Why don't Black Women workout more?

Yesterday I read an article which stayed that new research shows that women in lower income roles were less likely to take part in physical activity. It also went onto say:

‘Research from Sport England has also revealed that women of different ethnicities, including black women and those of South Asian heritage, are more likely to do no exercise than white British women.’

Honestly that didn’t surprise me at all.

Whilst I have multiple race medals under my belt (or perhaps bed in this case) I still do a double take when I see a black woman working out in public. As a little girl, that just was not something I saw. Unless I was on half term holiday at home in Barbados and watching young black girls run barefoot on blackened tar which was at boiling point from being draped by the sun, I never saw black women work out in public. Ever.

There are far too many threads of the conversation to pick up on in just one blog post but I cannot, not talk, about the financial factor mentioned in the findings of This Girl Can. Many of the black women I was surrounded by growing up were all in low paid jobs, working overtime to ensure that Saturdays Soup was bountiful. When it came to working out it just didn’t seem to be a priority. Black women especially have historically carried the mental and physical burdens of everyone around them almost always putting themselves last in every regard.

There is also an element of vanity. Many a time a note was written to excuse me from swimming class. Chlorine can be very unkind to black hair. The harsh chemical which can so easily be washed out of Caucasian hair multiple times a week has a habit of drying black hair out, leading to extreme breakage. So swimming was just a no no. To be clear not all black women cannot swim but the vast majority not in possession of that major life skill have usually avoided the pool to save their edges. From one liquid to another, the other thing that is unkind to our coils is sweat. After a Saturday morning where your Nan set the stove to hot comb your hair (Google it please) so that it would be deemed more manageable and on a particularly brisk day, perhaps blow in the wind, there was no way you were going to fuck it up by sweating. You wanted to at least make it to Monday so you could show off your ‘straight and manageable’ hair at school.

Lastly and this is more a guess than anything else, over time black women worked out that we were now free to do anything including not exercise. Our history is long plagued by horrific images of black women being put through a level of physical labour which at its root was intended to kill us. For centuries our bodies were not our own and we were forced to move and use them for other people. I’m no physiologist but I often wonder if the lack of exercise within the black community on a whole is a spiritual ‘screw you’ to the years of widespread physical abuse. Perhaps we have cottoned onto the fact that now, we need not move if we don’t want to and perhaps we have taken that to an extreme.

Perhaps it’s a heady combination of all three.

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What I do know is you won’t be encouraged to do something by mere lip service. It helps to have those that look like you occupying all spaces and doing all things to genuinely galvanise you into believing that you too can do something. 

So when my friend and creative wizard, Kevin Morosky (a black man who has a seat at the table and is always prepared to seek out what he knows is missing - even if it means sacrificing money or connections) asked me to feature in a Samsung advert for their new range of gear, I had to fight with myself. Not only was I not yet back to any version of my pre RJ body, I was only halfway through the couch to 5k programme. Whilst the viewer sees at most, one minute of footage, I knew that filming would take the better part of six hours. Six hours of repetitive exercise? I didn’t feel ready yet. In any capacity.

But once again I had to shove my ego to the side. Whilst the opportunity was for me, it was not about me. When you’re a minority it never is. I had to look past how I felt about myself at the time and how I believed I would be judged by others and be ready to put my mum tum on the line to be that physical representation that we just don’t have enough off. To be honest, that was tough. My new relationship with my body is so often caught in turmoil and it’s not always an exchange I want to document. Also I’m completely aware of the fact I’m not a professional athlete. Alongside other black women like Kelechi Okafor and Lady Velo, you could tell that I’m no workout queen. I’m simply a black woman who enjoys working out from time to time and I didn’t think my efforts warranted space in such an ad. But again, my self conscious attitude could not succeed here. There are too many black women, darker than a brown paper bag, with cellulite and hair that falls in no soft manner who never get to see themselves in a way that may perhaps encourage them to try something new. I could not let my personal demons piss on a public need.

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And I’m so happy I didn’t. 

All women but black women especially need to see themselves enjoying exercise outside of trying to win gold at the Olympics. Sometimes the prize doesn’t have to be attained on a public stage for it to mean something. Using our bodies in a way we choose, outside, in the view of other people sends such an important message socially. We are here taking up space in more ways than being of service or just being caregivers. We are now shaking the corporate ladder and so now it’s not always lack of finances or the inability to move a work shift about which stops us from making time to enjoy fresh air.

Things are changing. When I ran London Marathon in 2012 out of 35,000 amateur runners I was the only black woman in the 18-35 category. I was the only black woman in that category. It was a picture to see the faces of young black people who had come out to cheer.

‘Oi fam look! It’s one of us fam! It’s one of us! I heard a black teenage boy say

When I went to watch London Marathon two years ago, I made sure to search for the black women and cheer loudly for them. Of course there still weren’t that many but there were more than were present in 2012 and that’s the most important thing. 

The brilliant Swim Dem Crew created by Peigh and Nathaniel has come along like a tsunami and completely rocked all preconceived notions that black people can’t swim. They both work tirelessly to encourage adults to learn this important life skill and have a particular emphasis on encouraging black people to put aside all they’ve been taught in regards to vanity or not feeling good enough and dive into the deep end.

Women like Kelechi and Lady Velo are almost always the only black women in their chosen field. So their mere existence is important to breaking down the falsehood that black women don’t want to work out. Not only do many of them work out, they have also found a way to make a bag from their passion.

And then there are black women like me. Not even semi pro but willing to try a ting. My Dad always encouraged me to show up in spaces where I didn’t always feel welcome and perhaps that’s a habit I’ve just displayed in many areas of my life. To be part of this kind of ad, which aside from the topic displayed such diversity and an intense understanding of how a brand, with the right creatives employed, could simply just get it ‘so’ right. Makes me very proud. 

Change, however incremental, is still change. And I’m forever grateful to be a part of it.