Illustrations: Maria Chimishkyan

Can the Fitness Industry and Body Positivity Coexist?

There’s a movement outside of gyms to make fitness a safe space. Whether the industry will ever fully embrace body positivity remains an open question.

Virginia Sole-Smith
Published in
16 min readJan 15, 2020

TThere is one particular video in the Underbelly, the app by body-positivity advocate and yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley, that I do almost every week. It’s a 36-minute workout of sun salutations that builds up to a yoga posture popularly known as Wild Thing, where you teeter somewhere between a side plank and a backbend. It’s a hard workout that makes me feel badass, but my favorite part — and the reason I repeat the video so often — is right at the beginning, when Jessamyn tells me to go into a “wide-legged” Child pose, with my heels together and knees spread apart. “I love to just make space for my body,” Stanley says as she settles luxuriously into the pose. “I feel like even if you don’t have a belly, it’s nice to just — ” Then she interrupts herself. “Well, everybody has a belly. Well, I guess not every body. #AllBodies.” She laughs and resumes the point: “Even if you are smaller-bodied, it can be nice to just take up space. We spend so much of our lives making ourselves small. So make yourself big and vast.

Every time I hear this, I flash back to the many million yoga, barre, and Pilates classes I’ve taken all over New York City where I never once heard anyone suggest that I allow myself to be big or vast. In mainstream group fitness classes, weight loss is a holy war and your belly is the infidel. It is to be confined, controlled, and dominated, not coddled or indulged with warm-and-fuzzy concepts like personal space. The core must be engaged, from pubic bone to sternum, the lower abs scooped in until the belly button presses against the spine. “Imagine that you’re putting on your tightest skinny jeans straight out of the dryer,” one Pilates teacher used to say. Everyone in the class was instructed to keep their abdominal muscles clenched while placing our hands on either side of our rib cages to do what she called “rib cage breathing.” We couldn’t breathe into our bellies, because that would expand them.