A new wave of fearless plus-size female athletes are reclaiming space and visibility within the fitness world, refuting the hurtful misconceptions and stereotypes that hold so many women back from pursuing a more active life.
“I believe in athletic lifestyle, but it doesn’t come with a specific body shape or size, ” says Krista Henderson, the Toronto-based multi-sport award-winning athlete and founder of Born To Reign Athletics, a website to motivate and celebrate fellow plus-size women in fitness and sports.
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Having stepped into the athletic world in 2004 with the main purpose of losing weight, Henderson’s approach to exercise soon radically changed, thanks to a powerful encouragement from a trainer.
“He said to shift my focus from diet and weight loss to training like an athlete, ” she recalls. And that “Train Like an Athlete” motto stuck, becoming the credo that would push her to get into triathlon and races, and to also qualify as a coach and personal trainer.
Since then – before blogging became popular, and Facebook or Twitter even existed – Henderson has been sharing her experience through her website, to inspire more women like her and help reshape the public perception of what an athlete “should” look like.
“What it came down to was that my size and my shape were not a barrier to me being active and being an athlete, ” she says, opposing such an empowering realization to the uncomfortable feeling that plus-size women often experience, as if they need to “fix themselves” before being able to achieve anything. When they don’t.
Although Henderson clarifies that there is nothing wrong with having a weight loss goal in mind when exercising, she thinks it would be better served as a consequence of focusing on all other healthy behaviors. As she puts it, “It needs to come from a place of love and nurture.”
Similar advice on the matter comes from Louise Green, plus-size athlete, trainer, advocate and author of the upcoming book “Limitless, Body Love and Athleticism, Plus Size.”
As the founder and CEO of Body Exchange, a fitness company exclusively for a plus-size clientele with several locations throughout Canada, Green offers training programs that motivate people to find their highest athletic potential, within a body-positive and supportive environment that doesn’t push weight loss.
“If you lose weight, great, if not, great too but it can no longer be the focus because it traps people, ” she explains, pointing out that her purpose is to show clients a way to step out of the unhelpful weight-loss cycle and enable them to lead an active and healthy lifestyle every day.
Green calls attention to the fact that larger people have to constantly deal with demotivating bias and misconceptions, pointing out: “Most often we are automatically assumed unhealthy and unfit without knowing anything about our lifestyle habits, athletic abilities or our medical health conditions.”
That comes paired together with an evident under-representation of plus-size athletes in media and advertising, creating a big hurdle for many people to rise above and hit the gym, she says.
“When we can’t see ourselves and our body type it becomes an unspoken message of exclusion, ” Green remarks. “Lack of representation creates fear because there is an element of unknown because we don’t see people of size working out successfully, really anywhere.”
As she clearly illustrates, lack of diversity in media and marketing campaigns means plus-size exercisers are excluded from the public visual landscape. That perpetuates the idea of athletic larger people being an “anomaly and abnormality, ” fueling a feeling of misplacement within and toward them.
Indeed, images like the latest Women’s Running magazine’s cover featuring plus-size model Erica Schenk remain a rarity, and yet they are more and more necessary within an industry that needs to be more open and inclusive.
On her Born To Reign Athletics website, Henderson started a monthly feature dedicated to the inspirational stories of other plus-size athletes, in an attempt to counteract the flat narratives presented by mainstream media. “They only show plus-size athletes as part of a before-and-after article…but that is not the only story and it is not the full story, ” she says.
There is no doubt that a transition to becoming an athlete – for anyone, but probably even more so for a plus-size person – means entering unknown territory. And, naturally, looking for guidance and support.
“It can be such a huge anxiety to reach out and ask and not feel like they’re going to be judged for who they are and look like, ” says Henderson. She urges people to look for the right coaching figure: “There are people out there who are body positive trainers, coaches and groups. You just need to find the right one to fit you and your goals, your life and your values.”
And along with psychological deterrents, there are also practical issues to be tackled, when it comes to facilitating plus-size people to exercise.
First of all, the lack of access to athletic clothing for larger women.
“Women, when they enter a fitness class, or if they are at the gym or at a bootcamp, they want to feel they are part of it, and part of that is having the right clothes to perform, ” Henderson explains. Indeed, no one wants to be sweating in uncomfortable, heavy cotton gear, and she adds: “Moisture-wicking performance athletic wear, that is what women of all sizes and shapes deserve.”
And they do.
San Francisco-based yoga devotee Valerie Sagun, aka Big Gal Yoga, has been sharing pictures of her practice progress online for the past three years, gaining an Instagram following of 55, 000.
Defying the unrealistic stereotype of the blonde, skinny yogini, Segun stands against the assumption that only certain body types are allowed to practice a given sport.
“It’s mostly trying to find a way to adjust your body differently and understand how it moves and work with that, ” she explains.
Still, she finds the size limitations of the current sports apparel market discouraging.
“There’s a lot of leggings out there right now and all are so beautiful, but a lot of them only go up to a Large size, ” she observes. And it’s even worse with tops and bras.
Over the years, Sagun has been promoting and working with many small sportswear businesses catering for bigger people. One of the companies she promotes is Fractal 9, which creates made-to-order activewear ranging from a size XS to a 5XL.
Christine Ravel, the owner of Fractal 9, is a yoga enthusiast from Colorado with over two decades of experience in making apparel. She is rightly proud of her inclusive collection: “It doesn’t matter what size a woman is, when she works out she wants to look good! That shouldn’t be limited to certain size women.”
A call for diversity remains key, and the Internet is probably the quickest and easiest channel to take advantage of, to resonate that. But it can be scary.
Harassment and abuse are issues concerning women across races, ages and professions, although more niche communities may feel sheltered by lower exposure.
In Sagun case’s, she says she has only received positive feedback, mostly from people who are inspired by her example: “Actually, it was all very positive on Tumblr [the platform where she started posting her yoga pictures first], it was in its bubble of protection from other people.”
Athlete Krista Henderson also says she has been quite fortunate regarding her experience with the Internet, but she warns: “It happens, and it doesn’t need to happen online. You still hear from women who are in gyms and some trainers that are disrespectful and condescending, and you can tell they come from a place of wanting to shame somebody.”
She counsels that this is not acceptable behavior and, as such, it shouldn’t be tolerated: “You need to ignore it and call somebody on it, if they’re being rude to you. Step away and that person is not allowed to be in your life.”
Exercising is a form of self-nurture, and any self-care should be inclusive and accessible. Body shaming and other discriminatory behaviours mostly stem from ignorance or bigotry.
But there are women – these women – who are paving the way toward more body-positive times. They speak a language of gentle acceptance but also powerful determination, setting an example of body-confidence that doesn’t preach but shows, unapologetically ignoring our society’s ridiculous beauty standards and obsession with thinness.