Whenever I go to a spin class or a HIIT class I’m struck by the fact that the women in the room – and it’s almost always 90% women – all look the same.
And I’m right there with them. I’m wearing the same Sweaty Betty leggings, the same Lululemon tank, I’m around the same age, I have a similar body type. But there is one notable difference. I’m more often than not the only non-white person in the room.
While I don’t need to be surrounded by people who look exactly like me in order to get an effective workout, the overwhelming homogeneity of these spaces can send a message that if you don’t fit the mould – you’re not welcome.
The fitness world is booming. Hedonism is out and ‘wellness’ is in, as more of us prefer to spend our weekends breaking a sweat in the new Soul Cycle studio before heading out for green juice and vegan brunch.
It’s a tired millennial stereotype, but there is truth in it. We are collectively becoming more health-conscious than we have ever been – and the fitness industry is benefiting in a big way.
Gym memberships in the UK grew by 4.7% to 10.4 million this year, according to an annual industry report. Fitness is a £5bn industry, and with more people seeking a social experience from their workouts, boutique classes are flourishing.
So how can an industry that is growing year-on-year, and making so much money, get away with such a stark lack of diversity? And why is this problem being perpetuated?
One of the reasons has to be the cost. These boutique fitness classes are not cheap – just ask my bank balance – and that consistently high price point is fueling elitism and exclusivity.
According to the Money Advice Service, the average gym membership is £40 per month, but in London, where everything is more expensive, it can be £100 or more. Individual classes cost between £15-£25 for an hour. Five HIIT classes at Barry’s Bootcamp (just over one per week) will cost you £105 for a month. 10 spinning classes at Boom Cycle costs £160.
So is it any wonder that minority groups – who are more likely to earn less or live in deprived areas – are being pushed out?
Matilda Egere-Cooper thinks it comes down to who these gyms and studios are trying to attract.
‘Boutique fitness studios have a core target market, notably those with disposable incomes,’ she explains. ‘This explicitly points to the wider inequalities that exist within society, where class, jobs, incomes, and opportunities are concerned.’
Matilda is the founder of the Fly Girl Collective – a running and fitness community inspiring black and brown women to get active. She thinks the problem runs deeper than simple economics, it’s also about representation.
‘Even if a studio happens to be affordable, there’s a question around who’s represented in the marketing, and whether the instructors and in-house staff are genuinely diverse – and not just a tick-box exercise,’ says Matilda.
This is important. Black and Asian women are the least physically active social groups, and a significant barrier to their participation is a lack of role models.
‘Where the trainers and staff are disproportionately white, it sends a message to black and other ethnic minorities that the space hasn’t been created with diversity in mind,’ explains Matilda.
‘The industry, particularly in a diverse city like London, should intentionally represent the world around them in their marketing, be accessible and employ a more diverse range of people at all levels.
‘Everyone should be inspired to pursue a healthy, fit lifestyle, but it’s hard to be what you can’t see.’
Sharlene Gandhi loves yoga, but as an Asian woman, she is increasingly concerned by the whitewashing of the industry, and the effect it is having on the integrity of the ancient Indian practice.
‘If I go to a class run by white folks – which is most of them in the city – then the class is normally, massively white,’ Sharlene tells Metro.co.uk.
‘There is such a market for white-washed yoga. Right down to the music that is played when you come into a studio, to the “Namaste” at the end – all of it is disastrously white.
‘I don’t necessarily feel out of place because, if anything, I know that I am closer to some of the asanas and techniques than most people in the room are.’
Sharlene completed a diploma in Bharathanatyam, an ancient Indian classical dance form that has the same roots as yoga. She says it gave her a nuanced understanding of some of the psychology behind the physiology.
‘I think that is something which is increasingly missed out in “quick-fix” yoga,’ she explains.
‘I worry more about the dilution of an ancient practice, one that was well thought and planned out to fit in with an otherwise holistic and healthy lifestyle, into something that now is essentially an exercise routine.’
