This piece was written by the wonderful Oli from @wellwitholi on Instagram. She is a qualified Nutritionist and Personal Trainer and works to increase inclusivity and diversity in wellness spaces. Oli puts out incredible content, with references, well thought out arguments and inclusive mindset. I also promised to use my platform to amplify voices that deserve to be amplified 1000x over. Go and give her a follow on Instagram!
Spoiler alert: the answer is an unequivocal – yes! However, as social media has helped highlight especially over the last two weeks, a lot of fitness brands, gyms and health magazines have a long way to go in assuring racial equality throughout their companies.
For most White people who are active in the fitness world, racial inequality might not be something that is often considered, if at all. As with many things, unless it directly affects you, it can be easy to overlook the significance.
My earliest memory of fitness outside of compulsory P.E. lessons was when I signed up to my first gym membership in my first year of college. Although I went to a gym with predominantly White people, and this definitely did feel alienating at times, this was a reality that mirrored the area I grew up in just outside of Brighton. At the time, I put my head down and got on with it. However, when I moved to London, a city commonly praised for its diversity, I was surprised to find myself in similar scenarios – particularly when going to ‘boutique’ or ’higher-end’ gyms.
Even outside of the gym, whether I’m scrolling through Instagram, flicking through a women’s health magazine or online shopping for some new gym clothes, there is a perpetuating image that lean, White women with ‘perfectly perked’ glutes constitute what is considered the ‘body ideal’ for fitness. If you fall outside of this, especially if you are Black, this space can start to feel very unwelcoming.
You may be thinking, what does race have to do with fitness? Why is it important?
In this post, I’m going to explain some of the racial inequalities that are interlaced throughout the industry. Beyond just over-priced green juices and 5K run challenges, the fitness industry should be one that aims to improve and support the physical wellbeing of everyone, right? I don’t believe we can continue to move forward with this narrative until we address its racial disparities.
It’s no secret that in recent years, the fitness industry has gone from strength to strength. In 2019 gym memberships in the U.K. grew by 4.7% to 104 million, whilst in the same year, the fitness industry was estimated to be worth £5-billion. With this considered, it continues to surprise me that an industry that is thriving – both economically and through popularity – continues to lack diversity and inclusivity.
Undoubtedly, one of the key influences of these inequalities is cost.
On average, a gym membership costs £40. In London, where prices of everything are inflated and ‘boutique’ gym memberships are more common, gym memberships can cost as much as £92, with some over £350 per month.
In the UK, Black people make up 55% of the 2 lowest income quintiles. This is reflective of pay gaps between ethnic groups where Black people who were born in the UK are paid on average 7.7% less than white counterparts who were also born in the UK. Similarly, Black people who were born outside of the UK are paid on average 15.3% less than white counterparts also born outside of the UK. To gain an understanding of the reasoning behind these figures, I recommend doing further research on employment gaps and race inequality. However, with these statistics considered, it can be more difficult for Black people to gain access to a gym, especially those that are higher priced. Notably, the latter are typically fitted with better equipment and sometimes have extra perks (e.g. spa facilities).
Research highlights other barriers that can block Black people from having fair access to gyms, including transport difficulties. When looking at which ethnicities are most likely to live in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods, Black people took the lead at 19.6%, indicating minimal disposable income for this group. If these statistics are readily available on the British government website, could gym branches be doing more in terms of research to ensure they are including more gym facilities in economically deprived areas? Moreover, what’s stopping them from doing so already?
I recently had a conversation with a friend who was suggesting ways fitness branches could be doing more to accommodate the communities they enter. For example, take an area like Hackney, that through gentrification is considered to be ‘up and coming’. According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG),in 2019 Hackney was reported to be in the top 10 most deprived authorities in the U.K. Harmonious with statistics previously shown, a 2011 census shared approximately 40% of this community is made up of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups, with 20% of the BME community being Black. That is, despite gentrification, the community who still lives there reflects income disparities already mentioned. Therefore, it makes no sense why a fitness branch would open a studio in an area such as Hackney, and with all statistics considered, not even try to accommodate to the surrounding community. It continues to push the same narrative that Black people are not welcome in fitness spaces. One idea we shared was the idea of having a ‘community rate’. This would work similarly to a student discount; however, you’d just need to show proof you lived in the area/postcode and you could have your class at a cheaper price.
Pretty much every gym and fitness company has a catchy slogan that pushes the idea they welcome ‘fitness for everyone‘. However, when you consider the actual advertisements these companies show, particularly the ‘boutique’ brands, is it really everyone who is represented? Sometimes Black people are not even included and if they are, it’s often not at the same inclusive ratio as non-Black counterparts. On countless occasions, I’ve seen brands include one ‘token’ Black person in their promotion and pass this off as being ‘inclusive’.
