Let's Talk About Black Female Representation in Fitness

By Sonja R. Price Herbert

I have been in the fitness profession for more than six years as a Pilates instructor extraordinaire who also cross-trains across a lot of different modalities. I am a Black woman with two adult children who are both athletes.

Over the past several years, the reach and influence of social media have grown tremendously. For many of us, these platforms are not only strong marketing tools, they also provide our audiences with a look inside our everyday lives. Fitness magazines, too, have increased their online presence on these channels as well, granting broader and easier access to their content. In fact, never before has so much information been available at our fingertips, often in real time. You can see live footage from conferences and workshops directly on your computer, tablet, or phone.

While platforms such as Instagram have made it possible for more Black female fitness professionals to increase their visibility via their personal pages, what I have not found on any of these platforms is a broader representation of Black female fitness professionals featured as models or as experts at conferences, workshops, advisory boards, and so on. So, the question I ask as a Black female fitness professional is: where am I, and why am I not represented?

What does “fit” look like?

What is considered the most common “fit” body type? I did a search for “fit woman” and here is what I found:

After scrolling for quite some time, I found two pictures of Black women. One was a viral photo of a Black woman with a very muscular man. The other was a picture of a Black woman who appeared to be photographed during a bikini competition.

While sitting at a bookstore recently, I looked through all of the fitness magazines I chose to read and noticed that all the cover models were white, lean, and sometimes muscular, depending on the type of fitness magazine. So is that what a “fit woman” looks like?

Based on typical online search results and what tends to make it onto the covers and pages of the most popular fitness magazines, one would be led to believe that “fit woman” is lean, blonde or brunette, and white. Can we just call a spade a spade here?

The typical “Pilates body” is described as long and lean like a dancer. I am not a dancer. I am lean, but not long. I am also not white. In my experience, the majority of Pilates instructors appear to be white females with the aforementioned “Pilates body.”

So, if I don’t look like that, does it make me less credible? Does it make me less likely to be a great instructor or expert?

Teresa E., a Pilates and Barre, personal trainer in Oakland, California stated, “Once someone said, ‘That was actually good.’ It was as if because I’m Black and curvy, I wouldn’t know how to teach the class.” While I haven’t had a similar experience, I’ve often wondered what most clients are thinking about me during their sessions or classes.

Who gets to be on the cover of a magazine?

Why does it seem like white women dominate the covers of magazines?

The typical reason most publications give is that they are simply catering to their audience. This demographic tends to be white women within a certain age group. That sounds fair... but is it, really? According to an analysis and report from The Fashion Spot, which looked at a year’s worth of covers from the top 48 international fashion publications, “In 2016, 29 percent of cover models were Women of Color, a fairly respectable 6.2-point increase from 2015. For context, racial representation on magazine covers rose by 5.4 points between 2014 (17.4 percent) and 2015 (22.8 percent).”

Before 2014, the likelihood of a Black female gracing the cover of a fashion magazine was even lower. As of today, we are on a little more than 25 percent of the covers. The other 69 percent are still white women. That is still a large percentage, and it cannot be because of the demographic. Our overall presence inside a magazine, as a feature or model, is even lower. Speaking of lower numbers, keep in mind that this report analyzed fashion magazines specifically. If we take a look at fitness magazine covers exclusively, that number is even lower for Black women and Women of Color.

“If a Black female is featured, she typically does not have a dark complexion or features closer to African descent, like natural or texturized hair,” said Bianca R., a barre and Pilates teacher and personal trainer in New York and New Jersey. “I'd love to see me in the magazines, speaking both literally and figuratively.”

A very popular strength magazine for women once posted a picture of all of their covers on their Instagram account. All of the models were white women. I stopped following them on all platforms that day because I saw no one who looked like me. So many Black women could grace their covers, but unless this topic is addressed, it will never happen.

Why is the Black female fitness expert almost non-existent at retreats, workshops, and on advisory boards?

I regularly receive marketing emails for fitness conferences, expos, and workshops, and I see posts and ads on my social media news feeds. Many of these events appeal to me initially, and I’ve attended a few, but when I look at the list of presenters, I might see one Black person — and rarely ever a Black woman. I am also not aware of there ever being Black female representation in the Pilates Method Alliance. Even magazine advisory boards have almost no Black female presence. It can’t be because we lack expertise or education.

Amira L., a fitness professional in New York City, shares: "I do feel there is a ‘bros’ club, especially in the personal training space. There are cliques of presenters who travel doing a series of smaller conferences and workshops. There is always a social element to these, which is where important connections are often made.”

