Prefer to watch? Join me and Kel Haines, a bodybuilder, personal trainer, and trans man working hard to help LGBTQIA+ folks navigate the challenges of a cisgender-dominated fitness world. We discuss Kel’s journey and how he and others are creating a more inclusive space in fitness, as well as, providing guidance, resources, and encouragement for the under-served LGBTQIA+ community.
If you’re looking for an inclusive personal trainer you can learn more about Kel and his projects below:
The fitness industry is a heavily gendered environment, and many gyms, fitness classes, and fitness-related activities are segregated by gender. This can be a difficult and challenging situation for trans* folx, as they may feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in these spaces. Furthermore, gender-expansive individuals may be subjected to discrimination, harassment, and ridicule if they don’t fit the binary of the fitness culture.
What Is Toxic Fitness Culture
At its core, toxic fitness culture is characterized by an obsession with “perfect” bodies, a focus on achieving physical perfection, and a disregard for the physical and mental health of individuals. This culture is often accompanied by a “win-at-all-costs” mentality that leads to extreme dieting in order to achieve the perfect “bikini body,” over-exercising, and a refusal to acknowledge when someone needs help.
The transgender, non-binary, intersex (TGNBI) community is particularly vulnerable to the dangers of toxic fitness culture and the endless chase of a fit body. Despite the fact that the fitness industry is slowly becoming more inclusive, many trans* individuals still find themselves excluded or treated differently. In many cases, they are subjected to bullying, degrading comments, and even physical violence.
It can be especially difficult for TGNBI folx to find a place of acceptance in the fitness world, as they may feel as if they don’t fit in or don’t measure up to the standards of those around them. As a result, many feel unable to participate in activities or seek out a fitness community that they feel they can trust.
The Challenges Trans* Folx Face in the Gym Go Beyond Reps
The idea that someone has to look or perform a certain way in order to be healthy is not only misguided but also detrimental to one’s mental health. This type of thinking creates an environment where being less than “perfect” is unacceptable. Moreover, it perpetuates feelings of worthlessness among those who are unable to achieve these impossible standards and body ideals, resulting in lower self-esteem and overall dissatisfaction with their lives.
Trans* individuals are often even more vulnerable to the negative messages that can be so pervasive in the fitness industry. Discrimination, harassment, and exclusion are all too common in gyms and fitness centers, which can be discouraging and even dangerous for transgender, non-binary, and intersex individuals. Trans* individuals may be subjected to verbal abuse, physical violence, or exclusion from fitness spaces. They may be misgendered, called derogatory names, or ridiculed for their appearance or gender identity. These experiences can be incredibly traumatic and can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Another challenge that trans* individuals face in fitness spaces is the lack of gender-neutral facilities
Inclusive Fitness Is a Multifaceted Approach
Creating a more inclusive fitness culture requires eliminating these damaging stigmas and making sure everyone has equal opportunities to train. It means celebrating all levels of achievement, whether someone is striving for professional success or just trying to stay healthy and fit. Fitness communities should aim to inspire members by highlighting what they’re capable of achieving with dedication and hard work instead of contrasting it against others’ accomplishments.
Fitness should be about positivity and community while acknowledging that we are all different, yet we all want the same thing: to love ourselves just as we are. Transgender, non-binary, and intersex folx need to have a space where they can nurture their sense of self-worth and improve their physical and mental health. Why can’t it be their local health club or fitness center?
Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Fitness Environment
Creating a more inclusive fitness culture for the trans* community, and other LGBTQ+ minorities is an important step in fostering a safe and welcoming environment for all. While there are no hard and fast rules on how to create this kind of culture, there are a few key steps that can help create a more inclusive space.
Put an end to the culture of healthism.
Healthism is “an ideology that promotes the idea that good health is directly correlated with certain behaviors, attitudes, and practices.” It has become a popular term to describe the pressure that people feel to be healthy – and often, it is those who are most marginalized in society who face this pressure the most. Understand that exercising is a personal choice, and everyone can choose their movement practice according to their own limitations. And, no, they shouldn’t try harder to overcome their limits, and they shouldn’t focus all their energy on getting to be “the best version of themselves.” Sometimes, the best version of ourselves is just admitting we have limits. Promote a culture of “enjoying movement” regardless of size, gender, and health status.
Do not try to fix people.
