Going to the gym can be a really uncomfortable experience for many people—and not just because it leaves you hot and sweaty. The fitness industry often actively espouses harmful and oppressive ideologies, and its tendency to promote body shaming and unhealthy relationships with food are well documented by nutritionists and fat liberation activists alike.
But another particularly troubling reality of the fitness industry is that, like the rest of the world, it often excludes other marginalized groups. Because fitness is so tied to people’s bodies, transphobia, ableism, racism, etc. are often weaponized under the guise of health.
This is why Asher Freeman founded Nonnormative Body Club, a fitness project with “a goal to create accessible fitness spaces for those of us whose bodies and identities rebel against normative definitions of beauty and health.” They offer a variety of wellness workshops, group fitness classes, and personal training services to meet the needs of these communities—all on a sliding scale to ensure that everything is as accessible as possible.
The idea for Nonnormative Body Club arose when Freeman was in the process of coming out as trans, and they were bouncing around a bunch of gyms’ free trial periods to find something they enjoyed. “I felt like I could go into a pretty mainstream gym and feel relatively safe, just not talking to anyone and not going in the bathroom,” Freeman says. “But I didn't feel like I had that with personal training. There was very little that was trans friendly and weight neutral.”
Years later, after doing community organizing and youth work, Freeman realized that they were ready for a career change that was more physical and let them use their body more. They began thinking back to their own experiences as a trans person in traditional fitness spaces, and all the things they wish they knew and had on their fitness journey. Thus, Nonnormative Body Club was born.
A central tenet of the classes and workshops that Freeman offers is that the space should be accessible and anti–oppressive. Everyone should be able to feel comfortable and in control of their own body within the class. “We're not gonna talk badly about our bodies, or each other's bodies. We're not gonna say things about how much weight we need to lose or celebrate weight loss,” Freeman says.
The result is that Freeman has cultivated a small but committed group of people who frequent their group fitness sessions, and everyone in the class feels very connected to one another. “I think I haven't done a lot to advertise the group fitness classes, because there's something that feels really special to me about maintaining as much of a community feeling as possible,” they explain.
While the pandemic has made growing these local communities more difficult, it has also allowed Freeman to collaborate more with people in other regions, which means that inclusive fitness spaces like Nonnormative Body Club are able to reach people who don’t reside in the few cities where such projects are located.
Last year, a group of fitness professionals committed to creating anti–oppressive spaces within the industry joined together to create the Fitness for All Bodies project. The online course, which is led primarily by Black queer and trans instructors—and organized by Coach Justice Roe Williams of Boston’s Queer Gym Pop Up—offers training on a variety of topics ranging from ableism in workout classes to fatphobia from personal trainers to cultural appropriation in yoga.
Freeman notes that Coach Justice Roe was actually their trainer in Kettlebell, and that his leadership in creating inclusive fitness spaces is setting the groundwork for a more connected network of these kinds of studios and instructors. “It's one of the first places that I see pretty much every fitness professional I know who's really invested in anti–oppressive work, plugging into and collaborating in that space,” Freeman notes.
Another big part of Freeman’s work at Nonnormative Body Club is designing workshops specifically for trans people, who often can’t find tailored workout plans that address their unique health needs. A big area of concern is chest binding, which when done improperly (e.g. with the wrong size binder or for more than eight hours at a time), can cause pain and discomfort, tenderness or swelling of tissue, and even breathing challenges.
Even for people who have never worn a binder, many of the same exercises and stretches will benefit them, too. As Freeman explains, “even if someone's never worn a binder, it’s likely they've also had the experience of hiding their chest, like bringing in their shoulders and creating a pattern in their body that mimics a binder.”
This is why Nonnormative Body Club offers specialized workshops on binding and top surgery preparation and recovery. These issues are pretty common among trans people, but finding comprehensive resources can be difficult. “With top surgery recovery, a lot of people are curious about when they can do what and are really nervous because it's a big surgery, and especially for people who haven't had surgery before, it can be really confusing,” Freeman explains. “And not every surgeon will go through thoroughly what people can and can't do.”
Instead, Freeman spoke with many experts on the topic—everyone from surgeons to chiropractors to individuals who have had top surgery—to create a general baseline upon which to base their recovery plan for clients. Of course, as with any recovery, the final authority on what is and isn’t safe rests with the surgeon who did the procedure. But Freeman’s plan is an important and sometimes necessary resource for people who feel their surgeons aren't so clear.
Being able to get fitness coaching from someone who has similar experiences can encourage people to start caring for their health. Particularly among marginalized communities, distrust in medical and fitness industries is common because of long histories of maltreatment and abuse. That's why Nonnormative Body Club is so important—it offers a space where people can trust that their trainer will see them for who they are and not try to push oppressive or harmful ideas about what their body should look like.
"This is something that my community needs," Freeman says. "It feels important to me, and really exciting to be able to offer both the education and encouragement around how we can do exercises that support our bodies."
If you’re looking for resources related to binding, the next binding health workshop is July 27th at 7:30 p.m. EST (sliding scale $0–50). In the meantime, check out their website to see a list of other group classes and personal training options, and follow their Instagram to get updates on everything they’re doing.