Saturday, April 1, 2023

Black Women, Fitness & the Diaspora: Initiatives & Inspirations to Seek

When you think of black women and fitness, perhaps images of Jessica Ennis in a heptathlon, Kenyan star Mercy Cherono running a long distance race, or pictures of Serena Williams on the tennis court (or more recently of her sister Venus, posing nude for ESPN) may pop into your head. But is it just as easy to recall the image of the everyday black woman in the gym on the treadmill, jogging past you down the street or doing a sun salutation in a yoga class? I’d argue such pictures are harder to conjure – both in the mind and in the media.

But why is this? Are there fewer black women engaged in these regimes compared to our white contemporaries? Or is it simply that such imagery is not projected as much into mainstream media and therefore we are rendered invisible when we think about women in fitness in general?

WelI, with the World Cup underway and SPICE’s month-long celebration of all things Sports, I set to work to look for initiatives and individuals that were bucking this trend to find the best black-lead fitness ventures across the African diaspora, and here’s what I found…

Black Girls Run runners sporting the group's slogan tee
Black Girls Run runners sporting the group’s slogan tee

Racing to the forefront is Black Girls Run – a movement set up “to tackle the growing obesity epidemic in the African-American community.” The group’s website shows hundreds of black women in running gear, getting involved in local groups and organised runs, and refreshingly injects the image of the everyday women of colour working out into the media. If you want to begin a fitness journey, or get involved in an empowering black women’s group, training with people that look like you, this sounds like a great approach.

Tonya Lewis Lee – wife to famed director Spike Lee – created Healthy You Now, which is a website that offers healthy lifestyle advice. It was created following her work with the Office of Minority Health and after she came to know about the shockingly high infant mortality rate amongst African Americans. In a bid to improve the health and fitness of black women (whether they plan to become pregnant soon or not), the website offers great help and tips. Lewis Lee’s documentary, Crisis in the Crib: Saving Our Nation’s Babies (an illuminating film about the disparity regarding black maternal health) may also get you thinking about the future and how your health, they are both interlinked.

Tonya Lewis Lee, founder of Healthy You Now
Tonya Lewis Lee, founder of Healthy You Now

In Tonya’s film, stress played a central role as an influencer of health; it was found to be a major contributing factor causing black women to have a disproportionate number of pre-term or low weight babies. For this reason, I sought to find a fitness regime that’s regarded as an ultimate de-stresser, and although there’s an assumption that Black Folk’s Don’t… Do Yoga, I’d suggest you try Afrikan Yoga, where the popular practice is set against the background of African drums. The fitness phenomenon has been given a more rhythmic approach by the UK-based group, who draw on ancient Egyptian traditions for their fitness practice with a cultural twist. Amongst the associated health benefits (yoga can be seen to help reduce blood pressure, lower blood sugars in diabetics as well as aid flexibility and circulation) it’s also great to see this type of cross-fertilisation and targeting of black communities – and , back on the continent, the Africa Yoga Project, based in Kenya, offers courses to train young Africans in the practice as well as courses in entrepreneurship, so they can create successful businesses from the practice, too.

Participants of the Africa Yoga Project
Participants of the Africa Yoga Project

When I took the topic of black women and fitness to my friends, the conversation turned to hair – a serious issue (despite it being about vanity) that may stop some black women from really  working out. This is totally understandable if you invest a lot of time, money or effort in your hair, as you won’t want to mess it up by sweating it out. Enter Nicole Ari Parker, the actress-turned-entrepreneur who has come up with a solution for the hair vs working out problem. Parker’s invention, Save Your Do is an innovative head band that stops you sweating your edges out when exercising, so you don’t have to spend an excessive amount of time redoing your hair following a work out, or avoiding the gym and evading the type of health Tonya Lewis Lee wants to help you with.

Join the movement Pretty Girls Sweat and prove that pretty girls, well, sweat.
Join the movement Pretty Girls Sweat and prove that pretty girls aren’t afraid to, well, sweat.

But vanity in fitness doesn’t end with our hair. Perhaps due to the media’s pressure on women to look good at all times, the importance of how you look  even whilst you work out to obtain an ideal-looking body, means looking good (not sweaty and out of breath) often prevails. The Pretty Girls Sweat initiative looks to counter this pressure and banish all care for our dewy appearance.  Much like Black Girls Run, but with a younger target demographic, the organisation is backed by Keri Hilson and champions working out via its website and fitness events, and, with its social media platforms and online fitness videos, spreads imagery of girls of all sorts getting their sweat on. So why not join them? You can even sign up to be a Pretty Girls Sweat Ambassador.

Eunice Sum, 2013 World Champion, 800m and one of the stars of the Nike Free Elite Kenyan runners ad campaign
Eunice Sum, 2013 World Champion, 800m and one of the stars of the Nike Free Elite Kenyan runners ad campaign

But, if my list of cool black-focused fitness organisations aren’t encouragement enough to be your own ambassador of working out, why not look to that oft assumed ‘elusive’ imagery of black women working out, using Nike’s recent campaign using Kenyan longest distance runners Betsy Saina, Sam Chelanga and Mica Kogo, amongst others, as example. Or, if none of the above programmes are local to you, how about you join Kamila McDonald – a Jamaican, dreadlocked Rastafarian fitness coach – on her recently launched 10 Pound Pledge, from the comfort of your own home? The fitness campaign is carried through a video series posted online, showing you plenty of result-inducing routines that you can do at home, using everyday objects – making fitness accessible to all.

Kamila McDonald, co-founder of 10 Pound Pledge
Kamila McDonald, co-founder of 10 Pound Pledge

And that’s just the point: fitness is accessible to all, regardless of your hair, need to stay looking fresh or indeed your skin colour – I just hope that my list of black and African fitness initiatives has inspired you to look one of them up for yourself, or at the very least gives you a little more variety in your mental imagery the next time someone asks you to think of women in sport. Not that it’s going to be easy to rid that shot of Venus looking trim in ESPN Magazine from mind anytime soon…

Written by Sekai Makoni

Video & image source:,,,,,

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