Why does fitness need to be this gendered?

The future of fitness is nonbinary. But the current state is oppressive as hell.

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I am one of 1.2 million Americans who identify as nonbinary. The things is that, while “nonbinary” is slowly becoming another box you can check on a dropdown list of gender options, what it means for each individual who identifies as such can be really different. For me, it means not limiting my gender identity to “M” or “F.” I am a bonafide fitness junkie, but it feels like every time I try to experiment with new ways of moving my genderfluid body, I find that even the most supposedly inclusive fitness spaces rely on gendered cultural norms as a way to prescribe and measure wellness.

The fitness industry feels gendered right from the jump. If, for example, you sign up for an exercise app, one of the first questions you will be asked is whether you are male or female. This may seem innocuous, but it doesn’t actually feel that way. I am looking to explore who I am in my body, but instead I am immediately forced to remember that there are only two choices about who I can be in this body. “The exclusivity in the limited options for identity on apps — and everywhere else — in effect erases people, and can make them feel invisible, unimportant, and nonexistent,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, a New York City-based psychotherapist who works with people with marginalized sexual and gender identities.

Downloading an app already feels kind of vulnerable, even if I’m doing it in the privacy of my own home. The times I tend to download personal growth apps generally fall into two categories — either I am either feeling really bad and desperately seeking support or I’m feeling euphoric and hopeful that growth and change are right around the corner. In those tender moments, that no-brainer boy/girl box feels like a weapon. “Feeling like you matter, and being seen as a person who exists and is allowed and welcomed to take up space in the world is important to everyone’s psychological health,” Pitagora explains.

Feeling excluded is bad enough when it’s just you alone with a screen, but it gets infinitely scarier, sadder, and more complex when nonbinary people try to take their nonnormative bodies into the real world of binary fitness. Gyms, for example, are places that are often described as “hyper-gendered,” meaning that they are places where masculinity and femininity are exalted and often exaggerated to such a degree that almost no one feels like they can meet the aesthetic standards of either.

“When I worked at a gym, I was constantly afraid to use the locker room,” says Aleksei Weaver, a fitness coach in Rhode Island who identifies as genderqueer and uses she/they pronouns. As an employee, Weaver had to restock towels in both the men’s and the women’s locker rooms, but they felt at home in neither. “When I worked out there on my days off, I would purposefully wear shirts with a deep-v so that you could see my sports bra,” Weaver says. “That way people wouldn’t ask questions about whether I belonged in the women’s bathroom.”

This experience of feeling left out, in part, was what inspired Weaver to become a personal trainer three years ago. Weaver has been an athlete since childhood, and says they’ve seen a lot of homophobia and gender discrimination in sports and fitness. When Weaver came out as genderqueer five years ago and started exploring nonbinary fitness options, like me, they were sadly disappointed. Even though there was a quickly growing nonbinary fitness world, it still seemed geared towards masculinity. “I felt a lot of pressure to become more muscular and to look more masculine,” says Weaver.

Masc-centricity is a problem I have also encountered in the nonbinary fitness world. Most of the supposedly gender free nonbinary fitness programs are actually geared towards helping folks who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) look more masculine or adrogynous. Weaver felt the pressure to look masculine basically as soon as they became a trainer. “As they say in the industry, ‘your body is your business card,” they explain. “But I don’t want to play into that.”

Don’t get me wrong, trans-masc folx should have as many gender affirming fitness options as they need and want, but I also want people who are looking for a totally genderless fitness experience — like me — to have that same level of access. So does Weaver. No one should have to choose a gender identity that feels harmful in the pursuit of health. In an effort to make fitness more welcoming for nonbinary people who aren’t interested in, say, chest expansion programs, Weaver started their own holistic fitness company, Alien Athletes.

Weaver offers welcoming, genderfree training tailored to each individual body, not to cultural norms. As part of my research, I did a Zoom training session with them. They asked me zero questions about how I want to look on the outside and instead focused on how I want to feel. “Why do you want to training,” Weaver asked me. “I want to be strong enough to continue my yoga practice without losing flexibility,” I told them. Later they said, “There’s so much of an emphasis on aesthetics in the world of fitness. What if we just want to move in our bodies in ways that feel good?”

Feeling good is, after all, what the point of fitness can be, even if that’s not what’s emphasized on Instagram. I asked Pitagora if they think that gender free fitness is possible in our gendered culture. “I believe that fitness can be de-gendered and a focus placed on individual goals of feeling and looking the way that individual wants to,” Pitagora explained. In other words, yes, fitness can be about feeling good inside and looking good in any way you want to, whether it fits in with society’s beauty standards or not.

If gender free fitness is possible, then why doesn’t it seem to be happening in nonbinary fitness spaces? Well, the reality is that even when you, personally, step outside the norms of society, you don’t step out of society altogether, and norms persist in subcultures as much as they do in the mainstream. “There does seem to be a desire within any culture or subculture to create norms,” Pitagora explains. In other words, even in gender nonconforming spaces, ideas tend to spring up about how to be “correctly” gender nonconforming.

Cultural and subcultural norms don’t have to be bad or oppressive, though. Having similar values and ideals, after all, is what often brings people together. “I would say the bottom line norms for any sort of community or culture, large or small, should include consent, mutual respect, and clear communication, and beyond that should be agreed upon by the parties involved,” says Pitagora. So, what trans, nonbinary, and other gender nonconforming individuals have to be careful of as we create our own subcultures is that, in order for us to create spaces for each other that actually feel inclusive, we have to communicate and agree to norms.

Weaver explains the slippery slope that gender nonconforming people often find themselves on. “The danger of moving away from one set of norms is that sometimes you feel like you’re getting stuck in another set of norms,” Weaver says. Yes. This is how I felt when I tried to find a nonbinary fitness program — like I was trying to escape a world that wants me to look feminine in a certain way only to find myself in a world that wants me to look masc in a certain way.

The cis-het fitness world is already male-dominated and I don’t want to think of us gender rebels replicating those same oppressive power structures by making the nonbinary fitness world masc dominated, but that is how it feels sometimes. Aren’t we better than that? I think we can be, because although I was hard-pressed to find many established gender free fitness programs, everywhere I looked I found people like me who were also looking for them. After months of looking, I decided to do a personal training program myself so that I can help, not just myself, but others like me who want to have a more liberated fitness experience.

Crow, who currently uses only their last name, is a 40-year-old nonbinary yoga teacher in New Orleans. They told me that the desire to find a more liberated fitness space led them to become a personal trainer, too. They are dedicated to changing the industry from the inside out. When they train someone, they use what they describe as an embodiment philosophy of liberation. “When I make a program for someone, I want to make sure that it’s their idea,” says Crow. “I don’t want my ideas or society’s ideas to dominate their experience.”

“Don’t we want this to be liberating?” Crow asks. “My hope for nonbinary folks is my same hope for people of any other gender,” says Pitagora, “that they’re doing fitness for themselves first and foremost, to feel and look the way they want to, and not because they are reinforcing fitness goals someone else has convinced them they should have to look like what someone else expects them to look like.”