Creating a Diverse Space in the Wellness Community
Feb 05, 2021
As the first week of Black History Month is coming to a close, we wanted to take a moment and speak about what diversity and inclusion looks like and means in the wellness + fitness communities. While this it goes without saying, we want to say anyway that this isn't a conversation that should only be taking place during Black History Month. It's an ongoing conversation, but this month we're especially excited to be able to celebrate.
This week we spoke with our dear friend, Sasha Whitney, about her experiences and what she hopes for in the future. We're honored that she shared her time with us and are excited to share her important words here with you. 👇
Before my journey into the fitness and wellness industry, no one who knew me would’ve likely saw me heading down this path. Heck I didn’t even see it for me, my intentions never were to coach! I wasn’t particularly athletic growing up, didn’t go to the gym regularly, and didn’t have a solid workout schedule.
I started regularly working out as a way to relieve stress and with that in mind, it was important to find a way to move my body that I enjoyed and didn’t feel like punishment or a chore. I tried many workouts before that but cycling was the only one that I genuinely loved and looked forward to every single time. It was my passion, ignited my soul, and brought so many emotions out of me. You ever ugly cried on a spin bike in a dark room with 40 something other people with pumping jams in the background? NOTHING LIKE IT! No shame! It became more than work out. One thing that I always noticed however was despite the fact that the DC metro area is incredibly diverse, I rarely ever saw or had Black fitness instructors. I knew that obviously they existed; I mean I saw a lot of Black trainers but the majority of them were men. Very rarely did I see cycling instructors that looked like me leading the pack.
Before I get too deep into my journey, representation has always been something that’s been important to me and something that we don’t see enough of. There’s so much power in seeing yourself depicted not just in media but in certain spaces and positions of leadership – classrooms, boardrooms, places where decisions are being made and change enacted. Seeing others occupy roles imbues in us not only a source of inspiration, especially for us who belong to that group but it is a reflection that regardless of skin color, race, ethnicity, sex, socioeconomic status, and other identifiers, we are all capable of holding any role and accomplishing great things. When you don’t see yourself in certain roles, you can easily start to think that this is not for me or I am/we are not capable.
Even though DC is incredibly diverse, it’s nicknamed Chocolate City for goodness sake, I often found and still find myself as the only Black woman in the room. Black women are not represented in fitness as much as they should be so when I did see a Black woman leading the class or in the room with me, I loved it and wanted to see more. I want you to close your eyes right now, what do you think of when you think “fitness instructor”? Better yet, hop on Google and type in “fitness instructor”. The majority of images you see are white women. This lack of diversity is part of what pushed me to coach. It planted the seed that I could do this and perhaps help another Black woman feel seen. Make her feel like she belongs there too, not just as a rider but on the podium.
What finally spurred me to get certified was taking a surprise country music themed ride at a studio I frequented. I walked out afterward like, "yeahhh never again, it’s time to get certified." and signed up for my certification that evening. Just a heads up – music is subjective but for the love of God, please announce a country music ride beforehand. That’s NOT something you spring on people! I completed my certification in late 2015 and started coaching the following Spring. I cannot remember the instructor’s name and even if I could, I wouldn’t say her name but thank you baby girl for being that final push!
Being in this space for 6 years now and reflecting not only on my experiences but also what my peers have shared, I can honestly say there is a lot of change that needs to occur around representation and diversity. At every single level, from ownership to management to staff and instructors & coaches there needs to be a change, but it all starts at the top. The mindset and desire to be inclusive has to be present in the leaders of these studios and gyms. They must be leading with an abundance mindset that welcomes diversity and sees the value in inclusion, representation, and equity.
So many leaders are in positions to make effective and lasting change but it requires an ability to completely open, honest, and reflect upon our own implicit biases which is often hard for so many to do because its hard to say "I may have blinders", or even worse – people are comfortable with how things are. They are comfortable with the erasure of BIPOC from their staff and marketing. They’re fine with a lack of diversity in management and do not believe that absence of diversity on their own teams is a problem. And this scarcity mindset then trickles down through every level of the studio and gym underneath leaving instructors and coaches feeling unappreciated, unvalued, not seen, and not heard. This has unfortunately been my experience at MANY of the spaces I have been in and see within the fitness, health, and wellness industry, and it starts at the top.
