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Photo by Michelle Gustafson; Design by Dana Davenport

Don’t make your self-isolation worse by convincing yourself you should use this extra time to lose weight. Instead, take time to reconnect to your body, listening to what it wants and finding joy in movement.

Personal trainer and Nonnormative Body Club founder Asher Freeman, who identifies as nonbinary, has intimate experience with what it’s like to reconnect with your body. “Most of us have a body that doesn’t fit into mainstream beauty standards,” they say. “Those standards are so narrow and so oppressive to the vast majority of people.”

Freeman, a former community organizer, is now dedicating their time to creating a place and space where all bodies can feel comfortable with exercise. Because it isn’t just about bodies that don’t fit oppressive mainstream beauty standards or people who face microaggressions at the gym. Comfort and fitness is also about reassessing fitness goals to be inclusive of diverse body types.

While Nonnormative Body Club is open to anyone, most clients are drawn to Freeman’s fitness studio because of the community-building hikes, chest-binding workshops, and emphasis on understanding what clients need each day.

“My goal is to serve anyone interested in using exercise as a tool to improve their relationship with their body,” Freeman says. “Exercise should make you feel good and be something you feel comfortable doing. It shouldn’t tear you down.”

In fact, it can be uplifting and joyful.

I spoke to Asher Freeman about reconnecting with our bodies. What stuck out was their description of movement, how they discovered joyful moving, and how they approached exercise as a way to tap into all that your body can do.

How has your approach to fitness changed since you’ve become a certified personal trainer?

I am having to constantly check in myself and remember that progress doesn’t have to be linear. People are coming to me for more than just my technical skills.

Sometimes, a client might come in with the headspace, “I don’t want to lift heavy today. I actually just need to talk about what’s going on in my body and what’s coming up in my mind as I do these exercises.”

[These] softer skills that I really like to use, [like] listening to people and making space for whatever experience they’re having, [people really appreciate].

How is this missing from mainstream fitness?

Mainstream fitness is a broken industry. It’s set up to [motivate] people through shame and discomfort so they will invest in gym memberships and personal training and punish themselves until they have that usually thin, white, abled, unattainable body. I don’t think that’s serving anyone except for the owners of those corporations and the stockholders.

But I do see a lot of really incredible fitness professionals working outside of that system. [People] who are creating these new narratives about what fitness can be and about how we can use fitness to develop better relationships with our bodies. We recognize that movement can and should be joyful and that so much about how our bodies look is genetic and just unique to the individual.

How can fitness deepen connection with one’s body?

Fitness can be used in ways to both harm and support our bodies. People can do all sorts of exercises and use exercise as a way to ignore and disconnect from whatever’s going on, either mentally or physically.

As a trans person, I used to check out of my body. It was a coping mechanism for existing in a body that didn’t feel good to me. It took a lot of time and very hard work, physically and more so emotionally, to get back into my body and be able to work on my form and know how to engage all of these different muscles in my body.

Focusing on my form and making sure I’m doing an exercise efficiently and to avoid injury has helped me build a bridge between my mind and my body that I haven’t had access to in the past.

Do you think lifting weights, for you and possibly other nonbinary people, carries a different emotional and physical significance?

Usually, the deeper work that [my trans clients and I] spend more time on is: “I want to know how I can live in and enjoy living in this body that I have.” That’s the work that I’m most interested in supporting people in: the mental and emotional work of connecting back to our physical form.

This experience of being disconnected from the body is really common amongst trans people. But it also is really common for so many other people with experiences in trauma or fatphobia, or racism, or ableism. I learned that a lot of us, not just trans people, cope with challenging experiences by putting up a wall between our minds and bodies.

What’s an example of how you support a client via mental and emotional work?

One is recognizing that our memories and emotions can be stored in our bodies, and that they might be uncovered while exercising. As a trainer, if a certain movement pattern [or] exercise is causing some really uncomfortable emotions to come up, my job is not to just drill that exercise until it looks perfect. My job is to recognize somebody’s threshold and not push them beyond that point.

One of my questions that I always ask people during my intake is, “What forms of movement do you find most enjoyable?” A lot of times, I’m having conversations with people who’ve experienced exercise trauma and telling them that they can reach all of their goals without doing things that make them feel terrible.

Bringing in this question about joyful movements right at the beginning of my conversations with potential clients is part of reshaping this narrative about what fitness can be.

Who does Nonnormative Body Club serve and how?

I would say this is not necessarily by design, but the majority, if not all, of my clients identify as queer. Maybe half of my clients are trans. My goal is to serve anyone interested in using exercise as a tool to improve their relationship with their body.

I currently offer virtual one-on-one personal training. I also lead two online classes a week on a sliding scale and have built a home-workout resource of over 40 anti-oppressive professionals with my friend and colleague, Lauren Leavell.

[Even when we’re not in a pandemic] a majority of my clients work out in their homes because they have busy schedules or because transportation is an issue or because they are just uncomfortable in a gym.

I have a sliding scale so that my training can be accessible to more people. I also provide wellness workshops, and I partner with a colleague who is trained as a massage therapist. We teach workshops on binding.

For our cis readers, can you explain why trans people need exercise for binding?

A lot of trans people who have chest issues [that] they don’t want to be apparent wear a chest binder to reduce the appearance of that tissue. It can really be and often is a lifesaving tool for people to feel more comfortable in our bodies. That said, it’s also [a] very restrictive piece of fabric, and wearing a binder consistently can lead to some pain and tension.

[At a past job], we developed a workshop for people who bind: a series of stretches, strengthening exercises, and self-massage techniques that people can use to support their bodies and reduce the harm of binding.

Since I moved to Philly, I’ve been working with Brian Skye Flynn on providing education for people locally. We also have a Top Surgery Prep and Recovery Workshop, similarly talking about how to address musculoskeletal issues around top surgery, prep, and recovery.

Why did you decide to offer services on a sliding scale?

The amount of financial resources that we have has everything to do with privilege and oppression in society and nothing to do with a person’s worth or what they deserve. Before I became a personal trainer, I worked as a community organizer, and it feels really important to me that my politics are front and center in the work that I do.

When I created a sliding scale, that meant that I [could] redistribute resources within my community. And that’s something that’s really important to me.

How does fitness strengthen the trans and queer community?

I mean, one, it’s just fun. Not everybody loves a group fitness class, and I respect that, but I think the people who do can listen to good music and enjoy each other’s company and get to know one another. Endorphins [are] flowing. Creating space to be together, and a reason to be together, strengthens community.

How important is joy for the trans and nonbinary community, and how do you try to bring that into your work?

I think it’s deeply important. I think that the media representation of trans people often is about trans people dying and trans people being depressed and helpless. It’s so important that we also prioritize living.

I find joy through community, through relationships, and also through physical movement — that’s really important to me, personally. Those are two things I want to prioritize in my work as a personal trainer.

Looking for anti-oppressive virtual fitness resources?

Asher and Lauren Leavell co-created this database of anti-oppressive fitness trainers and resources here. You’ll find sliding scale classes, donation-based workouts, and more.

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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.