At no time has the representation of what fitness culture looks like been more apparent than during this past year. Stuck exercising from home, we scroll through countless trainers and instructors on fitness platforms to find the one who seems like the best fit for our workout needs. After a few minutes of scrolling, the scantily-clad blonde girls and muscle-bulging guys become a blur. The more I’ve followed along to videos this past year, the more delighted I get when I randomly find an instructor I can relate to. That’s because, for the most part, the world of fitness seems to belong only to tiny, young cisgender white women, and buffed-up cisgender white men.
When you first look at me, you probably assume I’m not someone who’d complain about the lack of inclusivity in the fitness world. I appear able-bodied and have a thin, athletic build by society's standards. You can’t tell that I’m missing a full one-inch chunk of my scapula (shoulder blade), which was removed surgically when I was 21 years old, or that the fascia of its four surrounding muscles was stitched together with that surgery. That occurrence left me permanently with unnatural muscle positioning, chronic pain, and upper traps that have been in a clenched position known as “constant spasm” for over two decades now. You also can’t tell that in my thirties I had such a debilitating case of late-stage neurological Lyme Disease that it induced intense fibromyalgia, rendering my joints unable to bend for weeks at a time and taking away my ability to walk during those bouts. Lyme disease also ate up one of my knees, so I can’t run more than half a block even now, a decade later. As if that wasn’t enough, you also don’t know by looking at me that my heart’s aortic valve is bicuspid—meaning it’s missing one of the three flaps that enable it to close when pumping blood, and has to work extra hard as a result—thanks to the Scarlet Fever I had as a baby.
Those attributes are all part of me, though, and each one of them has impacted my experience with exercise. Since I didn’t know about my heart condition until adulthood, I grew up without any explanation for why I ran slowly and got out of breath quickly. I was labeled "nonathletic" despite my build, and always picked last for team sports. As an adult, I tried at various times to “get into” working out, but each time I faced hurdles that made it feel impossible. For example, at the HIIT gym, I went to a couple of years ago, the low weights I needed for exercises because of my bad shoulder were kept shelved, with only higher weights brought out and accessible nearby. That meant that by the time I carried the weights I needed to my circuit station, that circuit would be over.
I’m beyond fortunate I recovered fully from Lyme Disease, have learned how to work out with my heart condition, and that the pain from my messed up shoulder is scarcely background noise in my life now. My situation, lousy as it’s felt at times, is incredibly privileged compared to many others that the world of fitness excludes, and the difficulty in the fitness world that I’ve encountered pales to what others I love have experienced.
A couple of years ago, my partner, who is a trans man, joined a boxing gym. Upon discovering that the only shower in the men’s locker room was open and had no privacy, which he didn’t feel comfortable with using, he emailed the gym about potentially canceling his membership. He’d selected the gym based on its location, thinking he could shower after class then go straight to work... but that wouldn’t be possible if he couldn’t shower on his way out. The gym replied to his concern with the information that they went ahead and canceled his membership. They offered no apology, no offer or initiative to help him be able to use their facilities safely and comfortably, and appeared to give no care for any future members who may have needs similar to his.
All people benefit from exercise, no matter their demographic. But the vision of fitness presented to members of marginalized communities can only help motivate them to move if they see themselves represented in it. For far too many demographics, that just isn’t the case. We are presented only with imagery of young, thin, toned, feminine cisgender women, or young, buffed, tall cisgender men, both of whom are white more often than not. This is what we are told fitness looks like. For everyone who doesn’t fit this image, the result is the impression that we don’t belong, that fitness is simply not for us. The fitness world is binary, and it has a strong, repeating message that women are meant to get smaller, men should want to be bigger, and there is simply no person who isn’t in one of those two categories.
Nonbinary trans-masculine fitness trainer and founder of Decolonizing Fitness, Ilya Parker, calls this unfortunate motif “toxic fitness culture.” What he told me made it clear that my partner’s experience at the boxing gym is all too common, noting that often gyms “have fitness coaches who aren't educated on ways to properly honor the pronouns of their transgender clients.” The result of that lack of education? “[It] will not only negatively impact their mental health, but could potentially disrupt their physical safety if they are misgendered in a public setting," says Parker.
Great strides are being made by many—Parker included—to make the fitness space more inclusive. The trouble is, they’re doing it on their own. Images, videos, and apps full of Black yogis, plus-size aerobicizers, and bodybuilders with disabilities are more common than they used to be, by far. But they aren’t infiltrating the dominant spaces. Mainstream gyms continue to use traditionally fit-looking young cisgender white women and men in their imagery, and many popular apps have no one above a size two in their visible trainer pool. Rather than inspiring others to want to take part, that imagery leads us to feel that fitness is a club we don’t deserve membership to.
When it comes to feeling excluded from fitness culture, I know I’m lucky that my physical ailments are mostly invisible. The discrimination many others experience, whether because of their race, gender, ability, or other factors, is far greater than that I've faced. When I’ve gone to gyms, I’m not treated poorly. That is until an instructor learns of my injuries. Then, however, I’m treated pretty similarly to how doctors behaved towards me when I had Lyme Disease, prior to diagnosis. There’s a vibe of disbelief, as if the instructor presumes I’m a hypochondriac. After all, how could this thin girl with a six-pack possibly have head-to-toe problems? I’m left with the impression that they think I want attention, not that I’m trying to prevent myself from further injury.
The only way to shift the toxicity of fitness culture into one of inclusivity is for the biggest, most mainstream platforms in fitness to begin including marginalized people. Until it becomes more commonplace, those of us who don’t see ourselves represented in fitness will continue to struggle with joining a space that tells us we don’t even exist. Considering how important exercise is for health, the lack of action by mainstream fitness culture will continue to be detrimental to the wellness of countless people until those changes are made.