What It's Like Being a Black, Body-Positive Female Trainer In an Industry That's Predominantly Thin and White
"By continuing to show up and create this space for people to move and have a good experience, I hope that more people will feel comfortable showing up completely as themselves."
While diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords within the fitness and wellness industry, mainstream fitness is still very white and very thin. When I first entered the fitness industry as a trainer more than five years ago, one of the first things I noticed was a lack of representation of Black women in the industry. It wasn't that Black women weren't entering gym spaces and engaging in physical fitness, but mainstream fitness wasn't elevating the experience of Black women in the industry as participants in fitness, trainers, or even on the covers of fitness magazines.
Moreover, the industry wasn't acknowledging that fitness and movement aren't about having a particular physique. There was very little discussion about the fact that people could enter fitness spaces for reasons other than shrinking, maintaining, or otherwise manipulating their bodies. Although the benefits of movement are vast, including reducing stress levels, improved mental health, and better sleep—just to name a few—mainstream fitness tends to focus on exercise solely as a means to lose weight, possibly alienating large populations of individuals who perhaps just want to move their body for joy and pleasure.
Where does that leave people who feel in the margins? People who don't fit into the category of white or thin?
While there has definitely been some progress made in terms of diversity in the last few years, the industry has a long way to go. However, Black, body-positive female trainers very much exist, and they're leading the charge for change in the wellness industry and disrupting the status quo. Not only are they changing the narrative about what health and fitness can look like, but these women are also allowing people who may not otherwise feel comfortable or welcome in these spaces to find a sense of belonging.
"Most of my co-workers are white," says Lauren Leavell, a Philadelphia-based personal trainer and barre and HIIT instructor. "Most of my clients are white. It's hard to not notice when I'm in class, and I'm the ONLY person of color at all. Add to that the fact that my body is bigger than most and it can feel like I am very much on display."
Leavell says she feels that her role within the industry is vital. "I want to show up for people who look like me and for people who don't," she says. "I want people to know that ALL BODIES can participate and enjoy fitness. I would love to see more Black womxn in class. I would love to see more fat women in class. By continuing to show up and create this space for people to move and have a good experience, I hope that more people will feel comfortable showing up completely as themselves—online or in-person." (Looking for support? here some accessible mental health resources for Black womxn.)
Jessica Rihal, a California-based yoga and meditation instructor, had an epiphany about her personal fitness journey that led to a career as a yoga teacher.
"I started investing in my wellness and movement when I realized that I had been dieting since I was 7 years old, and I was still fat," says Rihal. "I had this lightbulb moment wherein I realized that maybe I could just start moving my body to do what felt good. I started walking and hiking, something that I had no exposure to growing up Black and a latchkey kid in the city. As I reclaimed movement for myself, I made it a goal to become a yoga instructor because I walked into spaces and noticed that I was only the fat person and Black person there. I oftentimes didn't feel seen or understood so I decided to be the change I wanted to see."
However, existing as a fat, Black trainer in an industry that's majority is thin and white doesn't come without judgment. (Related: What Implicit Bias Is—and Tools to Overcome It)
"There are times when I interact with other people in the industry, and although I feel very confident, there have been times when I tell people that I'm a yoga instructor and people have laughed at me as if it's funny that someone who looks like me could be a yoga instructor," says Rihal. "That tells me exactly what I need to know about those individuals' ideas of what bodies can do or are supposed to look like. For me, that's why it's so important to be proud of who I am and to be visible as a fat, Black trainer in this industry—to change the narrative of what it means to be 'fit'."
For Simone Samuels, a Canada-based body-positive fitness instructor and personal trainer, the decision to become a trainer didn't come without hesitation or doubt.
"I wasn't going to become a fitness professional in the first place because I'd never seen any other fitness professional who looked like me," says Samuels. "But I soon realized that was exactly why it was necessary for me to become a trainer. I needed to become the change I wanted to see in the industry. But I went from being self-conscious about going to the gym as a member or a client to being self-conscious as an instructor. Lack of representation will do that to you. I wondered who would hire me. I wondered if people would come to my classes. I wondered if people would take me seriously." (More here: How Racism Affects Mental Health)
However, in spite of her reservations, Samuels says she found much the opposite to be true. In fact, she has since developed a loyal following of clients with people actively seeking her out. Not only that, but she's actively combatting the lack of diversity that's often present in fitness spaces. (These other trainers are dedicated to making the fitness space more inclusive for people of all genders, races, and abilities, too.)
"But being big and Black in an industry that's overwhelmingly white and thin means being awkwardly visible and frustratingly invisible," says Samuels. "The gym where I used to work had decorative photos on the wall of people working out and having fun. None of those people were people of color. I have also worked at gyms where I was not only the only plus-sized instructor but also the only Black instructor. I live unabashedly at the intersection of gender, race, and size so it's been an absolute pleasure to bring that philosophy into my classes and disrupt stereotypes or misconceptions about my teaching ability and physical capability. By so doing, others have been inspired to push their own limits—both physical and intellectual."
Chrissy King is a writer, speaker, powerlifter, fitness and strength coach, creator of the #BodyLiberationProject, VP of the Women's Strength Coalition, and an advocate for anti-Racism, diversity, inclusion, and equity in the wellness industry. Check out her course on Anti-Racism for Wellness Professionals to learn more.