If the backlash to Nike's new plus-size campaign has taught us anything, it's that we still have a long way to go toward making fitness a welcoming place.
"[Plus size women] feel like fitness isn't for them — that they’re not invited and that they're not capable," says Louise Green, founder of plus-size fitness company Body Exchange and author of the upcoming Big Girl Fit: Embrace the Body You Have. "But rightly so, given the messages that we are presented with every day. We don’t see [diversity of sizes in fitness]. And it creates this myth that fitness isn’t approachable, because we can’t see ourselves."
Fixing the problem, she says, starts with increasing visibility. "When we can’t see ourselves, it creates this unknown, and then barriers and fear around fitness," she explains. Here, we talked to Green about her own fitness journey and how the fitness industry can be made truly inclusive.
What inspired you to pursue fitness?
"When I was 29, I decided that I wanted to finally get healthy. I had been living this party lifestyle, so I decided on yet another attempt to lose weight that I was going to join a running group. When I arrived at the group, I was terrified, because I was bigger than everyone else. I was worried I was going to get left behind or they were going to think I didn't belong.
"To my surprise, our run leader introduced herself, and she was a plus-sized woman. It was literally first time I had seen a woman of size in fitness leadership or as a runner — it was a total surprise to me. I worked with her for 12 weeks, and over that time, she really encouraged us to live to our highest athletic potential.
"There was never any 'Bikini season's coming!' or 'If you run this far, you're expending this many calories!' There was none of that, and it was a completely different approach to fitness for me. It really inspired me because I thought, Maybe I don’t have to be battling my weight and counting calories and obsessing all the time. Maybe I can be like her and live my athletic dreams in this body right now."
What have you learned about your body from your fitness journey?
"First and foremost, it taught me that my body is extremely powerful. It is capable of amazing things, and it has more value than aesthetics. That was the biggest shift for me — I was chronically trying to look better, and now it's more about athletic achievement, feeling my own physical power, building body-confidence, and self-esteem."
What does it feel like to train other plus-size women?
"It feels incredible, because I had such a profound shift. It really feels fantastic to share my experience with other women, because many, many women who come to me are still hating themselves, hating their bodies, and they want to lose weight. It's really cool to watch them have that same shift that I had and just tap into their athletic power. Then all that other aesthetic, weight-loss stuff becomes secondary."
What advice would you give someone who doesn't feel welcomed by the fitness industry?
"The biggest piece of advice is to seek out the right support like I had with my running coach — somebody that really resonated with my version of health. In my book, I talk about how to find those people. [That means] becoming the CEO of your body, and interviewing and vetting people like any CEO would. When you have the right coaching and support, you can navigate through these difficult situations."