7 Influencers Explain Why Diversity Is So Important in the Fitness World—And What Needs to Change

Over the past year, conversations on equity and equality have been a large part of the national discourse. People are paying close attention to diversity and inclusion efforts—including within the fitness world. To understand where we are and where we need to go when it comes to this important topic, Health spoke with seven thought leaders. 

Bethany C. Meyers

New York City, @bethanycmeyers (they/them)

Bethany-C.-Meyers-Print-Future-of-Fitness-Aug-2021-Shane LaVancher (2)-1
Courtesy of Shane LaVancher

As the founder and CEO of the be.come project, a subscription-based fitness platform that focuses on inclusivity and body neutrality, this trainer is dedicated to making the workout world feel safer for all.

I worked in boutique fitness before branching out to start the be.come project. At that time, I was seen as healthy because I was thin. But I was actually struggling with a severe eating disorder and body dysmorphia. I was not taking care of myself. And I came to realize the industry that I was in was helping to perpetuate certain ideals. Part of my journey to heal was to find other reasons to move that weren't associated with weight loss.

I started telling people that I wanted to create a fitness program that didn't have any before and after pictures and didn't mention weight loss. Everyone told me it wasn't going to work. But I launched a beta version, and the response was overwhelming. People gave me feedback that it helped them create a new relationship with their body. It became apparent right away that this was the way forward.

We don't talk about shrinking or changing your body at the be.come project. Instead, we explain what gives you strength or what promotes your mobility. We have also added emotional check-ins to the app. This was something that really helped me—checking in on how movement makes you feel rather than how it changes your body. It shifts your focus.

More people than ever before are recognizing that fitness and wellness spaces need to be more inclusive and equitable. As someone who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, I'd like to see movement be less gendered. In classes, you'll hear a lot of "OK, ladies, let's do it." It makes me think, "Where do I fit in?"

One of the great things about the pandemic was that many people shifted to online fitness, which can feel safer for some people—you don't have to deal with locker rooms or the intimidation of walking into a new space and not knowing how you'll be received. My hope is that as fitness spaces are opening back up, there's consideration put into how we can make physical spaces safer for members of the LGBTQ community, especially trans people.

Amy Purdy

Colorado, @amypurdygurl (she/her)

Courtesy of Purdy

As a 19-year-old, this athlete had both legs amputated below the knees, due to a form of bacterial meningitis. Now, Purdy is a Paralympic bronze and silver medalist in snowboarding and is sharing why she advocates for other adaptive athletes.

When you look different, you often feel very exposed—especially in a place that focuses on the physical body. But I always refused to allow anyone else's thoughts about how I looked determine how I felt about myself. In fact, I took it as motivation to get as strong as I possibly could. And the stronger I got, the more capable and confident I felt. That's why physical fitness is so important. The benefits go way beyond the physical effects.

When it comes to making gyms and fitness spaces more inclusive to all, sometimes it's the basic things that get overlooked—like adding a button that automatically opens the doors, making sure there's at least one accessible bathroom or dressing room in the locker room, and making sure elevators work. Recently, I had a leg injury and have been using a scooter. I've been so surprised by how hard it is to open doors or how many doors don't have automatic buttons. I have shown up to places where the elevator doesn't work and the bathrooms are on the second floor. It's small things like that that can negatively affect someone's experience.

My hope is that more spaces talk to people with disabilities and ask them what works or doesn't work for them. Many brands want to be inclusive, yet forget to even ask people with disabilities what's needed or important to them.

More than anything, it's important to remember you aren't alone. Many people at the gym are starting over; many people feel unsure or out of shape or not confident—whether they have disabilities or not. We all have to start somewhere!

Latoya Shauntay Snell

Brooklyn, New York, @iamlshauntay (she/her)

Courtesy of Eric Snell

It's been nearly a decade since this New Yorker became a runner. In that time, she's completed marathons and ultramarathons (up to 62 miles!) and has become an inspiring voice in the fitness world.

If I am being honest, I started running because I wanted to lose weight. So much of why I wanted to lose weight had to do with other people and how they viewed my body—not how I actually felt.

