At the end of September, Peloton announced its latest lineup of instructors—something they've done numerous times before. But this time, one of those instructors got a lot of extra attention. Soon after the initial social posts, Peloton’s newest rowing instructor, Ash Pryor, spoke up about what she called an "overwhelming" number of “disgusting fat-shaming comments” directed at her in response to the news.
As a fitness instructor who knows firsthand what it's like to have people judge your aptitude based on your appearance, I know that the implications of this are immense—and affects fitness as a whole. Because even though this happened to Pryor on a global stage, this type of harassment is unfortunately common at all levels, from national gym chains to local fitness studios.
Let me start by saying the fitness industry has a long, shameful history of weight bias and anti-fat sentiments—which is ironic when our job as fitness professionals is to encourage a healthy lifestyle in people from all walks of life. Who and what inspires and motivates a person will be unique to each individual, so it’s essential that we are inclusive in fitness leadership in every way, including size, age, gender, and race.
When people in the industry and casual fitness enthusiasts fat-shame people who don’t match their ideal “fit” body type, it has a ripple effect: People think that fitness has to look at certain way, which means folks who don’t look that way aren’t as comfortable joining a gym or working with a trainer, and this means less fat people will pursue this as a profession, which means the cycle begins again.
While much of the fat-shaming well-known instructors like Ash receive comes passively from anonymous trolls on the internet, it can also be overt and come from clients, gym owners, and management.
While there are laws in place in the US to protect people against a variety of types of discrimination at work, weight is not a protected category in most states. In the fitness industry, this kind of discrimination in hiring is all too common.
In 2020, I began developing education for trainers and gym owners to make them more aware of how unconscious anti-fat bias can look, and more empathetic of the way fat people and trainers are treated at the gym and by the industry at large. When creating the size-inclusive training curriculum, I interviewed a number of larger-bodied fitness leaders. Their stories were strikingly similar:
“Because of the size of my body, I am not found as credible and I am treated as some kind of comedy act and overlooked for opportunities.” —Becky Scott, Level 3 Exercise Referral and Level 2 Exercise to Music Instructor, MissFits Workout, United Kingdom
“When I was hired by these chain gyms, I found I was the only BIPOC, older, larger trainer…my classes were always packed because I was relating to [my clients], but I was the only one on staff who looked like me.” —Jacinta DeCohen, ACE Certified Personal Trainer, AgapeFit, USA
“My biggest frustration working in the fitness industry is the fact that nobody takes me seriously. I bring a safeness for people to walk through the door that other trainers of small size just don’t.” —Wendy Welsher, AFAA Certified Personal Trainer, My Jamm Personal Training, USA
The implications of fat-shaming aimed at instructors are bigger than they may seem at first glance. It results in an industry that continues to uphold one look and one version of health, and excludes countless people from accessing fitness. Below, I’ve outlined four of the most pressing problems that result from fat-shaming instructors.
1. It reinforces harmful stereotypes that fatness can’t coincide with fitness and health.
A lot of people still believe that all fat people are unhealthy, but this simply isn’t true. As SELF has previously reported, neither BMI nor weight are great indicators of a person’s health . And in a review published in iScience in 2021, researchers wrote that shifting the focus from weight loss toward increasing physical activity and improving cardiorespiratory fitness can actually lead to bigger reductions in mortality risk than intentional weight loss does. But there’s still a pervasive attitude—in the fitness industry and in the culture more broadly—that thin people are healthy and fat people are not.
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Pryor presumably has the strength and stamina necessary to lead a Peloton rowing class—otherwise the company wouldn’t have hired her—so it shouldn’t matter what size she is, how she looks, or whether she meets some person on Facebook’s definition of “healthy.” If you assume a fat trainer can’t offer a great workout, that’s a You Problem.
2. It creates a systemic imbalance in career opportunities for fat people.
Fat-shaming keeps larger-bodied people who are interested in fitness from pursuing it—which effectively keeps them from growing into leadership positions where real change could be made. Additionally—and I know this firsthand—as trainers go through the certifying process, their textbooks will offer tons of lessons about the so-called obesity epidemic and the alleged problems associated with fatness. So even before a fat trainer has found a job, they’re already being told they don’t belong. From the start of their education, they are repeatedly reminded that they possess the wrong body type for this career. This creates feelings of shame, anger, and angst for individuals pursuing this work. And unfortunately, I have spoken with many larger-bodied people who actually never went into the field due to a reasonable fear of rejection.
Anti-fatness is woven through our education systems and continues in work environments, ultimately resulting in weight discrimination and imbalanced career opportunities.
3. It excludes people who might otherwise participate in fitness activities.
When there aren’t many instructors who look like them, larger-bodied exercisers might not realize there is a place for them in fitness. We know representation matters in every industry and every space. Seeing others who look like you can be inspiring and downright empowering—planting a seed of opportunity where there had previously been doubt. For people who are constantly told—implicitly and explicitly—what they are not capable of, seeing someone who looks like you run a 5K, lead a class, powerlift a barbell, or twirl centerstage can be extremely powerful. Without that representation, we only further alienate those who might already not be participating.
Exercise is well-documented as one of the most positive ways to improve mental health and wellness, but when we exclude or diminish certain groups, we continue to make it even more challenging for marginalized folks to enter fitness spaces.
4. Anti-fatness can be rooted in anti-Blackness and has racist undertones.
As a Black woman, Ash Pryor is extra vulnerable to negativity and harassment. And it’s worth noting that a lot of anti-fat sentiment is rooted in anti-Blackness, as Sabrina Strings outlines in her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia . In it, Strings offers exceptionally wide-ranging evidence that modern anti-fat sentiments in the US began as far back as colonization and the slave trade. Strings discussed this further in a 2020 interview with NPR , explaining how 19th century magazines advised middle- and upper-class American white women that they needed to watch what they eat. "They were unapologetic in stating that this was the proper form for Anglo-Saxon Protestant women," Strings said. "And so it was important that women ate as little as was necessary in order to show their Christian nature and also their racial superiority." And these underlying attitudes are still with us. "Today, when people talk about [fat-phobia], they often claim that they don't intend to be anti-Black," Strings told CBS News . "They don't intend all of these negative associations, and yet they exist already, so whenever people start trafficking in fat-phobia, they are inherently picking up on these historical forms of oppression."
Devaluing anyone based on their race or size is unacceptable and has no place at work—or anywhere. If our goal as an industry—and as humans in general—is to help people discover the life-changing joy of physical activity and fitness, then we need to really unpack our own weight biases, and make fat-shaming and anti-fat attitudes unacceptable.