02 fitness diversity inclusion wellness

Editor’s Note: Lisa Respers France is a senior writer for CNN’s entertainment team and author of CNN’s Pop Life Chronicles newsletter.

CNN  — 

As an obese Black woman, I have waged my personal “battle of the bulge” for years.

I even wrote “A Fat Girl Gets Naked” about my body issues for CNN in 2014.

The struggle was never more real than when the pandemic shut the world down last year.

If my social butterfly self had to stay in the house, I was absolutely going to enjoy some snacks, plenty of restaurant food delivery and anything else I darn well pleased. Enjoy I did until a major bout of acid reflux put a halt to my fried fish taco frolicking and nacho chip dreams.

Suddenly I was having to restrict my diet severely to not feel so crappy. Couple that with increased dog walks for our pooch just to get out the house – and lo and behold, the weight started coming off.

I felt better and decided to become more intentional with my diet and exercise. This was when I realized the benefits of being able to join an online class or stream a workout.

Gyms and workout classes weren’t always welcoming

Lisa France started walking her dog more often so they could both get out of the house.

In the past, I didn’t feel comfortable going to a yoga or Pilates class or even walking on a treadmill in public.

It wasn’t just because of my weight. I often didn’t see people who looked like me, and I didn’t always feel welcomed in some gyms.

I talked to Rachael Bankins, a certified yoga instructor and wellness coach, who told me she got into fitness after feeling “vulnerable when going into spaces where I don’t see myself.”

“That’s why I got into yoga, not just for the mind, health and spiritual aspect, but for having it accessible to everybody,” said Bankins, the owner of Curly Q Yoga in Baltimore. “Accessible for everybody’s bodies – no matter what size, what skin tone, what capabilities that you have.

“I definitely try to reach out to the underserved communities in my area,” she said.

‘The only brown face in a sea of white’

Bankins joins a growing group of Black professionals trying to make the fitness space more welcoming a diverse clientele.

Fitness and wellness influences of color including Latoya Shauntay Snell, Cassey Ho and Yami Mufdi are helping to push diversity and inclusion to communities that have sometimes been overlooked and underserved.

“To be a Black professional in the boutique fitness world is to be accustomed to being the only brown face in a sea of white,” wrote Rozalynn S. Frazier in a 2020 piece for Self magazine about being Black in the fitness world.

“That kind of exclusion seems almost by design and certainly doesn’t only affect people of color,” Frazier wrote. “With classes hovering at $40 in some cities, and spaces not designed to welcome anyone but the able-bodied, the boutique fitness space just doesn’t seem to be made for people who don’t fit a certain mold.”

Bankins said it’s about more than body image. That’s why she works diligently to not only educate people about nutrition, exercise and meditation but also teaches how self-care helps people overcome the trauma that can be living as a person of color in this world.

Breaking down the fitness myths

Lisa's dog benefited from the extra walks, too.

Helping people to see beyond the beliefs that they are predisposed to being a certain size, won’t be able to touch their toes because they are too big, or can’t wear certain outfits because of weight has been a challenge, she said.

She sees her work as helping them release their limiting beliefs and “helping them reinvent themselves, helping them to be a better person, to be the best person that they can be in their, in their world and their family and with their children,” she said.

“I think every time they come back to their mat in my class is a different experience for them. It’s a next and another step in their journey to self discovery, to transformation and to healing.”

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Change doesn’t come easily, but after a year that saw my father, my uncle and loved ones lose their lives to Covid-19, I am grateful to still be here to have the opportunity to transform.

I’m even happier that in what has been an enormously trying year, I was able to find a safe space to pursue it.

When I’m ready to hit the gym, I expect to see more diversity. And I will be part of it.