What Does Decolonizing Fitness Mean?

Posted by Ilya Parker on

I want to lift up the voices of Indigenous folks and Black people before I share my thoughts. Here are some very important quotes I'd like to highlight:

"Can we lovingly (but firmly) have a conversation about decolonization? Unfortunately, variations of this important term are being treated like a buzzword in certain communities on this continent. However, something needs to be understood.

Unless your organization/movement makes Indigenous sovereignty and the destruction of America one of your main platforms, YOU ARE NOT DECOLONIZING ANYTHING. If you’re in Africa, and your movement/organization doesn’t have Black African sovereignty as a main part of your platform, YOU ARE NOT DECOLONIZING ANYTHING.

Decolonization isn’t just de-centering Western standards. It isn’t just believing in your heart that BIPOC life has value. It isn’t Indigenous feminism. It isn’t Black capitalism. It isn’t Asian anti-gentrification efforts. It is the recognition of unconditional sovereignty and the surrendering of all resources and lands on this continent into the control of Indigenous people. It is the recognition of unconditional sovereignty over all African lands and surrender of all resources on the continent into the hands of the Black people of that continent.

If you’re not making that your main effort, you may be doing vital work, but it isn’t decolonization." ~Chasity Phillips


“The act of Decolonizing any work can only be accomplished by centering the leadership of Indigenous, Black & Brown folks period. Decolonizing is about divesting from White supremacy and you can’t do that if you are taking all your cues from white people, white leadership, white books & white institutions. If your work is not helping to redistribute land, power, resources, money or leadership into the hands of Indigenous, Black & Brown folks it is not Decolonizing anything.” ~ JMase iii


“Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.” Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor, Tuck & Yang 2012

Read This Post By Sassy Latte: "Unpopular Opinion: Decolonization is Not for White People"

Here is a land recognition that I often use in the Piedmont Region of North Carolina

“As many of us are settlers, immigrants or descendants of those forcefully brought to this land. It is our collective responsibility to pay respect and recognize that this land is the traditional territory of the Catawba and Carolina Siouan Aboriginal Communities and we are here because this land was occupied. In recognizing that this space occupies colonized Aboriginal territories and out of respect for the rights of Aboriginal people it is our collective responsibility to critically interrogate the colonial histories and present day implications of this and to honor protect and sustain this land.” ~Elizabeth Pasquette


So as I move forward I recognize that I have a responsibility to consistently interrogate my work to ensure that I do not allow my decolonization practices to become whitewashed. I will openly acknowledge the theft of Indigenous land and ongoing policies of displacement and genocidal warfare against Indigenous people. I also want to name a public culture that erases Native American people while glorifying the violence that was needed to conquer a continent. My work will always center the sovereignty of all African and Indigenous people on this continent and beyond.

For me to "decolonize" means: to break free from systems, schools of thought, practices etc. that cause us harm, restrict our individual/collective power and remove our right to self determine...as whole, complex, beautiful humans.

So when I use the words “decolonizing fitness" I'm literally naming the ways I'd like to break free from toxic (mainstream fitness) to reinvent, re-imagine, restructure fitness practices that feel supportive, affirming and empowering.

I also, want to acknowledge that the word ‘fitness’ is often used to designate which bodies are fit (acceptable) and which bodies are unfit (unacceptable). This classification of bodies is intrinsically linked to colonization and is harmful.

Often when I engage with the word fitness in the context of my work and practice is to primarily address an entire industry of people. Within this I seek to make the distinction between Mainstream (Toxic Fitness) and Affirming Movement Practice.

Through Toxic Fitness culture I’m expected to chase unattainable “physique goals” and  penalize myself when I don't measure up. The Fitness and Diet industries blame us for being fat (as if being fat is synonymous with poor health) then sells us “quick fixes” designed for us to end up in a perpetual loop of weight loss/gain...which is actually more dangerous than staying fat.

Mainstream Fitness decides which bodies are worthy and they are usually white, toned, and non-disabled. Imagine how many folks are intentionally left out of mainstream fitness spaces because they literally don't measure up. How many people genuinely believe something is wrong with how they look and the way their body moves (or doesn’t).

