Fitness Accessibility is a Social Justice Issue

By Jox Cox, PhD


I can’t remember the exact moment I fell in love with strength training. The euphoria that followed my completion of sets was exhilarating. I daydreamed about squatting during my academic classes. I broke free from writing to do burpees and squat jumps. All this joy I held about the capability of my own body was empowering and aided in the shattering of stereotypes I had heard all my life. 

 

What was I to do with this new-found knowledge? Was it time to join a gym or hire a trainer to take my regimens to the next level? Noooot quite. As a fat, Black woman who is aware of the existing barriers in fitness accessibility, I knew finding a safe space to expand my workouts would not only be a challenge, but downright impossible based on where I currently resided. 

 

More so, this cycle was not new. I had faced this dilemma before. I had to make a choice to expose myself, and possibly my safety, in environments where normalized bodies are welcomed  or find extra money to construct a personal gym in the privacy of my own home. For me, this was a no brainer. I chose the latter. 

 

Being fat and active is often read as a spectacle to those who do not live in or have meaningful relationships with those in larger bodies. In my 36 years of living, I can’t count the number of times I have had others cheer me on because they were in awe that my body could perform typical physical activities. Whether it be dancing, running, or simply walking, smaller bodied individuals have made it their business to show up and congratulate me on accomplishing these tasks. It took me some time to realize that it wasn’t me they were in awe of, but the ability of my body…my fat body. 

To them, fat bodies aren’t supposed to run, dance, or walk. To them, fat bodies aren’t physically active. Multiply this “awe” in the context of a gym, and you have people constantly telling you how great of a job you’re doing. How much you inspire them to keep going. How they have that stubborn family member who they keep inviting to the gym, but after seeing you, it leaves that member with no excuse! [insert facepalm and massive eyeroll] As someone who has been active my whole fat life, I wanted to be able to move my body and be at peace. I felt it unfair to be forced to choose. 

 

In 2013, I made a conscious decision to stop choosing holistically. While studying to get my master’s degree, I decided to change my focus of research to communication as it related to weight stigma. I wrote about the lived experiences of other fat people like myself. I published articles specifically with this in mind, using my platform as a tool to alter the power dynamic in fields that saw fatness as a negative character trait. In 2015, I expanded my research, concentrating more on the intersections of race, fatness, and ability. Subsequently, I created the podcast, Fresh Out the Cocoon to highlight the lived experiences of fat Black women and femmes and completed my dissertation in 2018 on the Fat Liberation Movement. I literally became a doctor (of philosophy)  in all things fat! I made headway in these things, yet still found myself working out in front of my TV alone with limited resources. 

 

I’m pretty sure meeting Bunmi Alo in 2013 was a godsend. Bunmi, slender in stature, also had a passion for strength training, and we used that commonality to build, what we didn’t know at the time, a concept for advancement in fitness and accessibility. For 5 years, day after day, Bunmi and I would send each other messages of encouragement after completing our regimens. Carrying the weight of past experiences, I often wondered how someone with the privilege of living in a smaller body, didn’t feel the need to be in “awe” at what my body could do? I wondered how he wasn’t concerned about my weight or seeing “results.” 

 

I also realized the way that those encouragements I had been receiving made me feel. I ruminated over the positive impacts that just seeing a daily encouragement and connecting with someone on my terms added to the value of the interactions we had. When we hit personal milestones in our workouts, we shared them and celebrated. When we had setbacks, we supported each other to keep going. For me, this was a magical concoction of community and positive messaging I was missing by working out alone. I craved inclusion. By all accounts, I deserved it.


In 2016, after an impromptu phone call and some background work, both Bunmi and I decided to start the process of creating an app that embodied the practices we had been participating in since 2013. Taking our own savings, we invested $11,000 into creating a fully functional demo of “
Jabbie,” the intersectional workout app that empowers users to build community and do fitness their own way! I watched as the developers made our ideas a reality. Users can sign up, create groups, fashion personalized workouts, check-in, and send and receive encouragement. 

 

No requirement to be at the gym. No requirement to log your weight, find the exercise that is closest to what you do, or track what you eat. Jabbie is an expression of a resource utilizing knowledge in social equity I needed so many years ago. It is an illustration of what true allyship looks like when people use their power to lift others. 

 

With production shortly underway, I worry less about being the fat person in the gym drawing unwanted attention. Knowing there’s an app I can check into for encouragement or find users in the area to be active with, I now feel as if I have a team to complete regimens with. I can take my community wherever I go! Safety is mobile.

I’ll never have to choose.   

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Joy Cox, PhD, is a social justice advocate and co-founder of the app Jabbie, using her knowledge in communication and intersectionality to implement diversity and inclusion practices in institutional settings toward greater liberation for marginalized groups.

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