Race, Pilates, and Change

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I’ve been writing for Pilates Anytime regularly over the past 8 months and it’s always been a collaboration. Today I write solely from my own voice and perspective. I don’t speak for Pilates Anytime nor can I speak and represent the whole Black Pilates community. Just as there are many opinions and schools of thought within the Pilates industry - there are many within the Black community too.

As a bi-racial woman with light skin who can “pass for white”, it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge the privileges afforded to me over my darker brothers and sisters. Does that mean I don’t experience racism? Not a chance, I experience it almost every day and have been aware of it from as early as I can remember. But this is bigger than me and my experiences or you and yours. This is bigger than any individual’s feelings of discomfort, defensiveness, shame, guilt, or ignorance. The Pilates community can no longer bury its head in the sand and needs to start practicing what it preaches. If those of the Pilates community believe themselves to share Joe’s vision of wanting the whole world to do his exercises then there needs to be equal representation. This blog post may make you uncomfortable, but I ask you to read it with an open mind and an open heart.

The merciless murder of George Floyd by a police officer on May 25, 2020, became the catalyst of a movement against racism bigger than anything witnessed around the world for some time. Unfortunately, George Floyd’s murder is nothing new for the Black community, especially in the U.S where the country is basically founded on racism.

Racism is an uncomfortable topic, one that most people and organizations avoid at all costs. However, it is everywhere, deeply rooted in history books and pop culture; subliminally, unconsciously, consciously, and blatantly. For years there have been peaceful protests, social media coverage, professional Black athletes bending the knee, films, and documentaries produced to educate and stand up against the injustice the Black community faces. We’ve been asking and demanding change, reform, and equality. These acts of demonstration for change have been met with disdain, trepidation, or swept under the rug. Somehow THIS time and THIS particular injustice touched more non-BIPOC and it opened their eyes to the white privilege they are granted. Many individuals and organizations issued statements of solidarity with the Black community. It got to the point where anyone that didn’t speak up soon felt the pressure to do so.

So what does all of this have to do with Pilates?

Well, the hard truth is that Pilates is predominately portrayed by thin white women (and some white men). If you don’t believe me, look at any Pilates platform, most studio websites, Pilates educational tours and festivals, Board of Directors of Pilates organizations and who’s covered in the media.

Why is this a problem?

Because it perpetuates a single ideal that is embedded in our culture to exclude and oppress anyone that isn’t that. Please google ‘the doll test’ where you’ll see children of all races referencing the white doll with all positive attributes and the darker doll with all negative. The first tests were done in the 1940s and then 70 years later with very little difference. It’s no coincidence that Marvel’s first female leading film is a thin, blonde white woman or there was a huge uproar at Disney casting a Black actress for Ariel the mermaid, or worse there are still world maps that show Africa smaller than North America. It’s embedded in our culture and the Pilates industry is no different. I want to reiterate that there is nothing inherently wrong with thin white women (you’re fine, be you) but in order to reach and teach more populations, they can’t be the majority.

So where are the POC Pilates instructors?

We’re around, many of us have been around for a long time and reaching out to the heavy hitters of the Pilates world for features and opportunities to share what we have to offer. Most of the time it’s been met with silence or total dismissal. Many Pilates instructors are unaware that Pilates elder Kathy Grant was a Black woman or of her plight with racism. Three years ago Pilates instructor Sonja R. Price Herbert created the Black Girl Pilates group, a safe space for women of color to meet and discuss all things Pilates and more. There are 2 aspects that repeatedly come up in regards to the group:

  1. It’s accused of being racist because it’s for women of color only
  2. Non-BIPOC asks, “why do you need a safe space? What does that mean?”
The answers to these questions are becoming apparent as more people are finally becoming aware of their white privilege and working on educating themselves. Just like mastering Pilates exercises take time, consistency, and mindfulness, so will changing racism. Due to the oppressive climate that we’re in, groups like these need to exist, at least for now until we can truly reach a place of equality.

Many of the big Pilates organizations posted on social media about solidarity and racism and they were called out by both Black and White instructors. White instructors used their platforms and stated they would no longer be renewing memberships, supporting or buying equipment, and encouraging other instructors to follow suit. The organizations’ posts seemed insincere as they claimed solidarity and yet their organizations either consistently excluded their Black Master instructors from events, showcases, or even acknowledgment and one went so far to delete comments. These posts were the culmination of much more history behind the scenes.

Joseph Pilates, in his book Your Health uses an offensive phrase (pg 18) that was common in the 1930s. Was he a racist? I don’t know, I can’t answer that. He did, however, say that everyone in the world should be doing his exercises and he didn’t turn away a young Black woman (Kathy Grant) or Hispanic woman (Lolita San Miguel) from training with him or attaining certificates. In fact, they are the only 2 elders that hold certificates.

