Black excellence saw everyone from Simone Biles to Emily Campbell take medals in Tokyo – but where are all the Black women in the fitness industry?
To look at Team GB’s Tokyo Olympic medalists, you’d think that Black and mixed-race men and women reigned supreme over the British fitness scene. From Dina Asher-Smith and Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake’s relay teams to our greatest weightlifter Emily Campbell and BMX legend Kye Whyte, Blackness is omnipresent in elite sport. But when was the last time that you went to a fitness festival or yoga class and saw more than one – if any – Black face?
“The whole fitness industry has been whitewashed,” claims Lorraine Russell, founder of the UK’s only Black-run fitness and wellness festival, NoireFitFest.
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Where are all the Black fitness influencers?
She says that she’s spoken to many Black fitness influencers, PTs and content creators who complain of being “the only Black person in the room” at events and press days. “That’s weird to me because I know there are loads of Black PTs who are really visible and successful but when it comes to the commercial side of business, however, brands don’t seem to want to use those professionals to represent them. It’s like we don’t exist.”
It’s that “one person in, one person out” mentality that made Russell decide to set up her own space. “I’d go to different fitness and wellness festivals and again, there’d be very few Black and brown faces on the schedule. I realised that there was no point in begging for a seat at the table when I could just build my own table.”
Breaking down the barriers to getting Black women into fitness
Russell continues: “Having our own space means that people in the wider Black community who ordinarily wouldn’t enter into fitness spaces can see that there are women who look like them who do things like soca aerobics, and that they can get fit in a way that feels safe and familiar to them.”
Working out how to make fitness more accessible and attractive to Black women is a challenge that needs to be addressed. According to 2019 government figures, the mixed-race community is the most likely out of all ethnic groups to be physically active (and we’ve been so for the past four years in a row), but Black and Asian women are the least likely to be so (53% and 49% respectively).
It’s not like we don’t know what the barriers are. Russell explains that trainers have to “break down certain myths around health and wellness when dealing specifically with Black women, like this idea that we have bigger bones which stop us from doing certain activities or that yoga is about worshipping the devil or is anti-religious – which it isn’t.”
“It’s a lot easier having these conversations and breaking down those myths and barriers when you’re from the community you’re talking to because they trust you more.”
So why then aren’t we seeing more Black and brown faces being pushed to the fore in the fitness industry if they could help to open it up to a wider range of clients?
“I think there’s a comfort factor,” Russell explains. “I imagine many of these brands’ teams are very white, and if you’ve got a very white team, they’re automatically going to gravitate towards white influencers. I don’t think they even stop to consider hiring Black, Asian or biracial people – all of those identities exist within the industry but white always wins.”
Black men are more accepted in the fitness sphere – the question is ‘Why?’
That’s not an issue unique to this industry – from entertainment to business, representation at the highest levels tends to be sparse. According to Forbes, there are still no Black chairmen, CEOs or CFOs in Britain’s 100 largest companies but research by Currys PC World found that two Black men are among the world’s 10 top fitness earners – bodybuilders Simeon Panda (who rakes in an estimated £12.5m a year) and Ulisses Williams Jr.
That shouldn’t be surprising; according to those 2019 figures, Black men are much more active than Black women and that’s because, Russell argues, Black men have historically been told that they’re strong – a stereotype that works both for and against them. “It’s great that they’re into fitness but the negative side of that strength is when the media associates Black masculinity with criminality and poverty. With Black women, even though we have the ‘strong black women’ trope, physical fitness and wellness aren’t marketed to us.”
Because there’s no monetary value to health and wellness, ”things like paying the bills and getting to work comes before working out,” Russell continues, “which is dangerous for us as a community. Many of us aren’t doing the recommended amount of moderate exercise – and by moderate, we’re talking about a daily 30-minute walk. The knock-on effect is that we’re at higher risk of diseases like diabetes and cancers.”
BLM and avoiding ‘performative’ brands
Brands are working with NoireFitFest, of course. Sponsors include Grenade and Purition – companies that are ubiquitous across the industry – as well as Black-owned brands like Y-Fit Wear and I Love Afro. The festival started last year, around the same time as George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement. “That’s when we had a number of brands reach out to us,” Russell recalls. “Prior to his death, we tried to reach out to a number of brands and we were just getting radio silence. Sadly, the only way we could get the smallest look in was because of the death of a man. It shouldn’t have taken that to engage with a Black-owned company.”
As a result, she’s now careful about the brands that she does engage with as she’s keen to avoid NoireFitFest becoming a box-ticking exercise for labels who have little genuine interest in changing the way things are. “Brands really need to look at how diverse their companies are before they reach out to us as a community because it comes across as being performative.”
So what can we expect from this year’s festival? Well, there’s plenty of yoga as well as HIIT sessions, “booty band” workouts and soca aerobics classes. Once you’ve had enough exercise, settle down to one of four panel talks on everything from “the business of fitness” to body image.
As a fitness venture run by Black people for Black people, does Russell anticipate receiving the same sort of backlash that Black Pound Day got from trolls on social media? “We’re not recreating the wheel by selling and buying to ourselves because other communities do it too. The Jewish community does it, the Polish community does that…” she says.
“I always say let those people complain – I’m not taking paracetamol for someone else’s headache. The fact that Black Pound Day was such a success shows that our community wants more.”
NoireFitFest will be taking place on Saturday 18 September between 8am and 7pm. Tickets are on sale now and start from £25 for three in-person classes, or £30 for online registration.
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.
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