Over the past few years, fitness has taken over society. What once was the pastime of just a few, has now become a way of life for many.
For many people, however, fitness didn't initially feel like a welcoming space. The plus-size community, for instance, has been vocal about the backlash they've received for exercising. People on low incomes have been stung; as interest in fitness grows, so do the prices of classes, of fitness wear, and of gym memberships.
According to personal trainer Yemi Penn, another group that has been left out are women of colour.
Yemi runs the new F45 studio in Brixton. If you're not sure what F45 is, think an Australian version of CrossFit with the mentality of Soul Cycle. It's "community meets technology," Yemi explains. You work out with other people and with plenty of different exercises in play, you never get the same workout twice. Most importantly though, it's fun. "In my first class I was laughing as I was working out, even though I was struggling to breathe," remembers Yemi. "There were exercises that I’ve never done before, so I had aches that I never thought that I could have because the moves were so dynamic. And doing it with a friend made it more enjoyable."
Establishing her space in Brixton was important for Yemi, both because it's her home and because she wants to bring fitness to a community she feels has been left out of the fitness revolution. She feels women of colour in particular are underrepresented by advertising for gyms, health groups, lifestyle-based activities and much more due to "predominately Euro-centric advertising, assumptions and social pressures." Her mission is to make women of colour feel just as much at home in a fitness space as anyone else.
We spoke to her about the importance of getting everyone who exercises to feel like they belong.
Why was it important to you to open in Brixton?
It’s where I grew up and even through we travelled back and forth from London to Nigeria, Brixton has always been home. I know it has different meanings to different people but I love how somewhere that was previously stigmatised for its culture is now the place where everyone wants to be.
When did you first come to fully realise that the fitness space is failing to speak to women of colour?
I think it’s as far back as when I got into the fitness industry 16 years ago. I approach most areas of my life without trying to look and see if I’m the only one who’s 'different' – like whether I’m the only woman or something. My background is in engineering and I would always just go forth and do it. But with fitness I often found that I was the only woman of colour in the class, and when it came to teaching, I hardly ever found another counterpart who was a woman of colour.
What impact does it have, stepping into a gym feeling underrepresented?
To begin with it was a bit scary. I probably went in very timid. There’s a scene in a film I saw recently where the main character goes into a gym and she feels like she wants to disappear. It’s exactly how I felt going into gyms. A big part of why [I do what I do] is to create an environment where [women of colour] aren’t going to feel that way… You feel strength in numbers. And, as F45 has grown, there are definitely a lot more women now. So I feel positive. I think we are stepping into our own... I want to help black women who, like myself, have felt isolated and excluded from mainstream fitness communities to get fit and finally feel accepted.
What role has advertising played in making the fitness space non-inclusive?
It’s always difficult to get it 100% right – the role of social media is crucial – there just hasn’t been as much representation for women of colour. It’s so difficult to find someone who looks like you on social media. Lots of bigger brands – Nike, adidas – have actually showed diversity and I really applaud them for that.
Can you talk about the health issues that you think exercise can help with which specifically affect women of colour?
Mental health issues. I know we talk about colour a lot, but there’s also an element of culture attached whereby you’ve got different ideologies. Without speaking for every woman of colour, there’s this underlying pressure – whether it’s to have the kids, or be married by a certain time, by a certain age, or to look a certain way – nowadays there’s an extra urgency to do all of this and contribute to society, and things just haven’t caught up.
So there’s all that pressure and [it can lead to] mental health issues; anxiety and depression being some of the most common ones. People usually think when you’re physically ill you need to be physically decrepit, but I actually think that [mental health] is a silent killer, and societally it’s something that widely affects women of colour.
I have had my own struggles with mental health and have personally used physical exercise to overcome them. Exercise was one thing that actually allowed me to get up and function daily.
You're seeking funding for community classes – why is this so crucial?
I think the important thing is not to alienate a community further. I mean, just yesterday, two guys walked through and they asked how much it was and I’m nervous because I’m conscious that I’m in an area where not everybody has the means. You’re not just talking about people who are struggling financially and who don’t have a job but also people in caring positions; nurses, teachers, doctors, people who are educating and looking after people. I don't want them to feel left out. So for me, having some sort of community focus is critical so we don’t alienate people further than we already have.
What needs to happen to make more women of colour feel like fitness is a space for them?
I think it's the retraining of our minds on how we view fitness. I’m yet to meet one person who, after they’ve done any form of exercise, says that they don’t have a level of endorphins that makes them feel happier and more alive. We need to start to educate people so this won’t just be about physical exercise. Educating people on the benefits is the best way to change the mindset on how to, and who does, exercise regularly.