So every chance I get I seek to disrupt the typical narratives associated with fitness and to be more affirming to bodies that are deemed unworthy of love in this world.

What Decolonizing Fitness can look like in practice:

- Creating physical & virtual spaces that are accessible and supportive to a diverse group of bodies.

- Engaging in movement (if you so choose) that feels good to your body, with the autonomy to stop when you want to.

- Honoring (without co-opting) the many forms of movement that Black, Indigenous and People of Color have been engaging in for centuries.

- Having room for your lived experience in your unique body to be validated by the movement practitioners you work with no matter how it looks or moves.

I firmly believe that movement can be used as a healing modality for some of our most marginalized populations. 

Also, healers and wellness “experts” can be awkward, fat, queer, trans, disabled, sex workers, with a chronic illness and with mental health issues. Nor do we always need special certifications.

We all possess tools for healing.

Healing is a collective effort. It can be rooted in African & Indigenous practices. It can also have components from conventional medicine. It can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.

For me healing is about being in tune with my body in such a way that I honor myself, the land and the collective.

I am not your typical “fitness industry professional” and today I finally own that fact. I am a Black queer trans masculine person and yes “labels” matter when you are carving space for yourself in a world that wants to deny your existence.

I am proud of my larger body and I no longer wish to be toned or buff. I respect bodies no matter how they show up in this world. I am challenging the fitness industry standards placed on trainers which associates what you look like with how much you know. I am re-imagining and redefining fitness in ways that offer more healing and restorative practices.

Lastly, to the white folks who are engaging with my brand and wearing my apparel (specifically “Decolonizing Fitness” shirts) while I appreciate the support:
It is important that you take ownership in that you literally and figuratively participate in colonization daily. It is important that you acknowledge the relationships to space and place as an ancient Indigenous practice.  Also remember the folks who were forcefully brought to this land whose labor was stolen who also had to be stewards of this land. You need to take the time to learn about the Indigenous territories you occupy as settlers of this stolen land. Honor the legacies of those who were here before you. Understand that the designation of “private property” is theft. Reach to folks in your local communities; seek and support the Indigenous groups who are doing this liberation work. 
Utilize land recognition and acknowledgements as a way to ground physical and symbolic spaces. Honor the land that sustains us and makes our life possible.

I'd like for white folks to marinate on this quote:

Let’s talk about decolonization for a minute. 

Literally, colonization is the process of settling on land with an already established indigenous population and wielding violence to control the space and its people. Figuratively, it is the appropriation and re-configuring of spaces, practices, and thought that centers those who are colonizers (often white people, but not inherently).

Are you following me? So when we talk about DE-colonization, we are talking about the purposeful RE-centering of oppressed groups – namely, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), but also other groups – and active DE-centering off oppressive groups.

Think: In the spaces of wellness, body image, eating disorders, and fat politics, who do you follow? Who are your heroes and mentors? Who do you think of as inspirational? Think: Who do you see most often represented in professional and academic spaces? Who do you think of as an expert? Who are the people you call on for advice and thought leadership? Think: Who do you see in your yoga classes? At your gym? Lauded as Instagram wellness “gurus?” Think: Who are your friends? Think: How are you actively colonizing? And how are you purposely decolonizing?

NOTE: Some folks — particularly Indigenous folks — have declared a discomfort with the use of the word “decolonization” in its metaphorical sense: After all, how dare we talk about decolonizing spaces figuratively when we are literally colonial settlers on stolen land? Please keep in mind as you engage with the concept of decolonization —and consider using the word “recentering” as an alternative.” Melissa A. Fabello

Other Resources:

Unsettling Methodologies / Decolonizing Movements 

Decolonizing Anti-racism 

Making Meaning of "Decolonising" 

White Allies, Let's Be Honest About Decolonization 

Decolonization and Indigenization 

Unsettling America - Decolonization in Theory and Practice  

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  • You continue to inspire and educate me, daily! How can I support your work further? This is the work I strive to support.

    Henry on
  • Thank you so much for this <3 I appreciate you and your work! I am also on board with decolonizing fitness, and I look forward to hopefully connecting more with you!

    Florence Otaigbe on
  • Congrats on all the things! So much good is manifesting!

    Teresa on

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