When I began running, I realized not everyone was doing it to lose weight; there were people doing it just because it made them happy or strong. I didn't see many people who looked like me. Even still, I trained and did some half-marathons, and then decided to do a full marathon. Once I accomplished that, I knew I could do more and started training for an ultramarathon. When I told people, some were super skeptical because of my size.

I've come to realize there is an obsession over numbers in running—and not just the numbers on the scale. It's all about what your pace or speed is. To be considered "a runner," you have to look a certain way and run at a certain pace. It's toxic. No matter what your pace is, the fact that you are running is great.

I'm 5'3" and don't have the stereotypical lean body of a runner. People look at me and maybe think I'm a powerlifter— but never a runner. I spent a lot of time wondering if I'd ever be embraced by the running community. And the reality is, I'm still not always, despite how many endurance races I've run. But I'm not going anywhere, because I love this sport and how it makes me feel. That's why I now use my voice and my platform to speak up about being a runner—to show other people that you don't have to look a certain way to be an athlete.

Another thing you don't see a ton of in running is racial diversity. I was a member of the Black Girls Run! running group. Through them, I learned to focus on my breathing and how to combat hills, but they also gave me a sisterhood. When you see people who look like you in a sport, it's easier to envision yourself doing it.

The fact is, being a Black runner isn't always safe. When Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while running in 2020, it didn't surprise me—it just served to justify the worries I already live with. Just being a Black woman makes some people see me as threatening. I have to constantly be thinking, "If I smile to appear more friendly, will it guarantee my survival if something bad happens?" But smiling or being friendly and respectful doesn't guarantee that you'll get home safely. That has to change.

Yami Mufdi

Houston, @yamimufdi (she/her)

Courtesy of Taylor Frase with PyxlMedia

Through her Instagram, blog, YouTube channel, and inclusive activewear line called Levavi, this trainer wants to show that how fitness makes your body feel is much more important than how it makes you look.

How did you get involved in the world of fitness?

I danced all through my childhood, and when I went to college, I wanted to continue dancing. But I was told over and over again that I was too big. Someone even suggested I try cocaine to lose weight. So I strayed away from dance. But I still wanted to move my body and started getting into fitness. I wasn't sure if anyone would give me an opportunity, so I started my YouTube channel. I want to show that working out doesn't have to correlate to how you look.

Do you have any advice for people who don't feel welcome at the gym?

I'm Hispanic and Arabic— I don't look like a lot of people. I'm used to being the oddball. It's difficult to change other people, but I'd say just keep showing up. It can be hard, and I don't want to take away from that. But fitness is about you. And the more you show up, hopefully, the more comfortable you'll start to feel in those settings.

What do you want to see change in fitness?

The types of bodies that are represented. Just because you don't have a six-pack doesn't mean you can't be a great personal trainer. I'd like to see gyms and fitness spaces have trainers with more body diversity. That can hopefully help enforce the idea that different bodies can be fit and healthy. The other day, on my Instagram, I got a negative comment about my body—basically saying I shouldn't be posting about fitness because of the way I look. It really made me realize how so many people correlate working out with looking a certain way.

Layshia Clarendon

San Francisco Bay Area, @layshiac (all pronouns, with respect)

Courtesy of Clarendon

This WNBA player is the first openly transgender, nonbinary athlete to ever play in the league. They made history again earlier this year by having surgery to remove their breasts while being an active player. Clarendon reveals what having the support of the league has meant and what progress still needs to happen.

The support I've received from my team and the WNBA as a whole has meant everything. I've shared that I had a lot of fears around people's reactions and my place in the league. But it's been overwhelmingly positive. We all just want to belong and feel like we're a part of something.

[Seeing that support] is important for the entire athletic community because there's an attack on trans people in sports. Right now, sports exist as binary—that's the way things are set up. It's important for my identity and my humanity to be affirmed in the context of sports. It sets a precedent for other sports leagues.

Being able to be fully myself has benefited my mental, emotional, and physical health. You can't untangle any one of those from the others. I experienced a lot of gender dysphoria while having breasts. Anytime you're having that kind of emotional distress, you're not going to be a whole, happy person— and when you finally can be a whole, happy person, it means a better product on the court. So I would say it's benefited my game.

