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Katie Sturino On Making Exercise More Inclusive    

Katie Sturino On Making Exercise More Inclusive

Art by FISK

Despite the benefits of exercise on our mental health, fitness culture can often be so toxic that it negatively impacts our wellbeing. Known for its extreme, all-or-nothing approach and limited view of what makes a “good” body (usually one that’s thin and white), as well as its inaccessibility, it can be such an intimidating space that many choose to avoid working out altogether. 

Katie Sturino, founder of the personal care brand Megababe and the author of “Body Talk: How to Embrace Your Body and Start Living Your Best Life,” saw this fear and discomfort firsthand amongst friends who didn’t fit the size two mold that’s become so common in workout classes. Along with her pal Hunter McGrady, a plus-size Sports Illustrated model, she made it her mission to change that. “We heard so frequently from women in our communities that they didn't feel comfortable when they walked into a fancy boutique fitness studio, everyone looked the same,” said Sturino, Zooming in from her apartment in New York City. “They felt like they didn't have the right outfits and that they couldn't take their shirt off and just wear a sports bra like everyone else.” 

In March of 2019, they launched a series of judgment-free workout classes that welcomed all women, no matter their size or experience level. “We wanted to see what would happen if you walked into the same space and did the same workout, but with a group of women who you knew to be inclusive, mentally and physically,” she said. “[The result] was pretty magical.”

We caught up with Sturino to find out how she’s gotten over-exercise intimidation in her own life, what the fitness industry needs to work on to create a more inclusive culture, and her advice for developing a more healthy, less punishment-oriented relationship to exercise.

TLO: How do you ensure that an inclusive environment is created in the Babe Body classes, with so many different studios and instructors in the mix? 

Katie: We have not gotten it perfect. Sometimes the conversation that we have with the PR team of a workout facility is [not aligned with what you experience] when you get into the actual studio, and you have other clients there who are not as accepting. That happened to us once or twice, and it was very uncomfortable, but, for the most part, we find out who the instructor is and try to understand if they’re someone who really gets inclusivity. It is not really about the size of the instructor, it’s much more about whether they’re going to understand why you are there. It is never about getting our "summer body on," it’s about challenging yourself and accomplishing your personal goals. In the classes, both Hunter and I would also always take our shirts off and just work out in sports bras so that people could really feel comfortable doing the same and see that body diversity firsthand. 

TLO: What has the response been like from the women who’ve taken the classes? 

Katie: There have been tears. People have said things like, "I’ve always wanted to go to this class, and now I feel comfortable." I think it is a huge relief in many cases because sometimes you have built something up to be really scary in your head, and then you go and you're like, "That actually wasn't bad! What else can I do?" So I think the experience is inspiring for a lot of women.

TLO: I feel like exercising can be so intimidating in general. How have you gotten over that roadblock in your own life?

Katie: I mean, have I? That's the question. I went to Barry's Bootcamp recently because I was like, "I’ve got to try this out." I didn't think it was a workout that I was going to enjoy and I didn't think it was an environment I was going to love and I was right. I hated it! You could feel the competitive adrenaline in the runners, and that is great if that’s the kind of workout you like, but I prefer to be competitive off the treadmill. I do feel like fashion is a way that I’ve made myself more comfortable because, as silly as it sounds, when I’m wearing a cute workout outfit, it does somehow make me feel more confident in the gym. 

TLO: What would you like to see the larger fitness industry do to create the environment that you guys are creating at BabeBody?

Katie: First of all, it’s about addressing different levels of fitness and announcing that modifications are okay upfront. The message should be that showing up is the most important thing and that you should just do what you can. You're obviously encouraging people to push themselves, but you want to let people know you’re going to meet them where they're at today. I think watching [that language around exercise] more is so important. I work out with different apps and videos on my computer, and it’s so often about "rock hard abs” or being “flat in the front," and that kind of stuff is not that inclusive. I really think it comes down to the instructor – even a Barry's workout can be inclusive with the right person. Marnie Alton and Megan Roup really speak to the human in you and focus on movement that feels good. I think a lot of people could learn from that approach. 

TLO: How do you frame exercise in your mind so that it isn’t all about physical appearance?

Katie: It may sound like I’m 65-year-sold but the physical aspect I focus on is the practical part of fitness, like the need to be able to go up stairs, get in and out of a taxi, carry groceries five blocks, or any of those little movements that we do everyday, you just want to be able to do those easily. I workout so that I can just live my life with ease. 

TLO: Do you feel like exercise does anything for your mental health? 

Katie: Oh, yes. My workout today was legitimately a rage workout. I don't know if it is the heat in NYC right now or what, but I was like, "I want to punch everyone in the face, I need to go workout." I am always a different person at the end of a workout than I was when I started.

TLO: A lot of people, and women especially, have a very unhealthy relationship with exercise where they put so much pressure on themselves to do it, or to do it a certain way. How have you gotten to a place in your life where you don't have that mindset?

Katie: I think that exercise serves as some form of punishment for many women/ There’s a part in my book called "should I or should I not eat this cookie?" and I think that is how women view exercise, as a punishment tool for the “sins” they have committed during the day. Or it can come from just seeing another woman’s arms or stomach and saying, "I don't look like that, so I need to hit it harder." Not everyone has to feel like me or think like me, but that is just not how I choose to live my life.

TLO: Have you always been that way? 

Katie: No! I wrote a whole book about it. I was not always that way at all! I know about that mindset because I used to live that mindset where it was like, if I had a big dinner, I had to workout 30 extra minutes the next day or if I was going to the beach, I had to hit it harder. But that mindset did not affect my self-esteem in a positive way – the exercise served more as a punishment tool than a way to make myself feel good.

TLO: What advice would you give to other people who want to get to that healthier headspace?

Katie: One of the first things that I ask women to notice is how they speak to themselves in the mirror, to start noticing some of the negative things you say or how often you say them. Noticing the behavior is the first step to being able to change it, but it can be very hard to make that change. I think that’s the whole reason that I do what I do, whether it’s on my Instagram or with my book or even MegaBabe, it’s all about making women feel more comfortable in their own skin no matter their size, background, or age – it’s about meeting them where they are today.

I don't think that that means you can't change your physical body but there is a way to look at all of this without having it be the center of your brain. Losing weight doesn't make you happy – it is all the stuff that is underneath there that really generates your happiness. I also think there is a way to discuss weight loss in this space without being so black and white. I think we are evolving past the before and after photos, or at least I am. They’re not the healthiest way to express a changed body. Hunter and I actually had one of our photos used as a “before” image for some keto diet and it still circulates on Instagram. 

TLO: When something like that happens on the internet, or you experience body shaming, how do you handle it?

Katie: I talk about it. I’m grateful that I have gotten to the place where I have thick enough skin so that most of the time, that stuff does not bother me. When popular fashion influencers were posting things during Covid about weight gain fears, I was so disappointed to see it because these people follow me. It was disappointing to see that the connection [to body shaming] couldn't be made or that the biggest fear people had during Covid was gaining weight. American culture is messed up in many ways, and the way that we talk about bodies is really harmful.

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.