Asher Freeman flipped over the card the coach handed them repeatedly, examining illustrations of different body types labeled with fat percentages. On one side the men, on the other the women. Freeman ponders the coach’s question: Who do you want to look like?
Freeman wanted to flex his muscle to “present himself in a way that’s more in line with [their] gender identity,” which did not match any of the choices on the card. It seemed hard to explain when there were only two options on the card and the same limited dressing room choices.
Freeman has experienced “a lot of weird interactions that trans people have most places” at big box gyms, the same type of fitness centers Lore McSpadden-Walker also worked at briefly. There, McSpadden-Walker hid his identity to feel safe.
Now, Freeman and McSpadden-Walker run independent movement groups for people who can relate to their and others’ unique lived experiences. They create trainings with a first-hand understanding of the sensations, negative and positive, that transgender or non-binary people may experience during movement. Their groups join several others who are prioritizing the delivery of health and wellness education to the historically oppressed identities of members of their same communities.
“We’re going to put intention, learning, and politics into prioritizing the needs of those who face greater hurdles, not those who already have tons of other places,” McSpadden said. Walker.
The language used by McSpadden-Walker is a subtle intentional effort. They and their wife, Christine Walker-McSpadden, who co-founded Positive force movement in Rochester, New York, call themselves “educators” rather than “coaches,” something they’ve embraced as they move away from the traditional strength and conditioning training offering. Freeman, running Non-normative Body Club in Philadelphia, is also moving away from traditional rhetoric and workout classes. They make it clear from the start that they don’t offer programs to help people lose weight.
McSpadden-Walker and Freeman avoid using “exercise” or “training”, instead preferring terms like “intentional movement”. A person training for a competition moves with intention, just like a person living with chronic pain who cleans their room while being “aware of [their] movements,” McSpadden-Walker explained.
“The idea of exercising or working out or working out may seem helpful to a person, in which case it’s not irrelevant,” they said. “But the [words] I have found that the most extensive entry points are ‘intentional movement’ and ‘play’.”
Karen Rogers, owner of Quick Exercise, also based in Rochester, views its offerings as “community-focused recovery and empowerment services.” His staff helps people lose weight, but they urge clients not to fight for someone else’s body, like the models on the card Freeman received. Instead, they take a holistic approach to helping clients lead healthy lives, including encouraging clients to schedule regular doctor’s appointments or supporting participants in a diabetes prevention program.
“You will have your body,” Rogers said. “Don’t watch it because you’re going to have that person’s muscle tone…you just have to work as hard as you can and you’re going to become your own.
Black, Indigenous and people of color make up 95% of the staff at Exercise Express, Rogers said. She also employs certified peer recovery coaches who support clients and families through mental health and addictions issues, which she considers “the answer to people not going to traditional rehab.” This works in tandem with their services for Medicaid recipients: home behavioral health services and SilverSneakersa wellness program for seniors covered by certain health insurance plans.
“We do non-traditional things that reflect our community. Many of the people in our programs are BIPOC,” Rogers said. “We work with the poorest population[s], people who may not even feel comfortable going to a gym. What we focus on is everything you stand for, we can do that.”
The Positive Force Movement duo work a lot with tall people of varying abilities. Like Freeman, the couple easily adapts moves to better serve transgender or non-binary people.
“As a trans person, I feel like I have a better sense [and] I’m not going to make assumptions about what someone wants to look or feel to present [or] feel affirmed in their gender,” Freeman said.
Certain movement patterns can cause body dysphoria – a sense of disconnection between self and body that many transgender or non-binary people experience – a concern clients often share with Freeman. A transgender male person may lift their hips high into the air in a downward facing dog position, a stretch in which the torso and legs form a V-shape. The mover may then fixate on their hips and, instead of a pleasant stretch, he becomes conscious and uncomfortable with his body image.
“A lot of trans people have these kind of landmines where we work together and all of a sudden we hit something that’s really uncomfortable because all of our memories are stored in our bodies,” they said. “It’s super important to recognize that when it happens, not to try to push someone beyond what feels safe and comfortable, and to know when to shift gears.”
Freeman and McSpadden-Walker attribute their philosophies to the teachings of Decolonizing Fitness, a resource center that helps people “unlearn toxic fitness culture,” according to its website. The organization provides reading material filled with tips for creating affirmative, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive movement practices. All three groups share the same mission of creating communities of movement for people who may not always feel welcomed, accepted or understood in company-run fitness centers.
Decolonizing Fitness owner Ilya Parker held a series of workouts specifically for transmale trainers, including ideas for self-massage of upper surgical scars and a compilation focusing on the experiences of black transmasculine people. A bodybuilding manual advises trainers on methods to achieve what Freeman set out to do early in their weightlifting journey: feel a deeper connection between their gender identity and their outward appearance.
People navigating systemic marginalization “learned a lot of different ways that our bodies can’t be trusted or aren’t optimal,” McSpadden-Walker said, something they and Freeman often heard in gyms. traditional. But along with Walker-McSpadden, Freeman and Parker, they strive to “empower” people by teaching them and helping them feel comfortable in their bodies.
“[It is] very radical, very revolutionary in reclaiming our right to be present,” McSpadden-Walker said. respects, intends to harm aspects of our bodies.”
Sammy Gibbons is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s How We Live Atlantic Region team. Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @sammykgibbons. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.