Racism in the Pilates Industry

Incidents of police brutality and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests have shed a bright light on systemic racism in the U.S., including in the Pilates industry. Here, Black instructors share their experiences.

by Gerrie Summers

EVERYDAY INDIGNITIES

Microaggressions has become a buzzword, but they are particularly injurious, being hard to prove. “Racism in Pilates is a rampant and insidious issue in our industry,” states Bridgette Duncan of Slam Duncan Wellness in New York City. “Nowadays, it’s frowned upon to wear your racism on your sleeve. It has turned into a subtle deep sigh under the breath, the constant questioning of our knowledge, the subtle comments about our hair and clothing choices.”

LEFT TO RIGHT: DURING HER TEACHER TRAINING, RHEA PATTERSON CANO RECALLS AN INSTRUCTOR JOKING THAT THE REASON SHE WAS UNABLE TO EXECUTE AN EXERCISE WAS BECAUSE OF THE FULLNESS OF HER THIGHS AND BEHIND; CHRIS ROBINSON REPORTS WITNESSING BLACK INSTRUCTORS BEING MARGINALIZED, PREJUDGED AND DISMISSED AND HAS HIMSELF EXPERIENCED INCIDENTS OF BIAS.

Although Brett Howard, owner of The Pilates Haus in Jersey City, NJ, hasn’t experienced overt racism himself, “I know of many people who have, and unfortunately it is present in the Pilates industry,” he admits. “What I have experienced and find to be more prevalent are instances of ignorance and insensitivity in regards to issues of race, which can be even harder to address than explicit racism.”

One such episode happened during his apprenticeship when a teacher kept addressing him by the wrong name, one that “some might consider to be a black-sounding name. When someone asked why this teacher kept accidentally calling me this name, which happened to be the name of another apprentice, the teacher told me that I looked like that would be my name. I remember thinking, ‘and what does that look like?’”

Rhea Patterson Cano, owner of The Pilates Suite in San Antonio, TX, recalls an incident as a student, where she “felt mocked or pushed as a form of punishment. An instructor jokingly suggested that the fullness of my thighs and behind was the reason I was unable to execute an exercise. I was asked to try over and over again, in a group setting, knowing full well that my body was not built to that standard.”

CLOSED SESSIONS

Chris Robinson, owner of S6 Fitness in San Diego, has not been affected by racism as a teacher, but has seen other instructors “marginalized, prejudged and dismissed.” As a Pilates client, however, it was another story. Years ago when he was visiting family in Texas, he wanted to purchase private lessons for his older brother who had recently recovered from a hospital stay. “I walked into a studio near his home and asked to buy a 10 pack of lessons,” he recalls. He was told that the private package was “quite expensive” and class passes were suggested instead. “I explained my brother’s condition
and that I wanted one-on-one training for safety concerns.

“Again, the receptionist suggested class passes. I explained that I own a studio in San Diego and understand the difference in pricing. And once again the receptionist suggested the passes. So I asked ‘How much are the privates?’ After telling me the price, I said ‘I charge about $65 more for my privates,’ and walked out. I drove to the next Pilates studio about five minutes away and walked in just as a class was finishing. As I was about to ask about private lessons, the instructor says to me ‘Great, can you roll up the rugs and take them in the back for cleaning?’ I replied that I was there to purchase a package of private lessons for a family member. The instructor gave me a look of disgust and gestured to the window and said to call the number outside. I just left.”

LEFT TO RIGHT: BRIDGETTE DUNCAN SAYS THAT RACISM TODAY IS NOW MORE INSIDIOUS AND SUBTLE; VETERAN TEACHER MARTIN REID SAYS HE’S NEVER BEEN INVITED TO TEACH AT A CONFERENCE OR BECOME A MASTER TRAINER EXCEPT BY ONE COMPANY.

Duncan had a run-in with a white client at a Midtown studio, who had specifically asked to be trained by her, but assumed Duncan was a white woman because of her name. When Duncan walked to the front desk, she could see a shift in the woman’s demeanor. “Once she saw me in person, she went into a full rage and started to lunge at me like she was trying to grab or hit me and yelling that she doesn’t know who I am, that she didn’t ask for a session with me. Can I even train people properly? Am I even certified to teach? Do I even know how to work with older women? She made every excuse in the book and I finally told the front desk, ‘I don’t want to train her. I don’t need her money if she wants to act in this manner.’ She finally calmed down, but I had already walked away, packed my things and left the studio. I was fuming afterward.” The studio owners, who were white, did nothing, except to send Duncan an email asking what she had done to cause the incident. “They automatically implied it was my fault. From then on, I knew I was most likely never truly ‘safe’ as a black woman in a white space.”

A MICROCOSM

“Overt, covert or concealed: Pilates has always felt exclusive to me,” says Cano. “The Pilates industry is a microcosm of the macrocosm where racism lives in all societal systems. The system was in fact built to benefit one dominant culture. Like a cancer, racism is difficult to isolate. If you find it in one place, there’s a good chance that it exists elsewhere. In my experience, I’ve noticed it exists in the absence of bodies, leaders and teachers of color. It exists in the minimization of elder Kathy Grant and her contributions. It lives in the industry’s obsession with marketing and achieving the ideal ‘Pilates body’ that is without a doubt white, female and thin.”

THE PATH TO REAL CHANGE

“Diversity is used too sparingly and out of context,” says Sonja Herbert, a teacher in New York City, the founder of Black Girl Pilates and an outspoken activist against racism in the Pilates field. “What these white organizations and studios need to do is address their own individual inherent racism. You cannot change the outside unless you work on the inside. It’s like Pilates, the strength comes from within and changes the outside body. The outside is superficial until the heart begins to change.”

