Feminism and the Fitness Industry

Graphic by Georgie Kamvissis

Being a feminist and working in the fitness industry often feels like something of an oxymoron.

I teach group fitness created by LesMills – a hugely successful international company. They recently collaborated with Nina Dobrev, and as a successful Hollywood actress she has a remarkably similar body type to many of the most visible members of the LesMills team.

I’ve made my peace with the fact that I have too much body fat – which honestly isn’t a lot – to progress far within the company. As a result, I know that the only impact I can make in the fitness industry is with my day-to-day interactions with members who come to my classes. I try to infuse my feminist ideals into the classes I deliver. They may seem small, but they’re big to me and I always hope that they make a difference to even one person in my class.

The first ideal is very simple – I don’t police how I look. Back before I was the instructor, another instructor I looked up to (partially because she was also a queer woman, but that’s a story for another time) never shaved and wore crop tops during summer despite having a ‘muffin top’. She not only inspired me to become a fitness instructor, but also showed me that the superficial side of fitness didn’t matter – we come to the gym to get fitter and stronger.

Now, that doesn’t mean I wear literally anything to my class. I wear a full outfit of quality fitness clothing and I’m the only person I know who buys Lorna Jane and then actually exercises in it. The difference, is that I don’t let things like my body shape, the fact that all my muscles are well-hidden under a layer of fat, or even body hair get in the way of what I wear on stage. Other women with my body type may never dream of wearing tiny booty shorts and a crop top with unshaved legs and armpits to the gym, let alone to stand on stage and have 30 odd people look at them for an hour. It’s not everyday, but I don’t think ‘I can’t wear this outfit because it makes me look fat’ or ‘I have to shave my armpits for my class tomorrow’.

I also make a conscious decision to mix femininity with strength in the way I dress. In a barbell class, I lift weights similar to the strongest men in class and more than almost every female instructor I’ve met. Standing on stage squatting 30kg for six minutes straight is impressive enough, but doing it with pigtails, pink floral tights and sparkly painted nails sends a very different message. Others have suggested to me that the way I dress undermines my authority in my class. But I’m already on stage with a microphone telling everyone what to do. I want the men and women in my class to know that strength and femininity are not mutually exclusive. Hopefully anyone who looks at me and assumes I’d be weak learns a lesson.

The second thing I do is remove any reference to weight loss from the things I say. About 8 months ago I was training to become an instructor in a new program, and as part of a gruelling two-day training we spent some time discussing how to motivate participants. One of the first things my trainer (a man built like a superhero who was one of those people higher up in the LesMills food chain) suggested was telling people about the calories they’re burning and how much weight they’ll loose. I immediately said, “I don’t use coaching like that because I don’t believe it should be the sole reason for exercise.” He told me, not in so many words, that I shouldn’t bring my personal values into my class; I should talk about loosing weight and looking good because it’s what people want.

Before becoming an instructor myself, hearing perfectly sculpted instructors (often men) tell me every week how these squats are going to get me the ‘perfect summer body’ made me grow to resent those instructors. Yes, a side effect of doing a barbell or a cycling class is that your ass and legs might look better in shorts during summer, but I never cared about that. Tell me how I’m improving my fitness and potentially extending my life!  The LesMills trainer’s words only strengthened my resolve. If someone can’t make it though a class without an aesthetic motivation, then my classes are not for them.

I refuse to compromise my feminism to cater to the worst habits of the fitness industry. In working in such a toxic industry, that has spent decades telling people, particularly women, that they’re bodies aren’t good enough, I refuse to set aside what I believe in. If even one person in one of my classes comes away from it thinking about how much stronger and healthier they will be, rather than how much better they’ll look, it will be worth it.