Getting into strength training can be daunting – but if you’re a woman of colour, it’s even harder to take that first step.
It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that “doing more exercise” is the most common new year’s resolution, with a 2019 YouGov survey finding that nearly 50% of Brist have vowed to get fit at some point in their lives.
After you’ve signed up for the Strong Women Training Club and invested in a pair of squat-proof leggings, the next step is to follow a few fitness influencers or PTs on Instagram for inspiration. There’s nothing like watching a motivational clip or caption online to get us ready to hit the deck (or mat!). But if you’re a woman of colour, finding sources of #fitspo isn’t that easy. The most famous female fitness leads are women like Kayla Itsines and Grace Beverley; non-white women are almost exclusively left to lead the charge on the athletics track or tennis court – not gyms or weight rooms. Where are all the Black and brown influencers?
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Representation is important
They say that “you can’t be what you can’t see”; without relatable figureheads, women of colour feel like they’re “taking up space” in strength and conditioning circles because they’re surrounded by faces that don’t resemble their own. At worst, that sense of being unwelcome and feeling underrepresented might discourage Black and Asian women from getting into strength training in the first place.
A 2020 report from Sport England found that Black and south Asian adults are the least active ethnic groups in the country; considering the physical and mental health benefits of regular exercise, that’s a real cause for concern. “Those who are inactive within these groups are missing out on the widespread physical and mental benefits that being active brings,” says Lisa O’ Keefe, Sport England’s director of insight. “Being active is not just good for you physically, it has the power to do so much more – it can, for example, help prevent or manage medical conditions, reduce anxiety or stress, improve a person’s confidence or self-esteem, or bring people from diverse backgrounds together.”
So, exercise has the power to bring people from different communities together while improving mental and physical well-being. Given the current pandemic, we could all do with a little more societal crossworking and positivity, which is one reason it’s so important everyone is engaged and afforded opportunities within the fitness scene.
O’Keefe believes that better representation is necessary if more non-white women are to engage with strength training. “Role models are hugely important and this doesn’t just apply to thinking about elite sport for those watching from the sofa,” she tells Stylist. “It is just as much about the everyday person who is looking to get active to aid their wellbeing.”
That’s why Black and brown fitness influencers are so important.
Choose your influencers wisely
Carissa (@thicc_but_not_thick), 24, started her strength training account during the first lockdown last year. “Although I’ve been going to the gym a couple of times a week to do cardio since I was 18, it’s only since March 2020 that I started taking fitness seriously,” she says. “Working out has always had a really positive effect on my mood and stress levels so when I found myself stuck at home during lockdown and having to work at a desk all day, I started making time for myself to be more active. As the weeks progressed I noticed I was getting stronger and I loved how empowering that felt. I’ve kept at it because I enjoy it.”
As a mixed-race woman, Carissa has had her own experiences of feeling out of place in the world of strength training. “Sometimes I feel very self-conscious of the fact that the fitness influencer world is incredibly white or that I’m the only non-white woman at the gym,” she explains. “The fitness industry is alienating, [and] there’s another side to the struggle too. Members of my family have tried to steer me away from strength training, which I think reflects Bengali ideas about women and south Asian beauty ideals.”
Elle Linton (@ellelinton), 36, has also encountered difficulty with being a woman of colour in the fitness world. “I think I’ve had to ‘play down’ in a lot of situations to avoid being labelled the ‘angry black woman’,” she tells Stylist. “And I’ve been conscious of not wanting to be accused of playing the race card.”
For PT and fitness influencer Reshma Odedra (@reshodedra), however, the concern has been around brand building and the impact that looking different can have on creating a name and business online. She explains that she “always felt like I couldn’t make a fitness page and that I wouldn’t be taken seriously because people that look like me weren’t really in the fitness niche on Instagram.”
But why do so many of us feel uncomfortable about existing in what should be an open space?
Challenging systemic racism
Systemic racism (racism caused by large scale societal problems rather than individual actions) isn’t something that can be fixed overnight, but the very existence of women like Carissa, Elle and Reshma is helping to dismantle preconceived ideas about who can strength training. Most importantly, they’re making a real, tangible difference to the lives and health of young women of colour.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’ve enjoyed my workouts and been inspired by my progress, which makes me incredibly happy,” Carissa says.
So what exactly can women of colour do to feel more at home in overly white spaces within the fitness world? “Everyone is on their journey and you need to find something you enjoy doing, whether that’s lifting in the gym, swimming or going on long walks,” Reshma suggests.
Elle agrees. “I would like anyone who feels [underrepresented] to know that they’re not alone,” she says. “There is a choice and you have the power to find the form of movement that makes you feel good! Because there is so much choice, you don’t have to settle for anything, anyone or anywhere that doesn’t make you feel welcome.”
Carissa suggests that if you feel nervous about joining a gym, take a mate. If you still feel unwelcome, remember that the gym isn’t the be-all and end-all of strength training – as many of us have discovered over lockdown. “If people are making you feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, there are loads of other options out there: change gym, work out at home, or join one of the more diverse fitness communities that are starting to emerge.”
Find what works for you
Right now, we find ourselves in a unique position. Across the UK, the vast majority of gyms have been forced to shut their doors as a result of the ongoing pandemic. Perhaps this downtime can be spent productively, by making steps towards addressing the gaping inequalities in the fitness industry. We can hope that when gyms everywhere are free to open again, whenever that may be, they have plans in place to become more diverse, inclusive and welcoming spaces.
There’s also no harm in building up your confidence in the meantime – just as Carissa has done. “Even when intimidatingly muscular white men come up to me to ask if they can use the equipment I’m using, I feel confident enough to tell them ‘sorry, no’,” she says. “The gym is my space as much as anybody else’s.”
How to take up space in the strength training world
Remember why you’re training: whether it’s to get stronger, build mental resilience, feel better or smash a PB, having that goal in sight will ensure that you stick with your regime regardless of any outside factors.
Work out with a mate: when it’s possible to do so, head to a studio with a friend. You don’t have to go it alone, especially in the beginning. As your confidence grows, you may find that you prefer to squat solo.
Follow influencers and PTs who speak to you: there are non-white influencers out there so spend some time researching on Instagram and Twitter so you can flood your timeline with inspiration. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them for advice.
Create a safe space at home: it’s perfectly possible to get stronger and fitter from home so if you don’t want to go to a gym or studio, make a little corner of your home into a workout space. Check out the tonnes of videos that we have on SWTC by trainers of all colours and sizes.
Follow on @StrongWomenUK Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.