THE HEALTH AND FITNESS INDUSTRY IS CALLING OFF THE ENDLESS SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT BODY. IN ITS PLACE? WHAT MIGHT JUST BE THE MOST COVETED ATTRIBUTE OF ALL: ACCEPTANCE FOR EVERYBODY
While making my daily pilgrimage through Instagram recently, I came across a post about a new Pilates studio in my neighbourhood. It wasn’t the announcement that gave my thumb pause (boutique studios are hardly a scarce resource in urban centres), but the imagery. It was certainly striking, but it took me a minute to realise how the caption and the picture of two women in their underwear were correlating.
Their bodies were beautiful, but they appeared, for lack of a better word, “normal”. In fact, they looked somewhat similar to mine – there were no rock-hard abs, no almost-radiating amber tan, not a single delineation of space between the inner thighs – and yet the caption was promoting fitness and muscle strength, which caught me off-guard and prompted unexpected tears. It’s not that I believed the two to be mutually exclusive (after all, I consider myself to be relatively fit and I certainly don’t possess a traditionally lithe physique) but it was a sad jolt of cognisance about my own unconscious bias; that I could struggle to associate exercise with anything that fell outside such a singular and largely unattainable aesthetic.
It comes courtesy of an industry that has long conditioned us all to strive for and revere just one definition of beauty. “Summer is coming – sign up for our 12-week body transformation!” “Ditch the flab and get fab in 2020!” “Sweat out last night’s sins!” The advertisements promising a corporeal, and therefore emotional, renovation are levelled at us every day, and particularly around New Year. And while the fashion and beauty worlds have begun to weed out once-rampant exclusionary practices and messaging, the health and fitness sphere has yet to undergo a similar evolution.
So choosing to subvert the industry norms in favour of a more inclusive message can be quite jarring, which is why Lucy Beaumont, founder of Scout Pilates – the studio I discovered on Instagram – used it to form part of her business’ philosophy.
“I had worked in New York City prior to setting up Scout and loved the progressive, inclusive and fun studios that I had taught at during my time over there,” she says. “I found the Sydney Pilates scene a little stuffy and exclusive, with too much emphasis on ‘best body’ talk. So from the get-go, Scout was designed to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible, with a range of classes to suit all fitness types, where the client can define for themselves why they come to class, and what they want to get out of it.”
Barre Body, which boasts a suite of classes including barre, yoga and cardio across Australia, recently revamped its entire image to better align with the body- love mantra that was encouraged throughout the studio classes. Feedback from attendees had made it clear to the company that there was a departure between what was preached in the classes and the visuals used throughout the space, such as the emphasis on getting a “dancer’s body”, something most commonly conflated with a tiny, taut figure.
It’s not just local studios advocating for systemic change either. For Laura Henshaw and Stephanie Miller (nee Steph Claire Smith), founders of health and fitness app Keep It Cleaner (KIC), promoting inclusivity and accessibility was always their mandate.
As young models, the two succumbed to the physical pressures of the job, with social media’s prevalent diet and fitness culture only further exacerbating the issue. “We were both very lost and felt like social media was saturated with the same kind of message – how to lose weight, how to get abs or a thigh gap,” recalls Miller. “It was all just focused on the physical side of things. We both had an Instagram following at the time, so we felt it was our responsibility to change the message that was out there.”
Against the other online fitness programs on the market, KIC stands out. Henshaw and Miller wanted no mention of calorie deficits, guilt-ridden rhetoric or weight loss. Instead, there are affirmations, meditations and quick, simple recipes that are overseen by a dietitian.
Henshaw and Miller complete the 20-minute workout videos alongside those sweating at home, but there is a distinct (and deliberate) lack of polish to the productions. The girls go makeup-free, visibly struggle for breath and remain encouraging (while still striking a relatable chord by complaining about the more difficult exercises), which sits in stark contrast to the slick veneer of the at-home workout videos we’re used to. “[Our community] has told us that they love that we are struggling through the workouts with them because they realise that we aren’t an unattainable picture of health,” explains Miller. “There was an option to get our makeup one, but in reality we don’t actually work out with makeup on. We tell girls that they shouldn’t worry about it, so it should start with us,” adds Henshaw.
When it came to creating a promotional video, Henshaw and Miller enlisted some of their thousands-strong community of women, which characterises the diversity of the app’s users. The campaign received an overwhelmingly positive response on social media, with many expressing that the empowering, inclusive nature of the video brought them to tears. “Watching the videos makes me teary, too!” admits Miller. “Women want to be represented, and the girls on our program are proud to be a part of it.” Henshaw adds, “Our biggest message is that you don’t have to look a certain way or be a certain size to be fit and healthy.”
It’s a topic that’s starting to permeate Hollywood, too. Supermodel and body love activist Ashley Graham recently launched her own YouTube fitness series called Thank Bod, to encourage others to see their workouts as a celebration of strength rather than a punishment. Alongside trainer Kira Stokes, Graham squats, lunges and laughs her way through the short sets. Each one focuses on an area of the body with positive titles such as “Love Your Booty” and “Hug Harder Upper Body Plan”.
It can feel like there’s still a veritable cavern of improvements needed for the health and fitness industry, but slow progress towards true inclusivity is finally being made. “Change is definitely starting to happen,” says Beaumont. “The old-school body-shaming mentality of having to work out in order to burn off calories needs to stop – it shouldn’t start with a negative to yield a positive.”
#Fitspo, once strictly the domain of gym-honed bodies, is now being reclaimed by reality, which looks suspiciously like the body you were born in. As Beaumont so succinctly puts it: “Healthy looks different on everyone – and isn’t that great?!”