Sharlene gets frustrated by the erasure of the people who created yoga – but she has her own little ways to fight back.
‘I deliberately do not say “Namaste” at the end of a class, especially if its a white-washed class, or led by a white teacher. I’m sure nobody notices, but it is my tiny rebellion,’ she says.
‘I’ve only ever been to one class where the teacher deliberately counted in Sanskrit – as you would do in a normal yoga class to keep the breathing steady. I found that super soothing and revolutionary.
‘The class was of course, run by a South Asian woman.’
The effect of this wide-scale whitewashing of the fitness industry is that it creates a spiral. If you don’t feel welcome in a space, you’re not going to go there, which in turn prevents other people like you from going there for the exact same reason.
What’s needed is a fundamental shake-up of the industry from the top-down.
Hannah Lanel is the founder of The Fore – a new fitness space that prides itself on inclusivity. Hannah is white and acknowledges that fitness has a serious diversity problem, but she is determined to do things differently. She says it has to start with recruitment.
‘Since launching The Fore in June we’ve done everything we can to break down the barriers to fitness and well-being,’ Hannah tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Our classes are designed to welcome amateurs and athletes alike and we actively seek out instructors who don’t fit the mould in terms of both ethnicity, appearance and background.’
Hannah says this helps them to attract a diverse audience who come to class and take whatever they need from it.
‘Inclusivity is at the very heart of our business and we are proud to unite a community of both trainers and clients that dismantles socioeconomic, religious and political divides to foster meaningful relationships that celebrate people of colour, of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.’
That’s a big claim for a gym to make – is it really that deep?
Matilda thinks it is. Her ethos is that the battle can only really be won if inequality is eradicated from every aspect of life – including fitness and well-being. She doesn’t want to sit back and allow another industry to thrive off the back of exclusion.
To take this point further, Matilda trains with her Fly Girl Collective squad at a boutique fitness studio at least once a month.
‘It can be tricky because of costs, but by being there, we’re sending the message that fitness is for everyone – even black women from all walks of life,’ she explains.
‘Although the general reaction to us being there is positive, we do get a few side glances and stares, so I think there’s still some work to be done to normalise diversity in these spaces.
‘But it starts with studios being willing to recognise the issues, have challenging conversations and working proactively to move things in the right direction.’
Despite the boom in ‘wellness’, overall obesity levels are still on the rise and obesity-related hospital admissions rose by 15% last year.
The inference is that the growing fitness industry is only benefiting a privileged minority of the population. For everyone else, the gentrification of fitness is actually pushing them out and may even be making it harder to be active.
Dora Atim is a 27-year-old black trainer at The Fore, and she knows just how important it is to improve the accessibility of fitness resources.
‘In terms of instructors, we are only just beginning to see a marginal improvement in diversity being taken seriously,’ says Dora, ‘but studios have no hope of attracting a truly varied audience unless they first address their marketing.
‘Thin, white and rich is still overwhelmingly used as the ideal to attract clients with the top five boutiques in London showing a disappointing lack of diversity in their marketing campaigns.
‘It’s not until we stop breeding this idea that there is some kind of “perfect” homogeneous ideal that we will see boutiques open themselves up to a wider marketplace.’
Mel is a mixed-race personal trainer based in Birmingham, and she agrees with Dora. She says targeting a more diverse customer base isn’t rocket science.
‘We need more diverse images with a broad range of ethnicities used in their marketing,’ she suggests. ‘They should also use targeted ads to appeal to areas where the population has a high percentage of BAME groups.
‘I understand the need to be niche, but businesses need to be careful that they are not alienating an entire demographic through poor advertising.’
It is that sense of alienation that can be the most damaging.
The fitness industry is elitist in more ways than one. Women are expected to be a certain age, a certain size and conform to certain societal norms in order to be an accepted part of the community.
But women, and men, of all ages, sizes and races can be fit, strong and can smash a HIIT class just like anyone else. The industry may be growing, but there will always be a limit to that growth unless fitness finds a way to embrace different kinds of bodies.
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