Based on the evidence, not only does it seem like we are excluded because we are Black, we are also often excluded because we are women in certain spaces. It goes back to demographics. An event or organization’s audience represents what they cultivate. If an audience predominantly consists of white men or women, then the presenters will likely be a reflection of that. How and where an event or organization markets is also a factor. Is there a lack of Black female presenters and experts in the fitness space? No. But if no one is looking for us, and if we are not regularly included in a significant way, it certainly appears that way. Events and organizations that want a more diverse audience have to expand the way they market and the diversity of the people they’re trying to reach.

But why should we have to ask for a seat at the table? Why do we need to ask to be included? Inclusion requires deep work to find out why Black women have not been given seats at the table thus far, and the fact is that few people truly want to do it. What is this deep work? It is acknowledging and addressing institutional or systemic racism, which is defined as “the pattern of social and political systems discriminating against a group of people based on race.”

Mia Mercado writes on Bustle.com: “If you’re wondering how a school or a bank or any ‘thing’ or ‘system’ can be racist, ask yourself who runs those ‘things’ and ‘systems.’”

With few exceptions, unless we as Black women are running it, we will typically be left out of it. We then bring our own table with our own seats and our own audiences. That is exactly what I did with Black Girl Pilates. We had few if any seats at the table with these organizations and conferences.

Building our own spaces is all well and good, but to truly eliminate institutional racism, these organizations must make a genuine effort to broaden the color of their experts and audience.

What can I, as a Black woman, do to make sure I am represented in these areas?

Take charge, that’s what!

Almost six weeks ago, I started the Black Girl Pilates community. At the writing of this article, we are 117 members strong, representing six countries. Our mission is to provide a space where Black/Afro-Latina women who teach Pilates can share ideas, successes, and struggles as instructors and teachers within the business of the method. We also aim to identify and dismantle areas that exclude us, such as magazines, social media, conferences, and training seminars, and confront those entities regarding the lack of Black women in those spaces.

We have a very active Instagram presence as well as a Facebook support group. Our first meeting will take place October 13–15 in New York City, where Chris Robinson, a very successful Black male Pilates Instructor to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, will teach a mat class. I am also in discussion with an online Pilates platform about increasing the presence of Black female teachers and students.

In addition, I have personally written to fitness magazine editors and the organizers and leaders for various conferences expressing my concerns.

What You Can Do to Improve Black Representation in Your Fitness Spaces

How many Black female fitness or wellness businesses owners do you know? According to the National Association of Education Statistics, black women are the most educated segment within the U.S. population. We are also the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States, according to a study published by Digital Undivided. So it can’t be that difficult to find us, right?

Right. Yet, comments like this one from Amina B., a fitness professional in Kansas City, Missouri are common across the country: “I've never seen a Black female expert at any expo or workshop in [my] area. I've been to one 5K that was sponsored by a Black female gym owner.”

Here are a few suggestions for ways you and your organization can increase representation of Black women in your fitness network in a respectful and sincere manner.

Make space for us.

Offer us several seats at the table in your events, in your organization, and in your leadership. Early this year Self Magazine published a List of the Top 28 Black Fitness Pros to Follow on Instagram. That is only a small percentage of us and what we bring to the industry.

Avoid tokenism.

Make a genuine effort to reach out to your Black colleagues and peers. We know when an agenda is really about making it appear as if you want to break down those walls. Be honest about what you are trying to do.

Ask for help, and then listen.

Ask how we can help make your conference, workshop, and classes more inclusive. Listen to what we suggest, and do it with our guidance and leadership — without “policing” what we have to say.

Read and listen to what we’re sharing about our experiences in the fitness industry.

Read articles to better understand how we are really feeling. Check out Chrissy King’s recent blog post and listen to The Chocolate Bar podcast about this very subject (courtesy of me).

I am convinced that the more awareness we all bring to this issue — along with an honest examination of the systemic racism at its root — the more we can break down these walls and create truly inclusive spaces.

Note from GGS: You can read more about representations in fitness in this post by Dr. Larissa Mercado-Lopez.

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About the author:  Sonja R. Price Herbert

Sonja lives in New York where she is a pilates, fitness, and lifestyle coach and a former social worker. She is the founder of Commando Fitness Collective and the Black Girl Pilates community on Instagram and Facebook. Sonja is committed to Black female representation in fitness, as well as improving the health and wellness in the Black community through writing, speaking and curating health and wellness events for Black women. She is comprehensively certified in Pilates, and also holds TRX Level 1 and Kettlebell Concepts Level 1 certifications. You can follow Sonja on Instagram and Facebook.

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