So where do we go from here?

There is a concept or model of equity vs. equality. Before we can have equality, we must have equity. Equality means we all start at the same starting line whereas equity focuses on providing everyone with full benefits and both share the same finishing line. We need more equity in the Pilates industry in order to get to equality. That may look like more opportunities and support for BIPOC for a while. You might think, well that’s not fair, everyone should have the same opportunities or work equally for it. History shows time and time again that BIPOC have to work twice as hard to achieve the same or less than that of a white individual. Again, this goes back to learning your history. Or observe what happens when a white and a black person go into a store or are pulled over for speeding.

I don’t have all the answers, and answers, solutions, and change will take time. It’s inevitable that there will be ugly steps and mistakes along the way but there needs to be continued conversations followed by action.

Keep the conversations going, continue educating yourself and your children because the school history books have left out a lot of history; history of white supremacy that continues in law enforcement as well as Black History. Showcase Black Pilates instructors TEACHING not just being the bodies. VOTE, sign and start petitions, speak up in regular life but also for what you see (and don’t see) in the Pilates industry. Event organizers; hire more BIPOC for your events, pop-ups, and tours, provide more opportunities, and educate your communities. Learn how to teach Black bodies, don’t assume we all have lordosis, most of us don’t, we just have ample bottoms. For the large Pilates organizations; reach out to members of the Black Pilates community and continue to hold panels and roundtable discussions and budget an inclusive committee. Please don’t use the same 5 or 6 people all the time. Support instructors with donations or legal and business support as they are supporting their communities.

ASK them “how can I support you?”.

You may be exhausted and overwhelmed with all of the race discussions, protests, or emotions coming up. It will be that way for a while, it won’t be easy, nothing worthwhile is and THIS IS WORTHWHILE.

Pilates isn’t easy, if it is you’re not doing it right and citing Joe quotes about change and healing is not enough especially when it’s directed at your existing clientele. We all know that Pilates is healing, so it should be accessible to everyone, not just your own circle. Black people are being killed, judged, incarcerated, charged more and given fewer opportunities because of the color of their skin. That is systemic racism and it lives in the Pilates world too.

So what are you, what are we as a Pilates community going to do about it?

About the Author

Roxy Menzies

Roxy’s curiosity for life and movement has led her to teach, present, live, grow and travel around the globe. She's reset her roots back in her hometown of Toronto, is mama to Jazz Ezgi, partner to Mem's and is known for droppin' truth bombs! Check out her website for more.


Comments

1 person likes this.
Thank you Roxy. We are out here and have always been out here. Peeps just made a choice to not include. us. This is why some of us opened our own studios. Love to you and that little one of yours.
Thank you Roxy. This blog is so clear, I appreciate you writing it. I’m humbled and grateful to any POC who is still willing to offer guidance on these issues. I believe our industry needs you. I support you and Black Girl Pilates. I benefit so much from Pilates Anytime in general, the relief I feel now knowing they are in alignment with what we need is really great. Let’s keep going together. Thank you so much. 
1 person likes this.
Thank you for this Roxy, an imperative post. 
Meg
1 person likes this.
Thank you Roxy. I have shared this with my @flowwithmeg community!
Hi Roxy! Thank you so much for speaking here about this and making it very clear what the problems are and how we can work to build a more equitable community at large. I can't help but notice that your post seems to be the only mention of this movement on the Pilates Anytime website. What is PA as an organization doing to support Black communities and Black Pilates Teachers? What research are they doing? What initiatives are they investigating? How do they plan to center Black voices? If they are working on these things, how can we find out about it? Thank you.
1 person likes this.
Teresa! I love that you're the first person to comment! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.  Big hug from up North ;) 
Margaret and Belly Studio thank you for your comments, it's best if PA responds directly to your question.  What I can share is that PA has been covering Black voices in the Pilates Industry on their Instagram page and I believe there were efforts in place (re: diversifying their platform) before covid-19, but they would have to answer all of that.
Belly Studio ~ Roxy is correct in her response! I have been doing discussions weekly this month on our IG page to share what black people go through in life and in the Pilates industry. They are all saved on our page. We are also planning a panel discussion with other teachers, who haven't been featured on the site yet, which will be in our webinar series. Last, we have been doing work for a while to bring more diversity to the site (some of our plans were disrupted by the shelter in place order as we aren't able to film in our studio/have people fly to film with us). We plan to continue doing work on our end to make sure that everyone feels welcome and safe in the Pilates community.
Gia Calhoun  I hadn't been aware of the work on IG, I will be sure to look at it and stay tuned there for future programming. Thank you so much for the response and for your work!  
AC
2 people like this.
Belly Studio I agree! I’d love to see PA create playlists of Black instructors’ classes, and commit to working with more Black and POC talent (both as teachers and as bodies). 
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