Can the Fitness Industry and Body Positivity Coexist?
There’s a movement outside of gyms to make fitness a safe space. Whether the industry will ever fully embrace body positivity remains an open question. Transformation DM found this article from author Virginia Sole-Smith on element which really peaked our interest. We build websites, create social posts campaigns, as well build out advertising for the health and wellness industry and this is always a struggle to find harmony between promoting a healthy lifestyle and how that should look. We think Virginia does a great job of exploring this issue.
Illustrations: Maria Chimishkyan
There is one particular video in the Underbelly, the app by body-positivity advocate and yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley, that I do almost every week. It’s a 36-minute workout of sun salutations that builds up to a yoga posture popularly known as Wild Thing, where you teeter somewhere between a side plank and a backbend. It’s a hard workout that makes me feel badass, but my favorite part — and the reason I repeat the video so often — is right at the beginning, when Jessamyn tells me to go into a “wide-legged” Child pose, with my heels together and knees spread apart. “I love to just make space for my body,” Stanley says as she settles luxuriously into the pose. “I feel like even if you don’t have a belly, it’s nice to just — ” Then she interrupts herself. “Well, everybody has a belly. Well, I guess not every body. #AllBodies.” She laughs and resumes the point: “Even if you are smaller-bodied, it can be nice to just take up space. We spend so much of our lives making ourselves small. So make yourself big and vast.”
Every time I hear this, I flash back to the many million yoga, barre, and Pilates classes I’ve taken all over New York City where I never once heard anyone suggest that I allow myself to be big or vast. In mainstream group fitness classes, weight loss is a holy war and your belly is the infidel. It is to be confined, controlled, and dominated, not coddled or indulged with warm-and-fuzzy concepts like personal space. The core must be engaged, from pubic bone to sternum, the lower abs scooped in until the belly button presses against the spine. “Imagine that you’re putting on your tightest skinny jeans straight out of the dryer,” one Pilates teacher used to say. Everyone in the class was instructed to keep their abdominal muscles clenched while placing our hands on either side of our rib cages to do what she called “rib cage breathing.” We couldn’t breathe into our bellies, because that would expand them.
Even in yoga, where abdominal breathing is traditionally encouraged, teachers expect stomachs to disappear. “Imagine you’re flattening yourself between two panes of glass,” one teacher I frequented liked to say during Triangle pose. Another begrudgingly allowed me to do a wide-legged Child’s pose instead of a traditional Child’s pose, where the knees stay under the torso, but made sure to note, “You can work toward the real thing.” A third claimed that eating refined sugar outside of class would throw off our balance postures.
My relationship with these classes was complicated. I would go daily for a week or two at a time, putting my mat against a wall in the back, inhaling the smell of everyone’s sweat, and wondering why I was the only person yanking her yoga pants back up after every vinyasa. Then I’d miss one workout, and then another, and then not show up for a month. When I came back, I’d feel compelled to apologize — work had gotten crazy, the holidays were so busy, I was eating so much bread. The teachers were all gracious. When they rolled up from a forward fold, they never needed to pull their yoga pants back up over their bellies. Their cores were constantly engaged. They never ate bread.
Jessamyn Stanley pulls her pants up all the time in her yoga videos. She also burps, farts, and swears. Her Instagram — followed by nearly 400,000 people — is filled with videos of her doing yoga in her underwear and smoking weed. She has become famous, in other words, for being everything that fitness is not supposed to be: Black, queer, messy, and unapologetically fat. And she’s one of the most recognizable faces in a nascent movement of “body positive” yoga teachers, personal trainers, and other fitness professionals determined to offer their services — largely through online video workouts, though some in-person sessions, too — to people who have traditionally felt unwelcome and unsafe in mainstream fitness spaces. Others include Bethany Meyers, the nonbinary LGBTQ activist and creator of the Become Project; Anna Guest-Jelley, founder of Curvy Yoga; and Ilya Parker, a black, nonbinary, transmasculine person in Durham, North Carolina, who offers online fitness coaching, including one geared toward “transmasculine training,” and posts on Instagram as @decolonizingfitness.
There’s an inherent paradox in wanting to still push yourself, still focus on improvement and change, while trying to accept your flaws as they are now.
Not everybody who identifies as a body-positive fitness professional lives in a bigger or otherwise marginalized body. But — in theory, anyway — they all align behind the idea that fitness can and should be about more than weight loss. “You see it with yoga, with aerobics, with CrossFit — all modern fitness culture all uses the same marketing,” Stanley says. “It’s this message of, ‘You’re not good right now. You’re bad right now, and the only way to get good is to sell your soul to this lifestyle and do what we say, and then you can be a good person.’” She rejects that narrative: “I start from, ‘You’re okay today. Everything about you is sufficient.’ Because then there is so much more opportunity to be had.”
It sounds lovely. And I’ve been doing Stanley’s videos almost daily for the past eight months — probably the longest uninterrupted workout stretch of my life — so I can confirm that her practice feels lovely too. It also feels necessary, both for workout consumers who are tired of being told our bodies are problems to fix and the many fitness professionals who are tired of selling that message to us — and to themselves. But there’s also something hard to articulate in the “opportunity” that Stanley describes, and even in trying to define what “body positive” exercise should be. It’s freeing to no longer tie my definition of workout success to my jeans size — but where do we go from there?
There’s an inherent paradox in wanting to still push yourself, still focus on improvement and change, while trying to accept your flaws as they are now. How well you’re “taking up space” turns out to be a goal that’s oddly more difficult to measure and market than pounds or inches lost, especially for an industry that has long thrived by promising visible and quantifiable results. And it’s shockingly easy for the weight-loss message to creep in even when nobody explicitly uses those words, as Peloton’s controversial Christmas commercial underscored last month. Stanley and her cohort seem to be thriving in their niche. But is the fitness industry ready to create safe spaces across the board? It’s not clear that everybody even understands the question.
To read the full article by Virginia, please visit https://elemental.medium.com/can-the-fitness-industry-and-body-positivity-coexist-408e7e0084dc