It's no secret that body image issues run rampant in today's toxic culture of lookism. Far too many women strive not for health but for the coveted “ideal" body that society applauds, indirectly scorning the bodies that fail to meet that ideal as a result. This persistent striving for skinny has deleterious effects on one's mind and body. According to Mirror Mirror up to 30 million people in the United States suffer from various eating disorders. Jenny Gaither, Master SoulCycle instructor, Notorious F.I.T trainer (a hip-hop cardio class), and Founder of the Movemeant Foundation, has made it her mission to fight back against these issues. She promotes body positivity and instills it in the minds of young girls so that they can grow up loving the skin they are in.
"My parents really believed that sports and fitness were a great way to keep kids out of trouble, so they put me in basketball and baseball and hockey and swimming...I tried everything. I was just so bad at sports. I have a very vivid memory of when I was seven years old dancing across the basketball court, so my parents were like, 'Okay, so she's really not an athlete, but I think she might be a dancer"
Gaither's passion for fitness was sparked by the popular moving-and-grooving form of exercise known as dance. However, dance was not the first route taken by Gaither, her parents initially leading her down the classic sports path. “My parents really believed that sports and fitness were a great way to keep kids out of trouble, so they put me in basketball and baseball and hockey and swimming...I tried everything," Gaither says. "I was just so bad at sports. I have a very vivid memory of when I was seven years old dancing across the basketball court, so my parents were like, 'Okay, so she's really not an athlete, but I think she might be a dancer.'" Tap, jazz, modern, ballet—Gaither did it all, dance quickly becoming her happy place.
“At that young age of seven, I felt the most confident and empowered in my own skin while dancing. It changed my life."
But Gaither's happiness was not sustained by the competitive dance world. After attending the University of Illinois on a dance scholarship, dance became dangerously focused on appearance. “Through that time, slowly, dance became something that wasn't as much of a release anymore and it became something that I started to hate and resent," Gaither explains. “I was told multiple times that I was too fat, I was very muscular, I wasn't lanky and thin and that's the look they were looking for. At some point I was like, 'This is supposed to be the place where I can really be myself and feel confident, and all the sudden, I have an eating disorder.'" This unfair pressure to fit in as a slender dancer prompted Gaither to desert the competitive dance scene and search for work that aligned with her passion for fitness and leading a healthy lifestyle.
Her search led her to NYC straight out of college, and she quickly found what she was looking for. In walks—or rather pedals—SoulCycle. Everyone has heard of SoulCycle, but not everyone knows that it's about more than simply hopping onto a bike and riding until you can't walk and sweat is pouring down your back like you've just been doused with a hose. It fosters a community and is effective in creating confidence in the people who give their souls to it for an 45 minutes. “I found SoulCycle, and it was the first time in a dark room on a stationary bike that I was able to tap into what I felt in my first dance class, which was strong," Gaither admits. “And it was the first time that strong actually felt good. It was something I felt proud of, rather than ashamed of. I walked out of that class and thought every woman should have the opportunity to find something where they really connect with their bodies and feel good moving in their bodies, and they eat because it gives them fuel to move. That's when we build healthy relationships with ourselves, and that's when we feel unstoppable."
Gaither was also personal training as a pilates instructor at the time, so she was encouraging women to connect with their strength and bodies every day; an experience that proved to be eye-opening. Gaither saw the women she was training struggle with the same body image issues that she did, and she decided it was time to do something about the body negativity shrouding even the most successful of people. “Many of the women that I was working with lived in these amazing lofts in Soho, you know, they had these careers that I'd dreamed of having, and they were really unhappy because they never felt enough in their bodies," Gaither says. “They were too fat, they were overweight—in their head. And that wasn't actually real. It was just the pressure they felt from society. I noticed a pattern." This realization acted as a wake-up call for Gaither, so she did what many never do when recognizing a problem, she took action.
“I realized that everyone deals with body image issues, everyone deals with moments in which they punish themselves with overeating, undereating, over-exercising, under-exercising, and that means we need to have a conversation about it. This was when nothing was really being broadcasted in the media especially about body positivity...there wasn't really an organization that was creating change, and so I saw a space and a need. I really wanted to do something to help, but I was at the stage where I was still struggling with my own issues and insecurities. So I was like, 'I should probably figure out my own stuff first before I try to help everyone else. I was insecure of my stomach, and I called the little rolls of my belly my belly jelly."
