Misfit Studio Proves The Wellness Industry Needs A Racial Reckoning

Designed by Yazmin Butcher.
Misfit Studio developed a cult-like following throughout its 10-year run. With write ups in the Coveteur, the Globe and Mail and even a shout-out in Vogue, the Toronto-based exercise space where monthly memberships ran upwards of $180, became the go-to for pilates and sweaty dance-inspired classes.
As a lifestyle journalist interested in fitness trends, I watched Misfit's black-and-white Instagram feed — featuring ethereal images of mostly thin, white women dancing paired with flowery captions — generate hundreds of likes. Then, in June, during the height of the global anti-Black racism protests, Misfit’s founder Amber Joliat posted on Instagram that she was waking up to her “complicity in white supremacy.” By July, teachers had quit and the studio closed. Joliat’s farewell letter on Misfit’s website cited financial troubles related to the COVID-19 pandemic and pressures of being a new mom as the reasons for the shutdown. She also acknowledged the ways her “leadership didn’t create a safe, accessible, and inclusive space for all.”
I read Joliat's message and thought, What the hell happened?
What happened was that Misfit's curated image of self-acceptance and inclusivity contrasted with the realities behind the scenes, according to members of the community. They alleged that Joliat fostered a harmful environment that was not welcoming to people of colour and other marginalized groups. Instructors and former students shared stories of microaggressions around race, instances of fatphobia, and stigma around mental health. Joliat allegedly created a space that catered to white, more affluent clients, and when instructors of colour tried to speak up about the culture and offer ways to make it more inclusive, their opinions were dismissed. 
One former student of colour enrolled in Misfit’s pilates teacher training program — a program that cost her $5,000 — said Joliat often used a “good vibes only” ethos to reject any criticism. 
“You always had to be okay,” the student explained. “It was, ‘You can’t be upset because this is a place of love and light.’” 
Misfit’s closure highlights a larger issue in wellness and boutique fitness spaces: They cater to thin bodies without accessibility needs and, while there are some dedicated spaces for women of colour, most are overwhelmingly white. The wellness industry’s diversity problem became glaringly obvious during its response to the anti-Black racism protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police: CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman stepped down after he said he didn't mourn Floyd and SoulCycle faced criticism for asking customers to donate to charities fighting racial inequality instead of publicly forking over its own money. Several SoulCycle teachers even quit the company, stating they were tired of people of colour being used in marketing material to showcase diversity but passed up for promotions
The pandemic paired with the systemic-racism reckoning has forced many businesses to take a hard look at their culture and apologize for their actions (and inactions). CrossFit apologized for Glassman’s remarks, and shared an odd statement explaining that “tackling social justice issues of this magnitude is not our strength as a company.” Likewise, SoulCycle wrote a message to its “Soul Fam” stating its commitment to diversity and inclusion. 
Misfit’s Joliat also said her actions fell short. In a statement to Refinery29, she said she began making “small changes over the past couple years” in the studio, but admitted it wasn’t enough. She said she should have consulted with inclusion and diversity coaches years ago to create “a more inclusive and anti-racist studio culture” and worked more closely with instructors of colour. 
“I take full responsibility for my inaction and I’m committed to learning, unlearning, growing and working towards the changes we need to see in the wellness industry,” Joliat said. 
It’s promising that the wellness industry is finally “waking up” to the need to serve more diverse communities. But posting a black square on social media or a vague commitment to “learning” will not result in meaningful change unless leaders actually do the work to change their culture, says Robin Lacambra. Lacambra is the founder of GoodBodyFeel, a pilates, yoga and meditation studio in Hamilton, ON, that aims to make movement accessible for everyone and offers classes specifically for people of colour, members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, and people over 60. She says change has to start at the top with hiring non-white executives and people with different physical abilities. 

I want to feel welcome, that I'm allowed to enjoy and be a real human being and take up space as much as the next person beside me.

