When I walk in to a gym I never see myself. The same can be said about when I go anywhere nutrition or fitness related. While my current geographical location (Western Massachusetts) influences my experiences, the pattern of being one of few or the only Black, queer and/or fat persons in a given space is a pattern I observed my whole life. I have lost count of the times I have been stared at as I walk into a yoga studio and except for maybe 3 to 5 times in my life all of my fitness instructors and nutrition specialists do not resemble the body or social identities that are most salient to me.
The microaggressions by White, cisgender and often heterosexual instructors remain ever-present in my memory. I remember yoga instructors trying to force my body into positions without consideration of my large hips, breasts or stomach. I remember male personal trainers suggesting I lose weight as a solution to mobility problems—with the added bonus of being more attractive to my assumed boyfriend or husband. I remember nutrition experts suggesting I ban foods associated with my African-American and Creole heritage in order to achieve optimal health. Lastly I remember the numerous times instructors and health providers concluded that my larger body was synonymous with being out of shape or on the verge of diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea.
I’d be lying if I said that these exchanges weren’t hurtful. They were and are. And I also must confess I missed a bunch of workouts and opportunities just so I could avoid these microaggressions. For a long time I waited and hoped to see myself at the gym, nutrition seminars, yoga retreats, etc. and quickly feel disappointed and alone when I don’t. Sometimes I’d see parts of myself. I befriended the few Black athletes at my Crossfit box and made it a point to meet and ride with the other black woman cyclist in my town (a side note to mention that people confused us constantly despite our different skin tones, gender expressions and 15 year age difference). While I had attended a women of color yoga retreat some years before, it was not until I attended the Trifecta Tribe’s (http://thetrifectatribe.com) first self-care retreat that I FULLY saw myself. Looking up and seeming someone who resembled my body and social identities alone was incredibly affirming. What took the experience to the next level and motivated me to pursue coaching was the way the instructor referred to our collective bodies (regardless of size, shape, color, gender expression, etc.) as having “all that goodness.” That one phrase acknowledged and affirmed all that I am while connected the women in the space on a shared healing of previous hurt, judgement and aggression toward our bodies and selves. At that moment I knew I would no longer wait to see myself. I would bring myself into whatever fitness or nutrition space I entered. I also decided that I would BE that person so many Black, queer and/or fat people hoped to see.
“Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.” -Combahee River Collective Statement
“As a Black Woman, exercising is about so much more than losing weight. Making dietary changes means more to me than dropping a few pounds. Becoming health-conscious is me learning to love myself. Working on my fitness is putting that love into action. In many ways, this is subversive and revolutionary. I refuse to appease the world by killing myself slowly. I plan on doing whatever is necessary so that this Black Woman’s body, however fat or fit it may be, takes up as much space for as long as possible. ” -Michelle Denise Jackson
The above quotes capture my philosophy social justice educator and now as health coach. I learned as a college student and early as a practitioner that in order for me to facilitate change on college campuses, I had to first take care of myself and second encourage others, especially those of minoritized identities, to prioritize their health. As I often ask my students and colleagues, sure you are doing the work now, but don’t you want to LIVE to experience it? To me reclaiming one’s health as minoritized person is an act of resistance. Historical and contemporary instances of people being denied access to health care, having limited access to foods and receiving negative social messages about their bodies based on race, social class, gender, sexuality, ability, size, religion, etc. has been physically and emotionally damaging. So often we focus on tangible actions steps such as teaching, protesting, dialoging, etc. that we sometimes forget that the very act of living, being visible in and of itself is resistance. This sentiment particularly resonates me today where I daily read about the violence incarceration and tragic killings of too many Black lives.
The very essence of me as a health coach is subversive and challenges the cultural and institutional foundation of health and wellness dominated by White, cisgender, heterosexual and “socially appropriate” physiques. As a full-bodied queer woman of color it is vital that I prioritize my health so I can not only continue my work as a social justice educator but also support others in their journey as well. While it is certainly possible for minoritized folks to achieve these goals, it is my sole hope that simply seeing someone that resembles themselves will make their journey toward health, social change and internal peace a bit smoother.
Andrea Dre Domingue, Ed.D. is scholar-practitioner that focuses on minoritized college student advocacy, critical pedagogy, college student development and leadership. Currently she is a visiting faculty member at Westfield State University and the Chair-Elect for ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators. Dre is an athlete, nutrition coach and self-care guru who strives to make healthy living easy to incorporate, accessible and most importantly enjoyable.
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