Black women are expected to be strong – but not so strong that they’re seen as “threatening”. That’s because misogynoir is still alive and kicking when it comes to fitness and beauty standards, and it’s high time we all did something about it.
Misogynoir is rampant in the fitness world, from amateur gyms to professional athletes. The industry may be becoming more inclusive in terms of size and gender but race is still something of a taboo.
Let’s take Serena Williams as an example. She was (and still is) the best at what she does; her grace and poise on and off-court will always be a source of inspiration. But her success has been a double-edged sword. In my opinion, she’s been treated differently by the media and the public because of her physical prowess as a Black woman. Remember when a cartoonist for Australia’s Herald Sun depicted Serena as an oversized creature with huge lips, wild hair, bulging muscles – jumping on a destroyed tennis racket as a tiny blonde appointment is told by an umpire to “just let her win”? That cartoon was cleared by a press watchdog of any racism or sexism in February 2019 – five months after its publication. As a young Black woman, I looked at how the public discussed Serena’s body and was terrified of how I might be treated if I entered the fitness industry.
As a kid, I was told that exercise and fitness were “for white people”, and as a budding athlete, I was called “manly” for being able to pick up heavy weights while my non-Black female classmates were praised for doing the same. It took me years to understand that this is a situation that many Black women in fitness face: the desire to be strong (in whatever form that resonates) without being “intimidatingly” so – all the while trying to navigate spaces and communities that are supposed to promote healthy living. The almost suffocating stereotype of the “strong Black woman” is one defined by the mainstream, not us.
But it’s not just in tennis or in school changing rooms that misogynoir pops up. The lack of Black women in competitions like Tough Mudder and CrossFit Games suggests that we don’t feel welcome at any level. Personal trainer Chioma Ozuzu believes that there are three reasons why fitness spaces tend to be less popular with Black women. “One, the races themselves (like Spartan) are expensive and not many people of colour can afford to drop that kind of money on a race,” she explains. “Two, lack of resources. Where do you have to go to actually train for the race? Your local gym isn’t going to cut it. And three, the lack of (non-white) coaches.” She says that she has a Spartan Race Coach Finder but could only find one coach who looked like her. “I asked him, ‘How many Black Spartan race coaches do you know?’ and he couldn’t answer that.”
Of course, there are plenty of Black women who work within the fitness industry but Chioma claims that she and her fellow colleagues have been targeted because of their identities in the past by managers. Once a trainer at a high-end gym in New York, Chioma had to quit after enduring endless racial remarks and microaggressions from her non-Black manager – often in front of her clients, many of whom were Black themselves. She wasn’t the only one being targetted at that gym; she says that the other Black female PTs there all had similar experiences with the management. In the United States in particular, corporations find that they have a low retention rate for women of colour, specifically Black women. In Chioma’s gym, all of the Black women who worked together quit within a few weeks of each other and a new group of Black women were hired in their place. The cycle continued.
Even Olympians have to navigate a minefield of anti-Blackness both in training and in competition. Hafsatu Kamara represented Sierra Leone in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and told Toluca Lake back in 2019 that she had plans on competing again in the next Tokyo Games. On her path to the Olympics, she competed in the World Championship in Beijing 2015 where one day, she and several other Black athletes decided to visit the Silk Market. What should have been a fun excursion turned sour when they tried to get a cab driver to bring them back to the hotel. “Cabs were coming by but no one was picking us up,” Hafsatu tells Stylist. “They were picking up the white and Asian athletes but they weren’t stopping for us. Some were literally turning off their ‘on’ signs. We had to beg this guy in a van (and) pay him extra to get back to our hotel. We all had our athletic gear on, our countries’ names and everything.”
When we asked about moments where she felt unwelcomed in her personal fitness community, Hafsatu immediately brought the conversation back to a more relatable sphere: Instagram fitness influencers. Hafsatu works out at a gym in California that is popular among famous influencers. Once, she was at gym and asked to use a machine that a well-known white fitness influencer was casually sitting on. At first, she thought that the woman couldn’t hear her but as she approached the woman, it became clear that Hafsatu’s presence was being blatantly ignored. As she looked around for help, she noticed that two men were watching the interaction without doing anything to assist her. “I couldn’t even react to the fact that she was being disrespectful because I would have come off as ‘the angry Black woman’,” she explained.
You may also like
I'm training to be a pilates teacher, despite being "unfit"
Misogynoir is apparent at every level of fitness – from the playground to the Olympics, from gyms to top-level competitions. If Black women fear being seen as domineering in schools and offices, imagine how hard it must be to advocate for yourself when your whole career and industry is built on being stronger than average. Post-Covid, there must be a more determined effort to create inclusive fitness environments for everyone – and that’s going to mean tackling the issue of race and misogynoir head-on. It’s not on Black women to make the industry more diverse, it’s the responsibility of all fitness lovers to hold a safe space for everyone.
HOW TO BE AN FIT ALLY AGAINST MISOGYNOIR
- Notice and name your own prejudice. Anti-Black racism and misogyny are two dangerous phenomenons that we have all been taught through educational systems, media, history and culture. Black women are arguably the least protected and most violated people in society as they sit between those two social ills. Acknowledging that there’s a problem is the first step to fixing it.
- Assess how you might be bringing these prejudices into fitness spaces. Think about how you enter spaces and how aware you are of the other people you share those spaces with. How often do you actively book classes with Black PTs and trainers, or interact with non-white people at your studio or gym?
- Talk to your non-Black friends. Often we aren’t aware of things that don’t personally impact us until someone brings them to our attention. If you work out as part of a group, why not discuss how you can all work to make the space more inclusive and welcoming?
- Be prepared to step in. No one needs saving but if you do see something dodgy, be prepared to lend your support if and when it’s required.
- Support Black women in fitness. Advocate for your gym to hire more Black female fitness professionals if there’s a feedback email or box. Follow Black fitness professionals on social media and get used to seeing non-white women in those spaces. Join Black-led running groups and yoga classes, dance studios and strength classes.
Follow on @StrongWomenUK Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.