishment are the stepping stones to better health, Snell encourages more self-inquiry and less obsessive rigidity. (Also read: The Intersection of Diet Culture and Racism)
"There's a lot of conflicting messages out there about health, especially when the diet industry is a multibillion-dollar business that preys on our insecurities," she says. "At one point, I equated weight loss to happiness and personal success. Incorporating fitness into your daily life serves a greater purpose than just the physical benefits... Some of the toxic messaging of diet culture is ingrained in those who look like me as well. I don't want nor do I need to view my body as something to shrink. I love taking up space without permission from others."