The boom in wellness over the past decade has helped the fitness industry create a more inclusive atmosphere, but there’s still some way to go before it can be considered truly diverse. The sense of not belonging means that for some people the idea of feeling good in their bodies is more aspirational than achievable.
“Representation in wellness is massively important, and has a huge impact on whether people feel comfortable entering and using exercise spaces,” says Hannah Lewin, a London personal trainer who works with women but deliberately doesn’t focus on aesthetics. Lewin hears regularly from prospective clients who want to feel the benefits of exercise but are intimidated because they don’t conform to the images they see on Instagram, in the media and in advertising.
“Health and fitness is for all bodies, ages and ethnicities – it’s vital that we push against cliches. I have seen some fantastic fitness improvements among my clients when they are made to feel welcome and valid rather than intimidated and belittled,” she says.
Despite being part of the problem, platforms such as Instagram have provided a space and an audience for individuals keen to make fitness a truly inclusive industry. Here, five trailblazers talk about what they’re doing to help break down barriers.
Influencer and fitness coach @sophjbutler
When Sophie Butler was 21, she had an accident in the gym that left her paralysed from the waist down. “Everything changed in that moment,” she says. “I went from being an able-bodied gym goer to someone whose place in exercise spaces became more like a political statement.”
Fed up with a lack of representation of disabled bodies within the industry, Butler decided to fill the gap herself – and create content for people like her who wanted to exercise but didn’t feel it was for people like them. “I didn’t set out to be an influencer,” she says. “But after my injury I remember a distinct moment when I broke down in the hospital as I was scrolling through my Instagram feed looking at the accounts of people I no longer related to — it was a painful reminder of what I’d lost and that I no longer fitted in.”
Instead of letting this feeling win, though, Butler decided to become the representation she wanted to see in the industry, and in 2019 she won Cosmopolitan’s Influencer of the Year award in the Health and Wellness category. “At the end of the day, my success as a disabled woman is a political statement because the system is designed to exclude people like me,” she says. “If my presence helps other disabled people to feel confident enough to participate in fitness and access the benefits of it, then I can feel proud about that.”
Founder of Yogahood and Gyal Flex @misssanchialege
“Yoga on YouTube was just a sea of white, bendy people,” Sanchia Legister says, as she describes her decision to found Yogahood and Gyal Flex, two underground movements designed to make yoga more inclusive. “I’d go to classes and be the only black person there, and sometimes felt uncomfortable about how the teachers clearly weren’t attuned to different body types – for instance, the fact I have wide hips and a fro that one teacher once highlighted as a potential issue in class.”
Legister grew tired of this and decided to do something about it. “I knew there must be other people like me, and I wanted to find a way for them to feel comfortable enough to enjoy the benefits of yoga.” Legister’s classes blend her love of hip-hop with traditional aspects of yoga to help to reach under-served communities and create a space in which they feel comfortable and welcome. “People say to me: ‘I can be myself here’, which is exactly what I set out to achieve.”
Online creator and coach @carlyrowena
“Every person is completely different, and that has to come into account when considering any diet or fitness needs,” says Carly Rowena, a content creator and coach. “There’s far too much shame in this industry, and that needs to change.”
This is why Rowena recently shared a post to her Instagram followers detailing her experience of urinary incontinence when running since giving birth to her first child. “I felt so frustrated when it happened because I had followed all the advice both before and after the birth on how to look after my pelvic floor,” she says. “But it also made me realise quite how common this issue is and to want to help others feel more comfortable discussing it.”
She uses the experience to inform her coaching, particularly of pregnant and postnatal women. “No one wants it to happen, but it’s important to know that it is very common and can be managed, improved and in many cases stopped by using the right breathing techniques and strengthening exercises.”
Body positivity and antiracism activist @arti.speaks
“Why do I think fitness needs to be more diverse?” asks Artika Gunathasan, a body positivity and antiracism activist. “Well, because people exist who don’t conform to the stereotypes in fitness rooted in colonialism, and all of those people deserve to feel good and have access to fitness – and that’s pretty much it.”
Gunathasan never set out to be an influencer. “I have a lot of people get in touch and thank me for speaking out about the racial disparities that exist across all industries, because the reality is that doing so can have professional consequences,” she says. “But I don’t consider myself as brave or admirable in that respect – I’m speaking up to bring about positive change for those with marginalised identities who feel too intimidated to do it themselves.”
Co-founder and creative director GRL GYM @grl.gym
“Mainstream fitness is very narrow-minded, and can end up taking you down a road that can be damaging for your mental health,” says Sorche Harriman-Smith, co-founder of GRL GYM, an inclusive exercise space in east London. “Lean, gender-conforming, white, able bodies are most portrayed as the pinnacle of health and beauty – which leaves very little space for anything else,” says Harriman-Smith who uses they. “As someone born with body dysphoria, who has suffered with eating disorders, I noticed in my quest to get healthy that my motivation was coming from a place of not feeling good enough rather than discovering what my body can do and how to feel good.”
“A lot of people in the queer community just don’t feel safe going into gyms,” Harriman-Smith continues. GRL GYM has a “come as you are” policy. “It’s a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people that doesn’t exclude anyone. If you feel rejected from the mainstream fitness world, you can come here and start at your own pace.”
Many women experience light bladder weakness at some point in their lives. By exercising your pelvic floor muscles you can seriously reduce the risk of little leaks. To find out more, search “TENA My Pelvic Floor Fitness app” or visit tena.co.uk/ageless