I usually don’t pay attention to commercials, but I saw an ad recently that made me want to toss my bottle of kombucha at the screen. It was for a barre fitness brand whose founder was describing one of the benefits of her workout as being that it gives women a “lean, not bulky, feminine body.”

Spoiler alert: Many women do not fit her ideals. Black women, in particular, are often excluded from the definition of what a “feminine” and “healthy” body looks like…and we beat ourselves up trying to conform to this narrow definition. I certainly did.

Growing up in East New York, Brooklyn, going out for a jog wasn’t an option.

At the time, my neighborhood had the highest violence and murder rate in the city. That fact, coupled with poor food resources, was the perfect formula for the Black overweight teen that I became—a teen who popular fitness culture would have never deemed as beautiful.

So, in my twenties, I chased the lean dream. I turned to barre classes and the image of the “dancer’s body” shined like a gold medal in front of me. I fell in love with barre so much that when they offered me a chance to teach, I jumped on it. I was so excited to finally be seen as someone that mirrored that dancer ideal.

But then, I started to see the other side of the industry. And I soon realized that I was the only instructor of color for the brand in all of New York City. I once heard another instructor say that a particular move gave you a lifted and cute rear-end—not a bulbous one. If I, as a paid employee of a community, had to hide who I was, I could only imagine how clients who fell outside the norm felt. So before I had to talk one more time about “creating a dancer’s body,” I pirouetted out the door.

That’s why, now that I’m a gym owner, I believe it’s my duty to redefine “fit” to include all bodies and to make sure all women—particularly BIPOC women—know they are worthy just as they are right now.

My company is called The Fit In, and we center Black women as the experts. That way, anyone who trains with us knows that there are great Black female leaders in the wellness industry and that we come in all shapes and sizes. We set an example of what other versions of “feminine” can be, and show that the spectrum is broad.

Our team is this dynamic collective of largely BIPOC women who come in a variety of shapes but still present an image of health. We understand that there is a different relationship to wellness in neighborhoods that were never provided options. We also know that the fitness experience can be uncomfortable and triggering for many, whether it brings up shame, guilt, or other feelings of unworthiness. We lead with compassion, not competition. This allows us to build relationships with clients and stimulate them to foster relationships amongst themselves.

For many of our clients, signing up for a class with us is the first time they’ve felt committed to their health in a long time.

Many came chasing the same goal I chased when I got started on my journey. It’s what many of us have been groomed to do. But as they realized how much better they felt after leaving that Pilates class; how much fun they had in that “Bad Boys” themed barre class; how many of their classmates love-hated jumping lunges as much as they did, they began to see how much fun fitness can be without the pressures to be anyone but themselves. Those are the things that kept them committed to their health, not chasing a certain body type.

And that commitment to authenticity, along with collective support, is one of the most beautiful things I get to witness as a gym owner, coach, and friend-in-fitness. I believe these qualities are how BIPOC women—and women at large—heal each other and create our own empowered sense of wellness.

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