“Bro What Does Decolonizing Fitness Even Mean?”

Posted by Ilya Parker on

Let’s be clear I’m speaking from my place of experience and defining things by what they mean to me. I am also attempting to add depth to words and concepts that haven’t really been unpacked in this way (especially by a black, trans, non binary chunky person). This is also why I’m choosing to add more flavor to the conversation.

So firstly, I’d like to define the word “decolonizing” and what it means to me in the context of fitness.

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 reinvent, re-imagine, restructure fitness practices that feel supportive, affirming and empowering.

Currently, the way Fitness is packaged and sold literally has me questioning why my “womanly curves” (on a masculine identified queer body) dares to show up in commercial gyms...in all its glory. The Fitness and Diet industry want me to restrict myself, to convince my body that it doesn’t know best. Through Toxic Fitness and Diet culture I’m reminded daily that I shouldn't trust my body. That I should believe something is wrong with me because I want to reach for the extra piece of cake, when I’m at home on the couch watching Netflix . I'm told to categorize food as "good" or "bad" as if some moral imperative is attached to the tings we eat.

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 ill 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. The Fitness Industry decides which bodies are worthy and they are usually toned, gender normative and able bodied. Now just imagine how many folks are intentionally left out. 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”.To be more inclusive and affirming to bodies that are deemed unworthy of love in this world. 

I’m so glad people appreciate my take on fitness, the content and images I put out there on my social media platforms. I realize it’s very different then what a lot of masculine presenting fitness coaches share.

I also still consider myself a bodybuilder. I respect the sport as a whole...and the ways it has allowed for us trans masculine people to reconnect and trust our bodies.

People think that cause some of us out here interrogating the fitness industry that we are are undermining the pivotal role fitness plays in helping folks heal. But that’s what I want to unearth...the healing aspects.

As I look in the mirror at my own reflection. I feel more and more affirmed that I am helping to reshape what healing and wellness practices can look like. From the ways I hold space for my fitness clients, through the messages being delivered via my apparel and how my unapologetic trans body shows up in the gym.

Healers and Wellness “experts” can be awkward, fat, queer, trans, disabled, sex workers, chronically ill with mental health issues. We don’t 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.

Healing is about listening to your body while respecting and honoring 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 happily thick and I no longer wish to be toned or buff. I honor bodies no matter how they show up in this world. I am challenging the fitness industry 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.

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.

Here is a land recognition that I often use for Charlotte, NC:

“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

I’d like to leave y’all with a couple of quotes to marinate on when engaging with the word "decolonizing":

"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


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, 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

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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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