Gaither challenged her SoulCycle class to bare their skin and wear only a sports bra—no jacket, no tank top, nothing hiding their stomachs. It was a moment of joyous freedom for Gaither and her class, finding the courage as a group to show their bodies and be proud of them, even if insecurities lingered. After this simple but paramount moment, Gaither felt she was finally ready to start the organization she'd been dreaming up in her head: The Movemeant Foundation. The Movemeant Foundation is all about body positivity found through moving your body, ingrained in women and girls by two impact channels and charity fitness events called Dare to Bare.The two impact channels are truly and profoundly impacting the lives of young girls. The first is the Movemeant Body-Positive Curriculum which is based in San Francisco and is currently starting in NY and Chicago. For this curriculum, the Movemeant team goes into primarily Title I middle schools—they are hoping to move into high schools as well—and facilitates 15 to 20 minutes of body-positive conversation after lunch. “It can be anything around mindfulness, body awareness, genetics, how we're all created to look and be different, how your body changes a million times in your life—literally every day, and how to build that healthy relationship with your body," Gaither says. “[That healthy relationship] is gained by talking about nutrition and diet and sleep and the whole picture, meditation, the stories that you create in your head, it's very whole-body. Mind, body, and spirit connected."
On the #ShePlaysWeWin Scholarship: "These girls not only get the funds and the means and the tools and the community, but they also get these beautiful photographs of themselves that they can look back on and remember that moment that was so empowering and changed their life." Photo courtesy of movemeantfoundation.org
The second impact channel is the #ShePlaysWeWin international, athletic scholarship, Movemeant partnering with photographer, Christin Rose, whose specialty is photographing girls excelling in sports. “We found her on Instagram and wanted to immediately partner with her because she really captures that moment of so much joy on one of the girl's face when going off a halfpipe or something like that," Gaither says. “So we said, 'Our girls are not into extreme sports, but these are girls who are moving for the first time.'" And the partnership was formed. If given the scholarship, a young girl receives $1000+ to fund a sport that they are passionate about, fulfilling their mind-body need for an active lifestyle. “These girls not only get the funds and the means and the tools and the community, but they also get these beautiful photographs of themselves that they can look back on and remember that moment that was so empowering and changed their life," Gaither says, the smile evident in her voice.
Food is fuel, as any fitness expert will attest to, so Gaither stresses the importance of filling up your body with nutritious foods, and plenty of them. At every Movemeant event held, all-natural food brands are incorporated, Splenda being the most recent addition—coming in sweet with their stevia. “We promote brands with missions that align with ours," Gaither explains. “Splenda is one of our biggest partners on this in helping people achieve a healthy, balanced lifestyle, so it just made sense, and at the events they have a space for our attendees to create this awesome intention wall where you can write manifestos and inspire people at the event with your words and yourself. Also fueling our participants, so there's a DIY yogurt bar before and after workouts."
“I think the biggest issue we all struggle with is feeling isolated in all of our issues—in our sadness, and in our pain, especially when it comes to insecurities around the body. It's something that is totally universal, and everyone, even men, can relate to it in some capacity." Photo courtesy of Emilie Bers
Gaither is human, just like the rest of us, so cravings creep in on occasion. What is her guilty pleasure meal? Pancakes—but she reinvents them to be perfectly acceptable for a delicious, healthful breakfast. “I weirdly love pancakes," Gaither says. “I love breakfast for any meal, so I'll do almond flour, banana, Splenda Naturals stevia, and eggs, and that's it, and you can whip it up and it's super healthy, you can add protein powder as well to get that extra fiber." A second tasty, good-for-you breakfast of Gaither's? Oatmeal, topped with peanut butter and cacao nibs. “Are you hungry yet?" Gaither asks with a laugh. I'm sure we all are!
If you dare to bare, there's a Movemeant 5k coming up in September that may appeal to both runners and non-runners (and even running-haters) alike. It's not your average run-sweat-finish race, it has a unique and fun twist: after you cross the finish line, you dance! Gaither added that the event will be in the land of her alma mater, making a poetic full circle while highlighting Gaither's own success and growth over the years since she graduated.
Gaither has learned a thing or two, and she has a wealth of sage health advice to help people find peace with their bodies. “You're not alone," she insists. “I think the biggest issue we all struggle with is feeling isolated in all of our issues—in our sadness, and in our pain, especially when it comes to insecurities around the body. It's something that is totally universal, and everyone, even men, can relate to it in some capacity. I'm a body positive health life coach who's been teaching for 15 years, and I woke up today feeling super bloated. I had that total moment of weakness looking in the mirror and being like, 'Ew, you look fat today.' The thing with our brain is that we create habits, and it's super hard to change a habit. Sometimes, the things in our heads, the stories that play instantly will always turn on, but that doesn't mean that you can't turn them off."
When Gaither experiences moments of body negativity, she reveals her go-to pick-me-ups as being taking the time to enjoy a healthy meal, going for a walk outside, or working out with a friend. “I think as soon as you get that sweat on and feel refueled with foods that make you energized, you kind of snap out of it and forget about it," she says. “It's about practicing over and over again."
For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.
As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.
Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.
What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein
This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.
Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.
While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.
Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.
In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.
"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."