Michelle rogers
“We have white leaders making decisions and running these very vulnerable businesses. Wellness — especially yoga and mindfulness — is vulnerable because we're inviting folks to move their bodies to heal,” Lacambra, who once taught at Misfit, says.
“And if you don't have the experience of marginalization, then how are you going to ensure safety and consideration for folks who are marginalized?”
Racism, ableism, and a lack of diversity in wellness plays out in both subtle and overt ways, says Toronto-based movement teacher Jasmine Smikle. Smikle, who is Black, says everything from a white teacher blasting Nicki Minaj asking students to “pop their booty” to needing to climb a set of narrow stairs to reach a studio sends a message. If you don’t see yourself represented in these spaces, she says, it signals you don’t belong.
Smikle was once even denied rental equipment before a yoga class. She was visiting a studio in Toronto for the first time and was greeted by the owner. When Smikle asked to rent a mat and a towel, the owner refused. 
“She had had a bad experience with another Black student who rented a mat and laid her head down on that mat, and she had like some kind of oil product in her hair, which apparently ruined the mat,” Smikle says. “Obviously, I didn’t go back.”
As gyms and fitness studios reopen after pandemic-mandated closures, it’s vital they implement anti-racism policies, says Smikle.
“So much in our world changed in the past five months, and studios were quick to pivot to IGTV and Zoom the moment they had to shut their doors,” she says. “You've seen the Black Lives Matter movement play out, and if you're a studio owner, you should be just as quick to enforce change and to create an [anti-racist] policy that your teachers abide by.”
It’s not only people of colour who say they feel shut out of fitness spaces. Michelle Rogers, a body-positive advocate who lives on Vancouver Island, says she stopped going to certain gyms years ago because her experiences were so negative. 
Rogers is a plus-sized woman and says she rarely sees instructors or other gym goers that look like her. The idea that thinness equals health is perpetuated everywhere in the fitness industry, she says. Just look at athletic brand Alo’s website, where size zero models are the norm. Even the physical set-up of many studios, whether it’s small change rooms or walls of mirrors, can make Rogers feel excluded before a class even starts. 
“A lot of it comes down to the fact that these classes are not designed for fat people; they're really designed for one type of body,” she says. “I want to feel welcome, that I'm allowed to enjoy and be a real human being and take up space as much as the next person beside me.”
There’s also the barrier of cost, which further promotes exercise inequality. Research shows there’s an income gap between racialized and white Canadians, with racialized women making 59 cents to every dollar non-racialized men make. Boutique gyms run like exclusive clubs where those with the financial means and social status are most welcome. To gain access to these “communities” or “movements,” you need to be able to pay upwards of $30 per class at places like SoulCycle or Barry’s Bootcamp. The people who can afford to exercise in such spaces tend to be the same people who can afford $12 juices and $140 yoga pants. 
Then, there’s location. Boutique gyms are often located in wealthy neighbourhoods, limiting the type of clientele the space attracts and justifying their high fees. A recent U.S. report found that many boutique exercise studios are located in higher-income urban areas. In neighbourhoods with workout facilities like Equinox, SoulCycle, The Bar Method, and Town Sports Clubs, the median household income is more than $100,000 USD.
“Let's be real: The wellness industry is a business at the end of the day,” says Renelyn Quinicot, a meditation and movement teacher in Toronto who previously worked at Misfit Studio. “And it’s been a business that hasn't served people of colour and their needs... for decades.”
It should be no shocker that creating more diverse and inclusive spaces is not only fundamentally important on a human level but a smart business move, too. Research shows that businesses with diverse workforces are more profitable, improve customer service, and make better decisions
Diversity has to go beyond hiring a person of colour, says Quinicot, and marginalized employees need to be supported by management in order to grow within an organization and move up to senior roles. Meaningful inclusion should also be reflected in how a wellness studio operates: everything from marketing material, sliding scale class costs to the merchandise sizes available for sale can help support diverse clientele. Gender-neutral change rooms and asking for clients’ pronouns are other ways Lacambra makes patrons feel welcome.
Nancy Zagbayou, a yoga teacher based in Montreal, works as an inclusion consultant for fitness studios advising them on how to be more welcoming to people of colour, different physical abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. She says she’s been encouraged by the conversations she’s had in recent months.
“Lululemon, for example, donates money to the Yoga Mala Foundation, which brings wellness into the community,” says Zagbayou. Paying teachers fairly and offering scholarship and mentorship programs for instructors of colour are ways organizations can help break down barriers. “That's a model of how corporations can do great work in bringing wellness to more spaces and put their money where their values are.”

If studios aren't going to put themselves in the hot seat to reconstruct the DNA of their culture, there will be a fall from grace.

Robin Lacambra
Conversations about diversity and inclusive spaces are not new to the people who’ve been having them for years, but having these talks in public is a step in the right direction. Lacambra of GoodBodyFeel hopes this is a turning point for wellness and fitness studios as she believes most business owners do want to do better — especially now that community members are holding them accountable. 
“More and more of us are no longer okay with being silent, and so we are going to support folks who understand that our experience is worthy and deserving of care, time, and attention,” Lacambra says. “If studios aren't going to put themselves in the hot seat to reconstruct the DNA of their culture, there will be a fall from grace.”

Joliat’s fall is an example of what can happen when businesses are too slow or unwilling to change. She hasn’t confirmed if she will reopen Misfit’s two locations but its Instagram page is still active. There are no new photographs of teachers dancing outdoors or students in light-filled spaces. Instead, there are nine images that when viewed together, form an illustration of a black heart — Misfit’s logo. The captions: Life, death and rebirth. 

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