LEFT TO RIGHT: BRETT HOWARD THINKS IT’S IMPORTANT THAT PEOPLE OF COLOR BE REPRESENTED IN ORGANIZATIONS LIKE THE PILATES METHOD ALLIANCE; TERESA R. ELLIS BELIEVES THE INDUSTRY SHOULD INCLUDE MORE PEOPLE OF COLOR IN ITS MARKETING.

So what can the Pilates industry do to be more inclusive? “Include black, brown and indigenous people in its marketing,” says Teresa R. Ellis, owner of Pilates Barre & Jams in Oakland, CA, “and also take the time to get to know us. We can tell if you are actually interested in us versus dialing it in.”

What’s perhaps even more important is to have people of color in positions of leadership, says Brett Howard. “It is important for them to be involved and have representation in the professional organizations like the Pilates Method Alliance. They should take an active role in committees, run for board positions and continue to create businesses in the industry. Training programs and equipment companies should not only include people of color in promotional materials but should recruit them for management positions as well.”

“In Canada, racism is presented in such a subtle way,” says Martin Reid, owner of Reid Method Pilates in Mississauga, Ontario. “I have been in the fitness industry for 20 years and I have never been invited to teach at a conference or become a master trainer except by one company. You start to get the feeling you are good enough to work somewhere, but not good enough to be a spokesperson for the work.

“I would also like to see Pilates taken to underserved communities as well.” he continues. “Our professional organizations, teacher training programs and equipment manufacturers can create outreach programs to bring Pilates to schools and communities that normally would not be exposed to such programming.”

Robert Turner, owner of breathe, in Lexington, KY, agrees that there needs to be an increase in visibility and representation of people of color in the industry, but also wants to dispel “the notion that socioeconomic status is the dominant factor or main reason that people of color are not drawn to the Pilates Industry. There are many people of color who have ample means to afford the practice of Pilates, but choose not to because the message that Pilates is for everyone” is not fully demonstrated.

Change, Ellis believes, will only come if white people “want to create the change. If they don’t, they won’t. Most white people are very comfortable with how things are. Doing the work is not easy.”

LEFT TO RIGHT: SONJA HERBERT COMPARES THE STRUGGLE AGAINST RACISM TO A PILATES PRACTICE ITSELF: “YOU CANNOT CHANGE THE OUTSIDE UNLESS YOU WORK ON THE INSIDE”; ROBERT TURNER SAYS THAT WHILE SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS IS POINTED AS AN EXCUSE, THE LACK OF REPRESENTATION OF BLACK PEOPLE IN PILATES IS A MAJOR FACTOR.

Doing this introspective work (both personal and professional) “is not the flavor of the month,” adds Cano. “We have to do the internal work of checking our biases and truly seeing and teaching the body in front of us. It is not a trend to be tossed aside once the pandemic is over and we all get back to our lives. Lest we forget that for many BIPOC getting back to ‘normal’ means back to the fear of driving, jogging, breathing while black, of unequal treatment under the law, in our workplace or even in our own home without justice or recourse just because of the color of our skin.”

If you want find or work with black teachers, she recommends following or reaching out to  @blackgirlpilates or @melaninbrothersofpilates.

“So you put a black square on your Instagram page? Thank you. Now what’s next? We have experienced a collective awakening. Let us not simply go back to sleep like it was all a dream,” Cano concludes. “We have a unique opportunity to make a different choice in how we go about living our lives with more awareness, compassion and inclusion both personally and professionally. Let’s
do better.”
PS


Pilates Diversity Scholarship

A new program helps increase access to Pilates education for people of color.

LEFT TO RIGHT: LORLELEI LEE-HAYNES AND ASHLEE JOHNSON ARE CO-FOUNDERS OF THE PILATES DIVERSITY SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM.

Offering merit-based scholarships to people of color is like putting out a welcome sign to encourage more diverse participation in Pilates, according to Ashlee Johnson, a Pilates teacher and co-founder of the Pilates Diversity Scholarship program. The desire for a more heterogeneous representation is what inspired her and two other Bay Area teachers, Lorlelei Lee-Haynes and Holly Furgason, to launch the program.

“Pilates is for every ‘body,’ which must be reflected in the makeup of the field’s training programs, client base and certified trainers,” notes Johnson. The program hopes “to incentivize opportunities for people of color to participate in certified training programs with the end goal of assisting their professional entrance into the field of Pilates,” she says.

“Based on the premise that the Pilates community should be a reflection of our larger society, our vision is to begin to break down the homogeneous composition of the Pilates field so that every shape, every size and every color can fully participate,” Lee-Haynes adds.

A list of available scholarships is compiled on the organization’s website, pilatesdiversityscholarship.org. The site “also encourages educators in the Pilates industry to create scholarships for people of color,” Lee-Haynes continues. “We choose to focus on the positive changes we can make now. Our objective has to do with engaging the Pilates community to think more broadly about developing greater inclusion.”

At press time, scholarships for both in-person and online training were available from Pure Body Education (national); Equilibrium Studio (in Michigan); Inspire Health (in Atlanta); Blue Sparrow Pilates (in San Francisco), and the trio is currently in conversation with other education providers.

“We know there are many other marginalized groups and that this is a complex, multi-faceted issue, but we are hopeful scholarship opportunities will begin to address one facet of the many, larger issues at play,” Furgason says. —Anne Marie O’Connor


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