BIPOC Women Who Lead

Chrissy King: Taking Up Space and Increasing Diversity in the Fitness Industry

A Black woman smiles at the camera while standing at a squat rack. The woman is Chrissy King.

Chrissy King describes herself as a writer, speaker, fitness and strength coach, and a powerlifter with a passion for intersectional feminism and creating a diverse and inclusive fitness industry. 

Like many others who have gone on a fitness journey, her first interest in the gym was for the purpose of losing weight. Along the way, she realized that working out was more than an activity to change her clothing size, it was a chance to celebrate what her body was truly capable of.

“I felt like a bad-ass when I was lifting weights,” she says.

And while she grew a sense of appreciation for her body that extended past a number on the scale, a different issue became clear: the lack of diversity in the space that she was growing to love. 

“I would go to these events and I wouldn’t see a lot of people that look like me, especially in terms of panels and speakers.”

Now, as a speaker for BodCon 2021, King—along with numerous other BIPOC speakers—represents the change that she advocates for every day.

As the creator of #BodyLiberationProject, she is a champion for wellness on a larger scale and unapologetically taking up space. For our Women Who Lead series, Chrissy King shares her journey to body liberation with Bay Street Bull and talks about the intersection of race and fitness, and why she doesn’t love the term “body positivity.”

Q&A

You started #BodyLiberationProject on Instagram and are a huge advocate for diversity and inclusion in the fitness space. To you, what does it mean to take up space?

For me, body liberation is a step beyond just body positivity or even body neutrality. It’s really about understanding that at our essence and our core, we’re more than our bodies. Our bodies are just the vessel that allows us to have this human experience.

We can spend so much time and energy focusing on shrinking our bodies or being smaller or trying to conform to societal standards, instead of using our energy to create the magic in this world that we were intended to do here. So when I think of taking up space, I think about it literally and figuratively. 

When I was deep into diet culture, I was constantly obsessed with getting smaller and physically taking up less space, because we live in a society that has very Eurocentric standards of beauty. I believed my worth and my value were better when I was smaller. I also think that transferred into taking up less space in work settings. As a Black woman, in the past, I was always cognizant of how I would show up. I didn’t want people to think I was an angry Black woman, so I would police myself and shrink myself to fit into societal standards. 

We need to feel comfortable in our bodies and take up more space in all areas of our lives because we deserve to be in these places. Whatever it is that we want to accomplish, we deserve to be there.

As a Black woman in the fitness industry, what was the journey like to transform your thoughts from wanting to be smaller to not being afraid to take up space? 

I entered the fitness industry like a lot of people: I just wanted to lose weight. I got a trainer and at our first session told her, “Make me skinny.” That was it. She took me over to the weight section and I was like, “What are we doing lifting weights? I want to be skinny.” She explained the benefits of strength training for fat loss, and long story short, I fell in love with strength training. 

I ended up powerlifting and it changed the way I felt about my body. I learned that strength is a skill, just like any other skill. It also helped me appreciate what my body can do. It wasn’t just about trying to make my body smaller and shrink. It was like, “Wow, my body is powerful. My body is strong. It’s very capable.” I felt like a bad-ass when I was lifting weights.

I loved strength training so much, I became a coach and a trainer myself. I started to go to more fitness events to immerse myself in the industry and that’s when I started to recognize how much of a diversity problem the fitness industry has. I would go to these events and I wouldn’t see a lot of people that look like me, especially in terms of panels and speakers.

In terms of my relationship with my body, I was so miserable with how obsessed I was with food and exercise that I decided to stop counting macros cold turkey. During a weekend getaway, when everyone was going out to dinner, I stayed in the car and ate my food from a Tupperware container and I was like, “This is so sad.” That was the breaking point for me. I realized it wasn’t coming from a place of trying to be healthy; I was just trying to control my body. 

I started talking about my own experience as a Black woman in an industry that you often see represented by thin white women. And other people said, “Oh yeah, I feel the same way.” Whether it was for having a larger body, a fat body, or for being Black or brown. All of those things led me to the direction of the work that I’m doing now

On Instagram, you’ve said that you were worried about putting your thoughts about the industry out there because of potential reaction. It ended up being well-received over the last three or so years. Have you seen a shift in the industry since you began talking openly about this? 

Yeah, I do think that I’ve seen a shift, which is exciting. When I wrote that first article, I was nervous about how it’d be received, and by and large, it was well-received. However, I didn’t see the industry as a whole addressing any of those topics. There were only pockets of people talking about anti-racism and diversity and inclusion in fitness. Since that time, with a lot of the things that happened this past summer, after the murder of George Floyd, I definitely saw a shift in the interest.

It wasn’t the first time racism happened, but it was the first time where I saw large numbers of people being willing to talk about it in ways that we haven’t seen—at least I haven’t seen before. I don’t know if it’s just because of the moment in time and history that we were in. And some of it, to be honest, was probably just performative in nature. Nonetheless, I did see more and more of the conversations coming to the forefront, which is the first step, right? I think there’s still a ton of work that needs to be done in all those areas, but I do see more people willing to have the conversations and at least start to understand and recognize the link between racism and other forms of oppression with our health.

With D&I being a huge topic across all industries, due to this past summer and the protests and at the forefront during Black History Month, what steps should companies be taking to make sure that they are making a real kind of impact and a real commitment to change and not just doing performative action?

After the events in June, so many companies did come to the forefront with statements around it—which I think is great. But I think it’s much more important to have actual tangible actions that you’re doing to back up the statements that you’re making—during Black History Month and just in general. Making a statement is important, but it’s also the easiest part. 

