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."
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.