What It Means to Be Black in Fitness

I first heard about the private group chat in June from my friend Percell Dugger, a certified strength coach and founder of GOODWRK. He, along with Mary Pryor, a former indoor cycling instructor, had pulled together a list of 50 or so trainers and influencers across the country to start a word-of-mouth group on WhatsApp. The concept was simple: create a safe space for Black fitness professionals—some well-known current or former instructors at popular studios, others who worked for themselves, all aware of what it’s like being the only person of color in the room when teaching or taking classes—to connect over shared experiences and frustrations with the fitness industry at large.

“The group chat was made for people to air out their grievances and their experiences, to shed light on what situations they endured and, to an extent, maybe normalized,” Dugger tells me. It was a place for trainers to lament things like feeling underpaid or having to smile through seemingly endless microaggressions in the workplace. “Folks have had to sit with their feelings for a very long time [during the pandemic],” he says. “So you are in this group chat and you hear about a yoga instructor that you’ve never met and she is being taken advantage of and you are a gym owner and you are like, ‘Wow.’ Believing that that was happening but also identifying with that.”

Members became immediately engaged. Outside the chat, the fitness world was grappling with how to remedy its ingrained culture of exclusion following the death of George Floyd in May. At the time many fitness companies were speaking out against racism in an effort to show their solidarity with the movement for equality. Y7, the popular boutique yoga studio, had just issued an apology for “the appropriation of hip hop culture and Black culture on our branding, the inadequate representation in leadership and clientele, and the for-profit use of hip hop music in the class experience when inauthentically played by instructors.” There were black squares in the feed and manifestos of how brands were going to do better. There were many declarations of allyship. (Just a few of many: “There is no time or place for racism. We will not be silent about that.” “Our voices are our power—and right now, we’re taking the time to listen and learn.” “To be silent is to be complicit. We stand with the black community.” “It was white people who created and continue to perpetuate racial inequality, and now white people need to help correct it.”) There was the sharing of educational resources, pledges to Black social justice organizations, and the intentional spotlight on trainers of color. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, inside the chat there was a sense of catharsis—and a healthy dose of skepticism. While the instructors appreciated the new focus on dismantling the systemic racism they encountered on a daily basis, for some it was hard to reconcile what some companies had declared publicly with their own experiences working in or working out in those same spaces. For those members, the social media declarations started to feel performative. “When you see the spaces that you are in then put out statements, it gives you the opportunity to unpack and reflect on how that applies to you,” Dugger says. “As a group we feel like that’s not necessarily authentic, and a bit problematic.”

Since then, the year that gave us hashtags for Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery hasn’t let up. In August, as we were preparing this article, Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin; his father recently announced that Blake had been paralyzed from the waist down. In this climate, the rumblings within the group coalesced into something more. Some in the WhatsApp chat have formed an advocacy organization called Fit for Us, cofounded by Dugger with Pryor as an advisor, that is determined to tackle wellness’s race problem head on. Now the mission of Fit for Us is to change the industry from within, knowing that there’s strength in its numbers. They’ve recently published an open letter to the fitness industry with a list of demands based on the group’s collective experience within an industry that, its members argue, has taken advantage of Black bodies for too long. SELF has an exclusive first look at the letter, which you can read here.

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