What are we actually going to do? Do we have different people represented? That’s the diversity. Then the inclusion part is, How do those people feel in this environment? Are they able to thrive? Are they able to be seen, celebrated, recognized, and respected? Do they feel like this environment was designed with them in mind, not as an afterthought?

What I would love to see, especially from companies that are trying to improve D&I, is to recognize that inclusion starts from the top down. Do you have diversity in your organization? Do people from all backgrounds feel comfortable in your work setting? Is there diversity at all levels of leadership? A lot of times when I’m having conversations with people and organizations who say they want to be more diverse and inclusive, the first thing I ask is, “What does your leadership team look like?”

That’s a really good way to know where you are in terms of diversity and inclusion.

On the other side of that coin, in terms of inclusivity and body liberation within the fitness industry, as you mentioned, historically, fitness has catered to thin white ideals. What steps do you want to see to make fitness and wellness not just mean “skinny?”

That’s a really important topic. I’m not a huge fan of the words “body positivity” and it’s not that I’m anti-body positivity. I think that the body positivity movement can be very focused on self-love, but I think it can miss a lot of the other intersections. If you live in a Black, trans body, your ability to love yourself and feel accepted within a society that places your identity on the margins is much more difficult. 

Yes, it’s important to love ourselves. It’s important to love the skin that we’re in. It’s important to accept and celebrate ourselves. But I also think deeper conversations have to be had about the intersection of white supremacy with diet culture and white supremacy with body positivity. 

We have to be having these bigger conversations about how the wellness industry prohibits some people from feeling safe and secure in their own skin and body. I think so many companies are trying to do a better job of representation in terms of marketing campaigns and all of that stuff is important. But I still think there’s a lot more work that we need to do in that area. 

We have to be talking about even how even within the body positivity space, it has been co-opted by many medium-sized white women. Women like, “Oh, I’ll have my cellulite, but I still love myself!” This is so much bigger than that. Body positivity was founded for the people that lived on the margins—outside of the ideal. But it’s kind of been co-opted by people who very much still fit into those ideal standards. 

Even, when you look at visuals companies that are using, it’s larger women but always in a Coke bottle shape—it’s a very specific type. So, we still have those underlying themes, even when we’re trying to change the narrative. I think there’s still so much to be done. 

Black and white photo of a Black woman with beautiful curly hair smiling at the camera.With those underlying themes, is that something that you were cognizant of at the beginning of your wellness journey, or have you learned that throughout the years? 

I did not know for a very long time about the like underlying intersection of diet culture and white supremacy and how fatphobia came to be a thing.* I had no idea about it at the beginning of my journey. It’s not surprising to me that a lot of people don’t know it, because these aren’t things that they teach us in school.

I think that at the beginning of my journey, I was cognizant of the lack of diversity inclusion, but that’s because I live in an identity that is not the mainstream or the norm.

If you live on the margins, those are easy for you to pick up on because you’re used to those things happening. I think for people who are a part of the dominant culture, it’s really important to do that work because if it’s not something that you experienced, that’s not your perception of the world. There are things that you may never even notice or think about because you don’t have to think about them. 

**King recommends Fearing the Black Body:  The Racial Origins of Fatphobia by Sabrina Strings to learn more about the history and link between racism and fatphobia.

And now that you have a bigger platform to share all of the stuff that you’ve learned throughout the years, what is your overall goal for when you’re posting or sharing your content or your voice to your audience?

I hope that I’m giving people information to start to think about these things. I think especially within the confines of social media, like Instagram, you only have so much space to get your message out there. I write for a bunch of platforms, and even then, with 1200 words, you can only get so out there. I hope that I’m helping people to think about these things differently and to give them a point of reference, like, “Oh yeah. I never thought about that.”

I think for the fitness industry and the wellness industry, that hasn’t been a conversation for so long that a lot of people don’t understand how these things are connected. My goal is always to help people think about these things differently, and hopefully give them some resources or point them in a direction to continue the education on their own. 

In terms of diet culture, and body liberation in general, I like the term body liberation because it’s freedom, right? I want people to experience that freedom in their lifetime. I know how deeply invested in shrinking in my own body I was and how draining that was mentally and emotionally and physically. Since I’ve been able to make that shift for myself, I’ve been able to use that energy to create so many other things. And I want other people to be able to have that same experience.

With every new year, there are always “new year, new me,” fitness goals. What do you think people should keep in mind to move forward with the mindset of body liberation instead of just counting the scale or making those weight-based goals?

When I think of health and wellness or fitness goals, I encourage people to not make it about weight or the scale or anything like that. How do you want to feel in your body? Do you want to have more energy? Do you want to feel more nourished? 

Start thinking about those things and what activities that you can do to support them. As a person who’s been through this by myself, losing weight doesn’t mean you’re going to feel better. It doesn’t mean they’re going to feel healthier. It doesn’t mean that you are healthier. It just means that you lost weight, that you weigh less.

For so long, we’ve thought about exercise as something that’s a punishment for our bodies or something that we do to change our bodies or maintain or shrink. It’s about reframing that narrative and thinking “How can I move?” Because movement feels good! What movement do you want to engage in that will make you feel better and energized? Maybe that’s just taking a walk. Maybe that’s doing yoga. Maybe that’s dancing in your room. Maybe that is strength training or going to the gym. Think of it as things that you enjoy and try and incorporate into your everyday life. That will help with your physical health and mental health, and also your emotional health and your overall wellbeing.

You can hear Chrissy King continue the conversation on body confidence and fitness at BodCon on Feb. 21, 2021. The one-day virtual live event aims to change the way we view our bodies. Purchase tickets here.

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