It’s not just advertisements that can lack representation of Black people though. Health magazines and newspaper articles can be just as guilty for pushing the ‘diversity’ narrative, but not actually following through. This includes the lack of diversity on magazine covers. In just one example, following its first launch in the U.K. in 2013, one of the leading women’s health magazines has only included Black women in 4 out of 73 magazine covers thus far. Only… four. There are definitely more than four Black women in the fitness industry, so why the lack of inclusivity?
A figure I think is also important to highlight here is that in 2016 it was reported that 94% of the British journalism industry was made up of White people.
When you look even further, lack of representation of Black people can prevail within gyms as well. This could echo the fact that Black people have the highest unemployment rate out of all ethnic groups in the U.K. at 9% (research employment inequalities & race); or, it could be harmonious with the notion that these spaces aren’t particularly targeted for Black customers, therefore the desire for Black personal trainers isn’t there either. I share the same experience as some of my Black friends that on several occasions I have been the only Black woman to attend a class full of only White women, maybe one or two other POC, but almost always instructed by a White person. Being in this situation can be daunting. I have sometimes felt a certain responsibility to not take up too much space, be quiet and almost set a good enough impression of myself to ensure that other Black women (as we are often seen as a monolith for each other) will still have access to the space. Whilst I’m not saying it’s imperative that I am surrounded by Black staff or members to have an effective workout, the lack of inclusion does give the message that these spaces are not created with ethnic inclusivity in mind.
- Fitness Influencers
I’m sure we can all agree Social Media is a powerhouse full of influencers telling us the things we should buying, how we should be eating, and the next best workout plan we should be following. Unsurprisingly, the same lack of representation of Black people exists here too.
For YouTube alone, there are no Black people in the Top 10 paid Forbes list and only 2 POC, whilst on the Top 10 Fitness Influencers list also published by Forbes, there is only 1 Black person and 1 other POC. I’m not trying to dismiss the merit and amount of hard work each non-black individual has put into their niche to achieve these top spots; however, I think it’s really important to challenge the statistics and ask, why are they so imbalanced?
I strongly believe the lack of diversity of fitness bloggers who are at the ‘top of their game’ reflects the same reality that fuels the lack of diversity offline. That is, fitness brands recruit who they consider being the most desirable consumer by endorsing fitness bloggers who mirror that image (think, White skin, washboard abs and perfectly toned bum). The fitness industry as a whole has then gone on to make this an almost elitist standard. It fuels the same narrative that if you don’t fit this image, and God forbid you have Black skin too, then you’re unwelcome. Of course, some fitness bloggers do go out of their way to challenge these ideologies by actively promoting more body and skin colour diversity, however, the fact these bloggers even exist further highlights there is a big representation problem within the industry.
In 2019 it was found 62.3% of adults 18+ were either overweight or obese in the UK and of that figure, 73.6% were Black adults – the highest percentage out of all ethnic groups. With these statistics considered, isn’t it the purpose of the health industry to help improve the health of everyone, but especially those who might need it most? So why, when beyond just anecdotes there’s published social research highlighting the fact that some Black people feel too intimidated to start fitness because of lack of representation, they continue to be so underrepresented?
Just this International Women’s Day 2020, one of Europe’s leading sport’s nutrition brands failed to include ANY Black women in their Instagram feed press photos for their event… zero! (N.b. Whether or not any Black women were even invited is still unclear).
So, what does this mean?
The momentum we’ve seen in people supporting the Black Lives Matter movement over the past couple of weeks will go down in history books – it’s a given. But we must continue to challenge and keep the same energy as we continue to fight against racial injustices. As much as I wish these two weeks of trending #BlackLivesMatter now means that racism is eradicated, that just isn’t the case. To be quite honest with you, this is only just the beginning.
It makes me angry that because of the colour of their skin, an individual might not feel welcomed to exercise.
If that doesn’t make you just as angry, I’d have to question your integrity in an industry that should be focusing on the wellbeing for all.
The information highlighted throughout this post wasn’t tucked away in a secret archive. This is information that is readily available to the public and I would recommend everyone in the fitness industry to continue to do your own research.
To fitness brands: What are you doing to make sure Black people are equally included? Do you have Black people throughout your team that can challenge racial disparities? Are you making sure you actually represent Black people within your brand, and aren’t just including one ‘token’ Black person?
To fitness branches: are your gyms equally dispersed into lower economic areas? Do prices reflect the general economic status of the community you’re in? What could you be doing to make sure Black people feel just as welcome in your gym/studio as non-Black people?
To consumers: Are you also supporting Black fitness bloggers online? (following someone is free, by the way!). Are you challenging your favourite companies who have been silent regarding the Black Lives Matter movement? Are there conversations you could be having with the owners of the gyms/studios you go to?
Every voice matters and can be used to initiate positive change. Don’t let yours go to waste.