Meet The New Workout Gurus

Hannah-Rose Yee
marie claire

Plus-sized model Ashley Graham is one of the new wave of fitness gurus. Photo: Instagram

Fit equals slim. Right?

Fit equals svelte: long, toned limbs; golden, glowing skin; shiny, healthy hair; bright, white smiles; small.

This is the image of health beaming from behind the front desks at gyms, plastered on billboards advertising overtly aspirational sportswear, and on the #fitspo hashtag you secretly binge-stalk on Instagram.

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GALLERY: Meet the new workout gurus. Photo: Instagram

But a group of fitness gurus are challenging the notion that health is a question of size via social media (where else?), their daily posts inspiring a growing global community to move their bodies, no matter the shape.

There are the yoga enthusiasts, whose every selfie displaying larger bodies curved into back-bends goes viral (like Valerie Sagun, alias @biggalyoga, who spreads “self-love through yoga” to her 71,000 Instagram followers).

There are the plus-size athletes, like NSW’s Leah Gilbert, who storm across the finish lines at triathlons in plus-size activewear.

And, yes, there are the runners.

Earlier this year, Women’s Running magazine in the US caused a sensation by fronting their August issue with a size 18 cover star alongside the tagline “3 Reasons Your Weight Doesn’t Matter.”

The model in question – 18-year-old New Yorker Erica Schenk – has been running for fun for 10 years.

"Some women believe that since they have curves they can’t run or shouldn’t run," Schenk told the magazine. "Running is for every body anytime."

The experts agree. "There are a number of studies that show it’s much better to be fat and fit than thin and unfit," Dr Mike Loosemore told the UK’s Stella magazine. "The emphasis should be on activity, not size."

This taps into the Healthy At Every Size movement, which argues against the grain of prevailing medical wisdom that prioritises weight loss as a marker of health. Instead, physical activity, no matter how small, is viewed as paramount, and extreme dieting as verboten.

The movement has received criticism for its body positivity, which some believe normalises obesity.

But even its detractors agree that – whatever your weight – the physical and psychological benefits of moving your body are undeniable.

For many plus-size women, however, the world of fitness is intimidating and discouraging. What these new fitness gurus represent is a way into that world, without any of the judgement usually associated with weight.

"We live in a very weight-focused society where thinness is rewarded," says psychotherapist Sarah Harry, co-director of Body Positive Australia. "Seeing a range of sizes and body types [being active] is very inspirational and helps to dispel a lot of the fears that people have about exercising. It’s empowering."