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."
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.