By hiring body-diverse trainers and removing the association between body size and health, fitness platforms can make their virtual spaces safer for people of all body shapes and sizes.

In the past 20 months or so, at-home fitness participant numbers reached unprecedented numbers because of the pandemic (1, 2).

With gyms closed, people looked to online fitness platforms for motivation, hopping on smart bikes and treadmills and unrolling yoga mats to get bendy.

For those who may feel intimidated by exercising in a gym setting, working out at home may seem less anxiety-inducing, as there’s no one there to judge your abilities or body.

Yet virtual fitness brands like Peloton and iFIT aren’t as welcoming for some people — namely fat people.

Even if you look past the svelte, muscular trainers, you’ll spot workouts with monikers like “fat burner,” “weight loss,” and “tone and tighten.” These assume that everyone is there for the same reason: to lose weight and transform their appearance.

Supernatural, a virtual-reality fitness game available on the Oculus Quest and recently acquired by Meta (formerly known as Facebook), is taking a different approach to fitness, one that’s more inclusive and far less focused on external appearance.

Coaches don’t talk about calories or the scale. Workouts are about feeling strong and confident, regardless of body size.

Recently, the brand brought in avid user Chesney Mariani, who doesn’t have the typical fitness trainer body type, as a guest coach.

The move feels like an honest effort on Supernatural’s part to make the virtual fitness world more size-inclusive.

While Supernatural has taken a step in the right direction toward body representation, Supernatural and other virtual platforms can do better.

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A quick note on the term “fat”

While the terms “overweight” and “obese” have standardized criteria and are still widely used in the healthcare space, they can also suggest that there’s a right weight to aspire to.

Instead, this article uses “fat” as a neutral alternative term.

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Michelle Hoover, a personal trainer who calls herself a Joyful Movement Coach, says she stays away from most big-name platforms because, although they occasionally highlight people in larger bodies, they may use them as “weight loss success stories.”

Jonny Ahdout, Supernatural’s head of product marketing and community, says the brand stands behind the idea that “if fitness has rejected you, we welcome you.”

Mariani’s recent inclusion on the platform is a move other online fitness brands have yet to copy, and it proved to be largely successful. Users responded to Mariani’s guest coach workout with gusto.

Mariani herself is a Supernatural fan. When asked about whether her inclusion as a guest coach amounts to a kind of tokenism, she adamantly shot down the idea. But it’s hard to ignore that she was included in only a single workout — and the brand has repeatedly used her image to promote itself.

Regarding the brand’s plans for future fat inclusion, Ahdout responds that Supernatural will continue to celebrate Mariani — who has become somewhat of a mascot for the brand — and “find more leaders like her that inspire and welcome everyone to find their power.”

Simone Samuels, a personal trainer who supports the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, isn’t familiar with Supernatural but drives home that she’s more interested in a company’s strategic plans to hire and include more diverse trainers in their rosters. As Samuels notes, “Having one or two ‘diverse’ mascots does not cut it.”

Currently, Supernatural and other big players in the virtual fitness space, such as iFIT and Peloton, don’t employ fat trainers. Neither iFIT nor Peloton responded to our inquiry about plans for fat representation in their coaching lineups.

In the fitness world, there’s still a strong belief that fat is “bad” and that being fat is somehow a moral failing: You didn’t work hard enough, so you don’t deserve to feel confident or good about yourself or your body.

It’s a highly problematic belief that even prevails in the medical community. For example, people in larger bodies are less likely to access healthcare as a result of concerns about weight bias among medical professionals. (3).

However, emerging research suggests that body weight and body size may have less to do with a person’s overall health than once thought, and that weight is a poor determinant of overall health.

What’s more, studies show that weight stigma can have a greater detrimental effect on health (and mental health) than weight itself (4, 5, 6).

A recent study concludes that a weight-neutral approach to health that focuses on physical activity may be more productive than a weight-loss-focused strategy. Essentially — and this is something you’ve likely heard recently — you can be fat and fit (7).

And yet fitness companies have been painfully slow to include fat people in their trainer rosters because fat stigma is still prevalent in these spaces. As a result, as the above-mentioned study points out, shifting to a weight-neutral view of health is a huge challenge.

“It makes you feel like you don’t belong,” says fitness enthusiast and Supernatural fan Jennifer Retchko when asked how it feels not to see her body type represented in fitness content.

When you don’t see yourself represented, she adds, it’s as if you’re being told, “this is not a space for you, this is not a community for you.” And for people who already feel left out of in-person fitness spaces, it can be incredibly isolating to feel the same discomfort when turning to online fitness resources.

By hiring body-diverse trainers and removing the association between body size and health, fitness platforms can make their virtual spaces safer for people of all body shapes and sizes.

Supernatural user Anne Otterness admits that there isn’t a lot of body-diverse fitness content out there. She’ll sometimes see plus-size yoga ads on Facebook but says that they likely pop up because that’s what she’s searching for already.

Ultimately, she feels that she shouldn’t have to look so hard for plus-size fitness content.

