Stories from Fitness Technology

Peloton Added a Non-binary Feature to Its Platform but the Fitness Industry Still Has a Long Way to Go Towards Inclusivity for LGBTQ+ People

Zoe Weiner

Zoe WeinerJune 18, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/ Grace Cary

Traditionally, when a user logged in to create a Peloton account, they were asked to choose between one of two genders: male or female. But as of June 15, the app has added a third “non-binary” option for users to select, which will display on the leaderboard when they ride. For members of the trans and gender non-conforming community, it is a small step in the right direction. This action has made clear the role small changes to platforms—like being able to see your gender properly represented in a digital fitness class—can play in making a marginalized group feel included. Because when looking at the fitness industry at large, it’s clear just how many more steps need to be taken for it to become truly inclusive.

Peloton joins other digital fitness apps, like Aaptiv and Variis, in including an alternate gender selection option on its platform. The term “non-binary” serves as an umbrella description for people who do not identify as either male or female, and includes those who identify as no gender, a gender other than male or female, or more than one gender. “Being as inclusive as possible opens things up for more visibility and acceptance of all bodies,” says fitness coach and activist Justice Roe, who identifies as a Black trans man. “They’re doing a good thing, but more could be done.”

Ashley Yergens, a New York City-based trainer who identifies as a trans man, believes that fitness companies should leave the gender option blank and allow users to fill in the identity they’re most comfortable with, instead of giving them a limited list of options to choose from. “Within the trans and non-binary community, there are so many different ideas of what that means. If you look up trans, it means you don’t identify with [the sex that] you were assigned at birth, but there are a ton of different experiences that look really different,” says Yergens.

Obé Fitness, for example, does not require users to select a gender for their profile. “If I’m being real, I think we should take out the gender option all together,” says the be.come project founder Bethany C. Meyers, who identifies as non-binary, though they think it’s “great” that Peloton is taking positive steps toward being more inclusive. But, they say, “there are always places where we can do more.”

Fitness has traditionally been a challenging space for trans, queer, and non-binary individuals

The gender selection factor is only one of the ways that the fitness industry has isolated trans and gender non-conforming individuals. “Going to a gym can feel really intimidating—most gyms or even studio spaces have gendered male and female locker rooms, certain gender setups [such as female-only spaces] are there within the studio that don’t create a super comforting space,” says Meyers. “I don’t think people often realize in what nuanced ways fitness is super, super gendered. There still seems to be “girl” classes and “boy” classes, or classes being ascribed to a certain gender trait, which is just crazy. A barre class isn’t a girly class—movement itself is not inherently gendered.”

The fact that fitness continues to be largely body-focused—with classes advertising things like “fixing the quarantine 15”—doesn’t help, either. “There are so many classes that focus on ‘fixing’ your body or making it better,” says ThemsHealth founder Nina Kossoff, who identifies as non-binary. “But many queer, trans, and non-binary people have been told that our bodies are not worthy by virtue of our gender or sexuality. Exacerbating that even further with classes that say: ‘Let me remind you, you’re still not good enough and you need to change your body,’ doesn’t feel good.”

Then, there’s the issue of accessibility. “[The trans and non-binary community] is less likely to have as much money as perhaps a cisgender, white person,” says Kossoff. As of 2015, the U.S. transgender poverty rate was double the national average, and the unemployment rate was three times higher than the national average, and 2008 research showed that the average earnings of male-to-female transgender workers fell by nearly a third after their transition. “If you add in the layer of income disparity based on being LGBTQ… it’s just not going to be likely that we’re going to be able to participate in certain classes,” says Kossoff. “Anything that costs money is inherently going to exclude portions of this community.”

The industry is shifting in a positive, more inclusive direction

These disparities have paved the way for the “body neutrality” movement in the queer fitness world, which has become an important element for making all genders and body types feel included in the space. “Body neutrality is really seeing yourself and who you are beyond the body,” says Meyers, who teaches digital body-neutral classes through the be.come project. “It’s really about breaking down and dismantling these rules of what is beautiful and what health looks like.” Instead of focusing on the ways your body can be improved, the way fitness has traditionally done, body neutral movement focuses on “all the things that you are, and all of the things that you have to give back to yourself,” says Meyers.

Digital fitness, to its credit, removes some of the barriers that trans and non-binary individuals have historically had to face at gyms and studios. “Online, you’re in the safety of your own home, and it creates this space where you can really come as you are,” says Meyers. “I’ve personally experienced discomfort going back into studios, whether it be from a gender standpoint or just because it can be intimidating overall, so I think online has really opened things up a lot.”

Additionally, bringing classes online has made them more affordable and helped unwind them from being location-specific for the trans community. Themsehealth, for example, now holds a weekly queer yoga class at NYC’s SkyTing Yoga online versus in- studio. “That class was something that only people in New York, who were available every other Sunday and could pay for class could have access to,” says Kossoff. “But now, it’s a digital yoga class where you have an instructor talking about things like the best stretches to do if you bind your chest, and you’re not going to find that in a lot of other places.” Many classes, including this one, also offer sliding scales to make them more affordable and reach more people in the trans and non-binary community.

But there’s still more that needs to be done

Even with adding gender-inclusive options, migrating away from body-negative language, and making classes reachable online, there’s still work to be done. Roe calls for a more diverse cast of instructors and bodies to be represented in mainstream fitness, both digital and IRL. “There’s this idea that’s being pushed through media and through institutions about the way a body is supposed to look—we’re all being told what this norm is, but that’s not the reality, and being able to create media where all bodies are seen and celebrated in diverse ways is a powerful and positive thing.”

He calls for more inclusive hiring practices, gender-inclusive bathrooms and locker rooms, and financial support for organizations championing trans visibility as more things large fitness brands can do to make their platforms and physical spaces more inclusive.

“So many of the negative parts of our society still show up in a place where people should just be able to connect with their bodies,” says Kossoff. “All of fitness needs to have a reckoning with its point of view on race, gender, size, and ability. That’s going to be a slow moving process, but it’s an important one.”

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