Many of us who are able to connect “hitting the gym” with the feeling of empowerment are experiencing privilege — whether by nature of having access to a gym or just being able to feel comfortable in one. That’s not always the case for people of color. Fitness, if you haven’t noticed, is highly segregated.
And Chrissy King, a strength coach and the vice executive director of Women’s Strength Coalition, is here to fight that. She’s on a mission to make fitness feel more inclusive for Black people — and other folks with bodies outside the fitness norm (which is, you guessed it, white and thin).
“I know how transformative fitness was for me, and I know it can be that for other people. It’s so important that everyone has access to that level of empowerment through strength training or fitness and movement,” she explains.
“Fitness and wellness goes beyond exercise and nutrition,” says King. “Racism affects well-being and how safe people feel in their bodies.” So it’s critical that trainers see themselves as part of the solution to racism in their industry.
Part of King’s work in expanding accessibility involves coaching trainers on creating a comfortable experience for clients of color, having uncomfortable (but necessary) conversations about racism, and practicing self-reflection to continue the work of anti-racism. I spoke to King about the reality of racism in fitness, what trainers and gyms can do to create inclusive and diverse spaces, and how people of color can find welcoming spaces.
How did you come to fitness, and what does it mean to you?
I came to fitness intending to make myself smaller, to shrink my body. Then powerlifting helped me recognize how powerful my body is.
It also transformed my narrative for what I thought was possible about myself and got me to think, “Oh, what other narratives or stories am I holding on to as truth that aren’t true?”
I really believe physical strength begets mental strength. And that simple act of powerlifting has changed the trajectory of my career and my everyday.
How can representations of fitness and stereotypes hurt Black women’s fitness and health journeys?
I can’t speak for all Black women, but I can say for myself, when I looked at fitness magazines growing up — and even today — it’s mostly images of white women. And so I always thought fitness was just something that white people do.
Then in terms of sports like basketball and football, they’re very male-dominated and Black male-dominated. As a Black woman, I didn’t see myself represented in the bigger fitness space. These images perpetuate this idea that fitness is reserved for someone else.
One thing I’ve been interested in is how those societal ideals for attractiveness, which center on the thin, white woman stereotype, affect the way we act. With this in mind, what extra pressures did you face when sharing a gym?
Fitness spaces can be intimidating if you’re outside of that norm. A lot of that was probably my own projection and self-conscious[ness] about the way I looked entering those spaces.
Even now, having been in fitness for multiple years and worked as a trainer in all kinds of facilities, I’ve gone into places and didn’t feel welcome.
It’s hard for a space to feel really inclusive when you didn’t have those people in mind as you created the space. People are much more comfortable going into spaces when they see other people that look like them, whether that be a variety of race, body size, diversity, gender identity.
What are some coaching techniques that show respect for diversity in body size, goals, and race?
One of the things I do for all my clients is to never make assumptions about them or what their goals are in the gym. If a client comes in with a larger body, I’m never going to assume that they want to lose weight. That’s not my job to do.
I think it’s also really important as coaches and trainers and practitioners of wellness in any way, shape, or form to always question your own implicit bias.
If you have a thought that comes up, for example, “All Black women always do X, Y, and Z,” and you catch yourself, it’s a moment to stop and think, “Oh, wow, where did that come from? And what ideas do I have about Black women in the gym or in general that I need to unpack myself?”
What are examples of microaggressions in fitness, specifically around race?
Something that comes to my mind as a microaggression is music in fitness spaces.
I’ve been in a lot of fitness spaces where I’ve been the only person or one of the few people of color working out. And they’re playing rap music and the N-word is being repeatedly used. And I heard other members that were not Black rapping the lyrics and saying [the N-word]. I know some people may think that’s OK because it’s a song. I don’t feel it’s OK. It made me physically uncomfortable in that space.
Also, the hypersexualization of Black bodies by non-Black people. Comments about wanting to work out because you want to have a butt like a Black girl or just talking about Black bodies in a way that may in people’s minds be complimentary but is still really problematic.
Can you expand on that hypersexualization?
Historically, Black women have had to downplay our assets or cover them up. A lot of Black women have had to deal with harassment at a young age because of their [stereotypical] physiques.
The preponderance of white women talking about butts, selling butts through fitness, being praised for having a larger butt — when it’s something that historically has always been attributed to Blackness [in a negative way] — it’s frustrating. I see it a lot in the fitness space. Many people don’t see it as problematic. It’s a nuanced conversation and does need context to explain.