People are not objects. Thus, people can’t be broken. Fitness should not be considered a way of fixing broken bodies. Fitness should create an inclusive environment where everyone can find joy in movement. Exercise should not be considered a healthy alternative to medication. It shouldn’t come with the pressure of getting better. It should come with the joy of being free to move and, most importantly, being human. Transgender, non-binary, and intersex individuals would benefit greatly from this culture of being allowed to be exactly who they are while learning to move safely and securely in their own body.
Understand the layers of oppression.
Unless you are part of the trans* community, it’s hard to understand the layers of oppression this community has to endure. Even when going to fitness gyms! From the risk of simply using a locker room or going to the bathroom to being denied the opportunity to compete in the division of the gender with which they identify, trans* individuals have to constantly be ready to face discrimination, emotional distress, and unfair treatment. Educate yourself and discuss the issues with your fitness professionals and facility staff. Avoid using binary language such as “ladies” or “gentlemen,” which suggests there are only two genders available, as this can be alienating for many. Instead, opt for gender-neutral terms such as “everyone” or “folx” whenever possible. You must allow trans* folx to have the same rights as everyone else at your gym and pave the way for gender-expansive fitness trainers, coaches, and athletes.
Make gender-neutral spaces.
Gender-neutral spaces are no longer a novelty; they are becoming increasingly popular in the fitness industry and available in more and more health centers. As people strive to create more inclusive fitness cultures and embrace body diversity, gender-neutral spaces have become an essential part of that process. This can include making sure that there are gender-neutral restrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas. Gender-neutral spaces can be created in any gym by removing any gendered language from signage or making sure the facility has gender-neutral bathrooms. Additionally, creating a space where all individuals feel comfortable participating without fear of judgment or discrimination is key when creating a safe and nurturing environment for all members.
Respect everyone’s gender identity
Everyone should be given the freedom to express their own gender identity without fear of discrimination or ridicule. Respect for different genders helps foster a community where individuals feel welcomed, accepted, and appreciated for who they are. This means using the pronouns and name that an individual identifies with and not making assumptions about someone’s gender identity. Additionally, it is important to be aware of the language used when interacting with trans* folx.
Accept that you don’t know better.
We all know our bodies better than anyone else, and no one can ever tell us what our bodies can and cannot do. There is no way one can understand someone else’s lived experience, and this is not up for debate. You can read a thousand books and collect hundreds of degrees, but you will never know someone’s body better than they know it. It’s just common sense. Do not invalidate people’s experiences
Promote a culture of self-care.
Competition should not be the final goal when training. It shouldn’t chew up a person’s self-worth and convince them they have no value unless they meet set expectations. Going to the gym should be about finding a spirit of community in group settings and bodily autonomy and not about harmful norms. Rest should be part of the fitness culture and promoted not as a reward after hard work but as an essential part of self-care. People should be able to listen to their body cues and not feel guilty about pausing or deciding to rest instead of trying to “overcome their limits” and “reach their potential.” Fitness centers should be about promoting a long-term relationship with body movement and not a dreadful must-do on our way to becoming stronger and better.
Practice active listening while respecting privacy.
No one expects you to know everything about every minority or community out there. But you can learn to be curious and actively listen to feedback. Take the time to talk to the trans* folx who train in your fitness center and allow them to share their experience with you. It’s important to also respect people’s rights to privacy as well. Do not force trans* folx to educate you. Communication is vital for removing barriers and creating an inclusive fitness culture.
Finally, creating an inclusive fitness environment for transgender, non-binary, and intersex folx requires providing resources and support. Consider offering a list of local organizations and resources for the trans* community, such as mental health professionals, medical professionals, and support groups. Additionally, providing a safe space where gender-diverse individuals can discuss their experiences in the gym environment can be beneficial.
Transgender, non-binary, and intersex folx often feel a sense of alienation in the fitness world. This can include everything from verbal harassment to being denied access to certain facilities. Too often, trans* individuals feel like they have to hide their identity or risk being ostracized. Many report feeling unsafe in gyms or fitness centers and may choose to avoid them altogether.
By promoting an inclusive atmosphere and having a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination and harassment, providing resources and support to the trans* community, and having an open dialogue about current concerns and stressors the trans* community is experiencing, you create a culture of respect and acceptance in the fitness setting and recognize and celebrate the lived experience of trans folx.