Exercise plays a critical role in supporting health and wellbeing. Aside from the endorphin release that helps us manage our stress and emotions, physical activity can help support mental wellbeing. One form of exercise that has continued to rise in popularity in recent decades is Pilates. Pilates was developed in the 1920s and has seen consistent growth throughout the last few decades. When the pandemic hit, Pilates was one of the fitness trends that came back into prominence. Despite its popularity, Pilates is still an industry that lacks diversity. Fatphobia, racism, and accessibility challenges continue to steer people away—but that is slowly starting to change. Sonja R. Price Herbert is a New York-based writer, speaker and Pilates instructor who founded Black Girl Pilates. Herbert sat down to discuss her trajectory, why a dedicated space that centers Black people is so important, and the ways that white supremacy continues to operate within the industry.
Janice Gassam Asare: So, Sonja, for the Forbes readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you share a little bit about your background?
Sonja R. Price Herbert: Yes. So, my primary background is actually in social work. I was in social work for 20 years. Currently in the process of getting my MSW. I have an undergrad BSW. So that’s what my college degree is in and one of my many loves. I’m also a Pilates instructor full time. I’ve been teaching Pilates for 15 years. I’m also an anti-racism educator and consultant for Pilates and fitness. Pilates is kind of its own little niche, I guess, underneath the fitness umbrella. I consider myself an author as well because I published my own little booklet. And a power lifter, whenever I decide to power lift.
Asare: What are some patterns that you’ve noticed within the industry?
Herbert: There’s lots of stories of things that happened to me, stories of things that people have shared with me that have happened. What I do see the most is your more forward-facing things, which would be representation. In your bigger box gyms, your Equinoxes, your Lifetimes, 24 Hours, things like that, you don’t see representation above management, sort of lower-level management. Above us pretty much is primarily white. Anything manager and below is, well then again, it’s primarily white as well. But definitely, the upper-level management is completely white. When I would attend a yoga course, that was pretty much the thing. The owner, the person managing the studio or gym, was always primarily white. It was rare that I ever saw folks that look like me.
Nowadays, things have changed, because there’s been a lot of pushback from the Black fitness professional folks. I teach Pilates…I mostly have been in that part of fitness and pushing for not just representation, but our voices being heard and us being leaders…I founded Black Girl Pilates, which is a collective of Black-identifying women all over the world who teach Pilates. I have a support group on Facebook. There’s about, almost 530 in the group. There’s a much larger Black Pilates community than I thought there would be…we want to be in spaces where we feel safe, we don’t have to codeswitch. We don’t have to hide ourselves. We can actually be our Black selves.
Asare: One of the things that you’ve talked consistently about on your platform is decolonizing Pilates. Could you explain the idea behind that?
Herbert: It’s literally about taking whiteness out of the method, because exercise or movement isn’t necessarily a color. There’s a culture around movement. But when whiteness comes into something, it takes away everything. It strips everything and it leaves itself. For the method to decolonize itself, it has to remove what’s been keeping everyone else from being a part of it, particularly Black people. We all learned how to teach white bodies, because that’s all we saw. And so, we expect in Pilates that everybody is going to look like that white body that we’ve seen in our certification programs. And it’s not true at all. It’s important that it’s acknowledged…and that every time we’re looking at any body, we’re always seeing a white body…because whiteness, it’s the default. If the body doesn’t look like that, then you’re going to force that body into a position that may not be good for it.
Asare: That actually is a really good segue. How can the industry be more inclusive to people of different sizes? There’s this idea that you go into Pilates or any sort of fitness to be thin. There may be instructors who don’t fit that prototype. How do you see that manifesting within the industry, and fitness in general?
Herbert: Well, I think actually to start to address that, the fitness industry needs to go back to acknowledging whiteness and anti-blackness. I personally feel like you cannot separate racism and all the other isms…homophobia, transphobia, all those things are under the umbrella of white supremacy. You have racism. You have anti-black racism, because we all know that if there’s a body that’s policed the most, it’s going to be a Black body, no matter how a person identifies. But we also know the default is a white body. And a white specific body. When you start to take exercise classes, or yoga, or whatever, you look at what is the default. What do you usually see on magazines? It always starts with white supremacy…when the fitness industry can acknowledge white supremacy. And yes, I also participated in it. And I have also pushed it forward, because that’s how I’m conditioned. I have to start there and I’ve got to start with myself individually. How have I carried this forward?
When I talk about inclusivity, which I have to say is not one of my favorite words, I speak about it from more of a Black perspective, because I’m a Black person. I said this the other day, that I don’t feel that the Black community wants to be included. I think we should just be there because we deserve to be there like any other human being…I don’t want to just be there as representation. I want to be there, because I deserve to be there. I deserve to be there and my voice needs to be heard. Versus being included, I want to be there because you know I deserve to be there. You never allowed my presence to be there…we’ve disrespected your community, or we’ve taken advantage of it, and you deserve to be heard. And you deserve to lead. Those are the words that I want to hear in Pilates, in the fitness industry. Not, how can I include you all into what we’re doing?
Asare: How do you think Pilates could be more accessible to different communities? When I hear it, I kind of know what it is, but I don’t think, ‘Let me join a Pilates class.’ I don’t know anyone that does Pilates. I know it’s good for your body, but I just don’t have that urge. And I think maybe there’s a lot of people from marginalized communities who feel that same way. How do you think it could be more accessible?
Herbert: Well, fortunately, with the startup Black Girl Pilates, we were able to make it a lot more accessible to folks in our community. There are many folks in the group who specifically work in our communities…so they’re kind of already doing that. As far as non-black studios, for them, it’s going to be a lot deeper, because a lot of them set up shop in their own communities. Or they set up shop in affluent communities. And I’m not saying Black people don’t have money, because we do. But the conditioning is to set up where you feel comfortable. And that’s always going to be in a white community. Some of the studios that I’ve worked with have started community classes. You have to engage in a community for them to even trust you. If it starts there and it expands out, then I’m going to start to feel safe as a Black person in your studio. And then, hopefully, I will start to see more of me, people that look like me. And if we say that a space is safe, we’re going to go there. We’re going to probably want to work there. But if we don’t feel any of that, then we’re not going to go there.
This interview has been lighted edited for clarity and brevity†