Additionally, despite the growing trend of fitness influencers in larger bodies, their bodies are often part of their brands. For example, it’s rare to see trainers, coaches, and fitness influencers — whether solo or working with a prominent company — who just happen to have bigger bodies.

“I don’t want to see yoga for fat people,” says Otterness. “If weight or size wasn’t the target, but different sizes were on my screen, it sends the powerful message that all types are included here and it’s not a big deal.”

For Otterness, the key to fitness participation regardless of size is having a supportive environment. When a platform champions body inclusivity, it allows people of any body type to enjoy fitness without the stress of meeting expectations or fear of judgment.

“Whenever fitness is part of my life, my mental and emotional health skyrockets,” says Otterness.

“Working to separate exercise from the outcome of weight loss will benefit us all,” says non-diet fitness trainer Karen Preene. “Exercise has so many benefits that go far, far beyond weight loss. But in order to do that, we need to create environments where everybody feels welcome and represented,”

Samuels points out that the current fitness landscape is very white and dominated by cisgender people with thin, muscular bodies.

She adds that when people don’t see themselves represented, they start to question not only whether they belong but also whether they’re even capable or able to participate in fitness activities.

This may then cause them to miss out on the positive non-weight-related benefits of exercise, such as improved mood and self-confidence, lower blood pressure, and stronger bones and muscles.

Alex Joy Pucci, an anti-diet health coach and personal trainer, used to sell weight loss like other fitness instructors. She now recognizes the importance of a body-neutral approach to fitness. “To be body-neutral is to recognize that we are more than our bodies,” says Pucci.

The focus on “loving your body,” says Samuels, has the potential to alienate many people who may not be able to or aren’t interested in body love for whatever reason.

Retchko says people in larger bodies do show up in some online fitness content, but when they do, they tend to fade into the background.

Fat people are often used to demonstrate modifications, but Retchko feels it’s unnecessary for these always to be done by the fat person in the room. People of all sizes require modifications. She adds that people of all sizes are also capable of crushing their workouts.

Hoover explains that body neutrality in fitness gives people the opportunity to move their bodies without expectations.

“They get to move their bodies for enjoyment,” says Hoover. “The fitness world is full of false acceptance with the ‘everyone is welcome here’ signs, etc. The fitness industry really only feels safe to fat folks if you’re trying to stop being fat.”

Samantha DeCaro, psychologist and director of clinical outreach and education at the Renfrew Center, explains that the body positivity movement was initially spearheaded to center and liberate marginalized bodies.

“The movement was designed to shift the focus from the thin-ideal and society’s definition of ‘health’ to the acceptance and celebration of all sizes, colors, abilities, genders, and weights,” says DeCaro.

Influencers and the mainstream media have since co-opted the term “body positivity.”

Search for “body positivity” on Instagram and you’ll see a slew of people sharing their before-and-after weight loss stories and thin people sticking out and folding over their bellies at different angles, desperate to show others that they, too, have bad body image days.

When you’re fat, though, you don’t just have bad body image days. You’re faced with a society that views you as “less than.”

Unlike body positivity, body neutrality insists on a nonjudgmental approach to our bodies.

“The term reminds us that we do not have to fall in love with our body or think positively about it all the time to respect it, to nourish it, to listen to its cues, or to appreciate what it can do for us,” says DeCaro.

A body deserves respect regardless of how it looks or functions.

When Retchko does see fat bodies represented, it feels great, but she worries that it’s often done in a performative manner. She hopes that Supernatural brings on trainers with bigger bodies in a more consistent fashion.

When it comes to the online fitness world at large, she wants to see fat people brought out of the background and put up front and center.

She adds that she also wants to see people with varied fat bodies out there, not just those with “acceptable fat bodies.” “I want to see them all,” says Retchko.

Hoover says that virtual fitness platforms should commit to hiring fat trainers — not just “curvy” ones.

She adds that they should also stop making assumptions about why people choose to participate in fitness activities. After all, not everyone has the same goal.

Many people work out for reasons that have nothing to do with weight loss, such as improved mental health, strength, confidence, and stress relief. Some also find a community in the fitness world, whether it’s with like-minded people online or an in-person running group.

Instead of talking about weight loss and getting toned and slim, she says trainers should focus on highlighting non-body-specific goals.

“But representation is not the end-all, be-all,” says Samuels. “What happens after they are represented?” She asks. “Is there any systemic change? We have to move beyond diversity to inclusion, and then from inclusion to equity and justice for all bodies.”

While Supernatural’s move to include Mariani as a guest coach is a step forward in fat representation in the online fitness world, there’s still a long way to go to create safe, inclusive spaces for people with bigger bodies.

Thankfully, despite the lack of body diversity on big-brand platforms and apps, individual personal trainers like Samuels, Preene, and Hoover are working to pave the way forward and show people that fitness doesn’t have to be about wanting to change your body but learning to enjoy moving it.

Steph Coelho is a health journalist based in Montreal, Canada, who has intimate knowledge of living with a mental health condition and chronic illness. She has bylines with Healthline, Everyday Health, and Medical News Today. You can find her on Twitter.