Gyms and training centers typically have binary locker rooms. I've had a lot of friends walk into the one they identify with and have bad experiences—dealing with speculation, harassment, and sometimes violence. If someone treats a trans or nonbinary person poorly or uses slurs against them, I think it should be policy that they get kicked out. You should have to sign an agreement when you join a gym that you will not discriminate based on race, gender, class, or anything else.

The other thing I'd like to see is awareness around signage. That's something that can help make trans people feel whole and happy. It could just be a sign that says you are welcome to use the locker room that you identify with. Another idea would be to have neutral bathrooms or a private space for trans people to change—sort of like how they have family bathrooms.

The fact that we are having these conversations is a win. There's been a reckoning, and companies are having to really think about what their policies look like. You're seeing a lot more diversity in advertising and marketing. But now, that [diversity and inclusion] needs to translate to the people actually being paid to work within these companies.

Venus Lau

Los Angeles, @venus2bfab (she/her)

Venus-lau-Print-Future-of-Fitness-Aug-2021-pic 4-1
Courtesy of Nicol Biesek

The 41-year-old trainer and mindful movement coach is passionate about helping people of all ages connect with their bodies and reach their fitness goals.

How are you working to make the fitness space more inclusive to all?

On social media, I use #FitOver40 as a hashtag. The world of social media is saturated with 20-somethings, especially when it comes to fitness. They are doing their thing and rocking it. But older people may look at them and think, "I can't do that." I want to show that all ages can embrace fitness. Whether you are in your 30s or 60s and beyond, it's important to move and feel good in your body.

Do you have any advice for people who don't feel welcome in fitness settings?

Don't worry about other people. When you're learning a new language, the best way to do it is to immerse yourself in that culture. The same applies to your body. Consider a personal trainer—they can be your ally and make you feel more comfortable.

What's working—and what still needs to change?

It seems people are more open to listening to other people's perspectives. We are in a period of education and learning about one another. Sometimes people are shamed for what they don't know, and that doesn't create opportunities for growth. If you don't know why something may not feel inclusive or safe for another person, it's on you to learn about why that may be happening—but we shouldn't be shaming people who are in that process of learning.

Maresa D'Amore-Morrison

New York City, @thebodyandsoul (she/they/anything said respectfully)

Courtesy of Lauren Volo

As a founding instructor and the senior director of culture, community, and events at FORWARD__Space (which offers dance-based sweat sessions at its New York City location and virtually), this dancer and athlete works with the internal team to create practices that ensure an inclusive experience.

There is a lot of conversation around diversity and inclusion in the fitness community. What are your thoughts on that?

Some people think diversity is enough. And it is important to have people with different experiences in every facet of the brand. But it's not enough to have diverse faces; you must create a space where everyone feels like they belong and receives equitable treatment. Thankfully, our founder, Kristin Sudeikis, knows how vital belonging and inclusion are— so they've been a practice from the start. An example of how this translates into the FS experience is our instructors use ungendered language and don't reference any one body type as the aesthetic goal. It is also understood that one person or voice alone doesn't create a culture of inclusion. Together, we have participated in leadership workshops that have helped nourish and strengthen our practice of listening, self-reflection, and taking action. We recognize that there is no finite checklist and it is an ongoing effort.

What advice would you give to people who want to make sure they are doing what they can to support inclusion efforts in fitness?

It's important to invest in companies and experiences that are not only talking the talk but, better yet, dancing the dance. Because it is a dance, and the journey is not linear. In many fitness spaces, elements from BIPOC cultures are often used—in the music played, the moves taught, and more. If credit is not given or members of those communities are not benefiting monetarily from the success of those companies, it can slip into cultural appropriation instead of appreciation.

Look beyond who is representing the company in advertisements or on social media, and do what you can to find out who is a stakeholder or on their leadership team—even if it's a Google search. If you can't find that information shared publicly, ask yourself why and consider if you want to spend your money with that company.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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