One of your blog posts mentioned a sign in a gym that said “We don’t see color.” Can you talk about how acknowledging race and racism actually creates a more inclusive environment than not talking about it? How can people be more specific about their support?
Saying “I don’t see color” is done by well-meaning white people to say “I treat everyone the same.”
But not seeing color is not the goal. I am a Black woman and proud to be a Black woman, and I love being a Black woman. I want you to see me and respect the fact that I’m a Black woman and still treat me with the same dignity and respect as everyone else.
Saying “I don’t see color” ignores the systematic oppression of Black and Indigenous people.
The experiences of people of color in this country are different [from those] of white people. I do take issue personally with categorizing all people of color together. The experiences of people of color in this country are different, [especially from those of white people]. So we can’t wash away that experience, nor should we try to wash away that experience.
In an effort to not talk about hard things, saying things like “I don’t see color” is easier than saying “The Black experience in America is challenging. And yes, your experience is different [from] mine. And yes, I see you for who you are.” [But] everybody wants to be seen.
I do want to be seen as a Black woman, because that’s who I am. I don’t want anyone to say that they don’t see color to me because my experience is very unique and is worth being heard and is worth being understood.
Should trainers acknowledge this different lived experience with Black clients and other people of color?
It’s important in a gym space or any space that you talk about racism for what it is, because it’s a real thing that occurs in the world every single day.
I think as a coach, trainer, practitioner, or a wellness professional, we have to talk about those things. Health goes far beyond just exercising and eating well. Health is also how you feel mentally, emotionally, socially, spiritually — all those things.
Your experience in the world impacts your health. So I think it’s really short-sighted to say “I’m just not going to talk about that” and then to also say “I’m just here for people because I want them to be healthy.”
Do you have any advice or anything else to add for white trainers having those hard conversations?
There is no doubt that having conversations around race can feel super uncomfortable. I understand that it must be hard for white people to have that conversation. But it’s not an excuse to not have the conversation, because experiencing racism in this country is also really hard.
When I walk around the world as a Black woman, I don’t have the option to opt out of racism because it’s uncomfortable. It just happens. Which means we can’t talk about race without talking about privilege.
There is a privilege in this country that if you’re white, it doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced hardships, but the hardships weren’t related to race. I also strongly believe it’s the responsibility of white people to talk to other white people about this stuff and to examine their own privilege and their own ideas around race. No one’s saying you’re a bad person for having privilege. It’s just the truth about the society we live in.
How can people of color find fitness environments that are safe and inclusive?
When it comes to finding places that are most inclusive, it takes a little bit of work. It’s challenging sometimes.
I’m here in Brooklyn now, and I’m really blessed to be able to work out at Strength for All [Editor’s note: This website under construction]. It’s very gender-inclusive. A large percentage of our membership are queer and trans. And there’s people from all different races there.
You walk into the gym, and there’s a trans flag and a Black Lives Matter flag hanging. And we’re just very intentional about the way that we talk about the space [online].
I’m a really big fan of looking at the website and seeing who the trainers and coaches are and if they’re representative of the population they say that they are serving. Go on social media and check out Instagram posts. Do you see anybody who looks like you? Do you see people from different backgrounds? It’s very telling — more so than what they say about who’s coming through the doors.
Great example of how Strength for All builds an openly inclusive culture. What else can gyms think about as they aim to be more welcoming to all races?
I was on a panel recently, and someone asked the question about how they could get people of color more interested in fitness. Do they need to offer more scholarships right away?
Assuming that people of color aren’t coming into your space because they can’t afford it is bias in itself. The question should be, “Why are we not attracting those types of people? Why don’t they feel comfortable or welcome?”
Also, build [zero tolerance for intolerance] into the culture, [to say] “We don’t allow transphobia, we don’t allow homophobia, we don’t allow racism and misogyny. And if you don’t like that, if you can’t adhere to that, then you’re not welcome in this space.”
How would the fitness industry as a whole benefit from making inclusivity a priority?
Any time an industry is lacking that diversity and lacking that inclusion and lacking those important things, we only get one perspective. When you have all these people coming to the table with different ideas, coming to the table [as a wheelchair user], queer or gay, Black, or in a larger body, you can elevate this entire industry and bring more people to fitness.
I hope that all fitness professionals and practitioners do believe that fitness is good for everyone and want people to engage with movement in ways that’s good for them. That’s how we can actually create an industry that feels welcoming to all.
Whitney Akers is a writer and traveler who always overpacks all the wrong things. She helps health professionals connect with the people who need them most at Whitney Akers.