Distressed

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Maya Saffron is a women-only personal trainer, specialising in pre- and post-natal fitness – but she hasn’t always had such a positive relationship with health and fitness.

As a child she struggled with cravings for unhealthy snack foods, and struggled with her self-esteem – feeling as though she stood out from her friends as both the wrong size and the wrong colour.

Now, Maya wants to help other women to feel confident and happy in their bodies – and help them to develop a healthy, lifelong relationship with exercise.

‘When I was 13 ,we moved from east London (which was very ethnically diverse) to Barnet (which was very white and pretty affluent),’ remembers Maya.

‘It was here where I became majorly unhappy about my body, and really stuck out as the fat brown girl.

‘In year 7 when I began my all girls secondary school, I felt very determined to make a change. I joined every extra curricula sports club and wouldn’t allow myself to eat anything past 7 pm.’

Throughout school, Maya had rigid and unsustainable diet and exercise patterns – she says that at that time she never viewed sport and exercise as something enjoyable, it was simply a means to achieving her ultimate goal of ‘skinniness’.

At 16 she became a lifeguard and at 17 she began working for a luxury wellness centre – where she began to learn more about exercising safely, and she set her heart on a career as a personal trainer.

‘On my PT course, I learnt loads more about exercise and how to train effectively and when I became a full-time personal trainer in the wellness club, that’s where I learnt the most,’ Maya tells us.

‘I started to realise that if you trained with a purpose and in the right way for your body, exercising could not only become enjoyable but addictive.

‘I now force myself to have a non-aesthetic (usually strength-based) fitness goal and encourage my clients to do the same.

‘This is much easier to do with my pre- and post-natal clients, however back when I trained all women, it was harder to get them to focus on the non-aesthetic elements, and I put this down to the harsh, mainly Eurocentric, unrealistic body standards that exist in society.’

It is these limited body ideals that Maya wants to push back against. She believes that society’s current standards of beauty are incredibly exclusive and push out women who don’t fit a specific mould.

She says this is a huge contributing factor that makes it hard for women of colour to feel welcome in fitness spaces.

‘Most of the body standards we want to achieve are because they have been decided for us by white (usually male) gate keepers,’ says Maya.

‘Yes, curvy bodies, big bums etc. are “in” now, but that’s only because these body-types have been given the green light by white people.

‘The appropriation of Black female bodies has majorly spilled over onto the fitness industry and goes hand-in-hand with the hyper-sexualisation of women in gym environments.’

Maya says one of her key goals is to take up space as a brown woman in these traditionally white spaces, in order to make a change.

‘I want to offer representation of a fitness professional that does not fit the stereotypes,’ she explains.

‘I did not go to university, I pursued fitness instead, I do not encourage my clients to calorie count, I tell them to have a non-aesthetic goal.

‘We don’t just have to be what they have decided we can be, we can be whatever is best for us.

‘Gyms and the fitness industry as a whole, are majority white spaces. I want other women of colour to look at me and know that they too can value themselves first and invest in their health.

‘Often, in BAME communities, women especially miss out on exercising and staying fit and this can lead to both mental and physical health issues. I like creating environments where everyone feels comfortable and understood.’

Maya says that fitness is a vital part of getting her through every day life, and whatever it throws at her.

‘I attribute my efficiency and determination to my relationship with exercise and fitness,’ she says.

‘It’s me-time, it’s self love and most of all it’s improving my quality of life.

‘I hope to encourage women to value themselves just as much as their male counterparts value themselves.’

This is something she particularly wants to encourage in her clients who are pregnant or new mums.

‘When we become mothers, we tend to stop prioitising ourselves,’ says Maya.

‘I’ve had so many clients who say that after they had their baby they couldn’t find the time for Pilates or running twice a week like they used to, yet their male partners haven’t stopped their Sunday kick-about or dented their rigorous gym routine.

‘In addition, pregnant and post-natal women can have a tough time reckoning with the new image of themselves that they see in the mirror.

‘This can sabotage self esteem and make them feel less worthy.

‘I feel a healthy relationship with fitness can help combat pre- and post-pregnancy blues and make you appreciate how wonderful your body is.

‘My biggest goal is to normalise exercise for women for a whole lifetime and change our collective perception of it.

‘It’s not an activity that you should dread, that you do to just to make yourself skinny or more desirable for men. It is so much more than that.’

Maya passionately believes that accessibility in fitness – particularly for marginalised women – is crucial in creating lasting, meaningful change.

‘Women are given messaging very early on that fitness isn’t for us,’ she says.

‘If you look at school PE lessons, for the majority of us, it wasn’t particularly desirable – periods and general teenage embarrassment made getting changed, swimming etc. very tough.

‘I don’t feel that there are enough measures in place to help improve this.

‘Then add in a total lack of compassion and lack of recognition for ethnic minority women’s needs – for example hair and religious requirements etc. It can be a very alienating time for young women and and can set a precedent for their future relationship with fitness.

‘We need to get it right early on. Accessibility to fitness needs to be easy, because women are already coming at this with a mountain of barriers and anything getting in the way just adds to the difficulty of getting started.’