I’ll share an experience I had at one of the studios I worked at. Actually, I’ll share 2. I have always been outspoken and am especially so when I see things happening around me that I know aren’t right or fair. I was raised with the belief that you don’t sit/stand idly by in the face of wrong you MUST speak and my name literally means “defender/ helper of mankind” so this is just something that is integral to who I am as a person. I’ve always regarded this as one of my strengths, however, as a Black woman, this quality is often seen as a negative. Outspoken women are generally regarded negatively but being a Black woman, the misogyny becomes misogynoir and the backlash is immediate and sharp. You are regarded as loud. Aggressive. Abrasive. Demanding. "Too big for your britches".
This studio at the time only carried small and extra small sports bras and well, ya girl has boobs so that wasn’t going to work for me. Part of diversity and representation in fitness studios isn’t just race/ethnicity or sex, it’s also size diversity and part of that is having an availability of clothes in different sizes. I requested that the person responsible for ordering merchandise please include in the next purchase medium and large sports bras. For my thoughts of inclusion, I was accused by the owner of the studio of creating a “gang mentality”. Think about that for a second – accusing a Black woman of creating a gang mentality. My crime? Addressing a lack of inclusivity and having other instructors chime in and say that they would also like additional items and styles be ordered in sizes larger than smalls and extra smalls.
Another situation occurred where instructors weren’t getting paid for meetings, we were just expected to show up and give our time for free which didn’t sit right with me. Other instructors had an issue with this but no one said anything so me being me, I spoke up. Weeks later, for my troubles, I faced retaliation in the form of having a time slot taken away from me by management. I guess having to pay everyone to show up for meetings, the money had to come from somewhere so why not take it from my pockets by stripping me of a class!
I reflect on my time at that studio and realize that I faced a disproportionate amount of backlash for simply speaking up in an attempt to create an inclusive and equitable environment. And where did it start? At the top. The sad part is it doesn’t have to be this way.
I am a fierce and firm believer in being the change we wish to see in the world. It is so easy to sit and be frustrated with all of these unfortunate realities however it is more difficult to actually do something about it. After reflecting on my experiences, seeing the deficiencies, talking to others, and following my passion and heart to usher in this change, I created a workshop and program to address this scarcity mindset present in the fitness industry. Not just address the scarcity mindset and implicit biases present within the fitness industry but how to shift our mindset and create environments where people feel welcome, where diversity, representation, equity, and inclusion are present, sought after, and championed year-round, not just during Black History month.
We are in this place in society right now, where people are more aware and seem to want to be better people and work toward unity. I’d like to think it has something to do with the start of the age of Aquarius as we move from the old guard and antiquated mindsets to working together as a collective to achieve our goals, prioritize what’s good for community as a whole, and equality. That’s the woo in me. What’s more likely though is that people saw the back to back to back murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and heard the immediate outcry from the Black community, a community that continues to have to fight so hard not for inclusion, equality, representation, and equity but to simply live and exist in peace. People saw this and it finally got them to wake up. And now that people are awake, I want to grab them in whatever capacity I can and encourage them to be the change in the spaces they are in however they can. Because whether we want to believe it or not, we ALL have the capacity to enact change. We all have a voice and it is powerful.
I’ll close with this. While this change starts at the top and diversity, equity, representation, and inclusion absolutely have to be the values owners and management lead with, that doesn’t mean the instructors and coaches have to accept or exist in spaces that don’t lead with these values. It is on us to create the life we want, the world we want, a world that we would want to leave to our children, and change the spaces we are in for the better. USE YOUR VOICE! NEVER be afraid to go against the grain and speak up in the face of wrongdoing because in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "The time is always right to do what is right."
Sasha is a fitness instructor, activist, podcast host, and mindset coach in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area and a longtime friend of Apothékary. Follow her on Instagram at @thesashawhitney and listen along to her podcast SashaSpins to get to know her.